Including a book index

Reading a nonfiction book without an index is a little like being in a strange town without a map. Sure, you can have a good wander around and enjoy the sights. But if you need to find your way to anything specific, you’re going to struggle.

An index is different from a contents page. Instead of displaying the general structure of a book, an index signposts you to the details: the important words, terms, and topics hidden within it. You’ll usually find it at the back of the book – it looks like an alphabetical list with corresponding page numbers alongside. Readers can use an index to quickly navigate to pages and sections that contain information they’re looking for. They’re enormously useful, particularly for complex topics. If you’ve ever spent ages flicking through a dense book to find a reference, we’re sure you’ll agree.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, then including an index is a very good idea. Not only are they helpful, but they can be a persuasive sales feature. An index is a good way to see the scope of a book at a glance. When browsing books in a bookstore, a reader will often turn to the index to check if the book covers the topics that interest them. If they can quickly see it’s going to be a good resource, they’ll buy it. If not, they’ll move onto the next book on the shelf.

So how do you go about including one?

Some authors might assume that their book designer will create an index during the design and typesetting phase. Indexing is a highly specialized skill, however, and beyond the scope of your designer or publisher. If you’d like to include an index, it’s up to you to arrange one.

As a self-publishing author, that means you have two options. The first is to hire a professional indexer, and the second is to do it yourself.

Both routes require time, advance planning, and possibly some additional costs. Let us talk you through each choice now. That way, you can decide which approach will work best for you and start thinking ahead, rather than hit delays later.

Getting your book professionally indexed

No computer software program can replace the professional skills of a good indexer. Indexing is such a specialist skill that it has its own professional bodies and societies. If you decide to hire a professional indexer, then you should aim to find one who is a member of a reputable national indexing society. Two such societies are the American Indexers Society or the Society of Indexers in the UK. Never leave it up to your book designer or proofreader, especially if they offer to “have a go.” It’s a surprisingly tricky business.

An indexer begins work once a designer has typeset your book and set all the page numbers (an important prerequisite.) They’ll read the entire book from start to finish with the detachment of a reader. This detached eye is especially valuable, allowing them to pick out terms and themes better. They’ll also have a better sense of what kind of extra information a reader will need for clarity. As an author, it’s all too easy for the inside-out knowledge you have of your book and topic to get in the way and lead you into making assumptions.

A proper index is not just a list of commonly used keywords in your book: it picks out the concepts and terms behind those words. This is where an indexer can really help. They know the ways we tend to use language, both as readers and writers, and bring words and meaning together.

For example, an indexer knows that you may not always refer to a cat directly as “cat” in the text. In order to be creative, you may also use “kitten,” “pussy” or “feline.” They’ll also know, however, that a reader will think of the word “cat” first. So an indexer will make sure that the index lists all these alternate ways of describing the same thing under “cat.”

Indexers also know the conventions and best practices for cross-referencing. They’ll incorporate “see” or “see also” instructions to point to other related concepts. As well as the main entries, professional indexers can produce indexes with 2, 3 or 4 levels of subentries. These are great for helping people navigate to connected or underlying ideas.

This kind of comprehensive indexing helps to untangle what can feel like an overwhelming mass of ideas. To go back to our map analogy, indexers create multiple, clear signposts to help readers find their way. So, wherever a reader starts, they’ll end up at the right place.

However, as you’d expect, proper indexing is not cheap. It will cost you anything from $2 to $10 per book page, depending on the complexity of the book and the experience of your indexer. It will also take time. As a rough rule of thumb, a 300-page book will typically take a couple of weeks to index. If there are lots of graphics to break the text, it might take a little less.

Picking an indexer that you can rely on is essential. If you know other people who have published a book on a similar topic, you could ask them for a recommendation. If not, your publisher should know of good indexers to contact. You may need to book them several weeks in advance, which is why it’s worth thinking about this now. As soon as you have an idea of when the designer will be finished with your book, get your indexer booked in.

Wherever and whenever you can, we’d recommend the professional route as the way to go. However, if your book is not overly complex and funds are tight, you could consider indexing your book yourself.

Here are two ways you could approach it:

DIY Indexing #1: Adding XE fields

If you are a confident user of Microsoft Word and your index is not overly complicated, then you can add index entries – or XE fields – to your manuscript in Microsoft Word. However, for a substantial index, or one with multiple levels, we’d only recommend trying this if you’re prepared to do some serious manual work.

To create an index in Word, you can mark individual entries with Word’s referencing tools. Then you can cross-reference them in your document to build the index. You can do this as you write, or add them all at the end. Microsoft has published a helpful guide to indexing that explains how to do this.

In order to typeset your book, your designer will need to take your Word file, containing all the XE fields, and import it into their book design software, for example, Adobe InDesign. During this conversion process, the designer will need to check all the XE fields carefully before they generate the index. So, just make sure you allow some extra time.

DIY Indexing #2: Producing a concordance file

Another DIY indexing method is for you to create what’s known as a concordance file. This is not a true index – it won’t, for example, organize your content by themes, topics or relationships. However, if you’re short of other options, it is a good way to produce an alphabetical list of keywords from your book.

A concordance is simply a list of words. If you use this tool, Word will pick out and index every single use of a particular word in your book and give a list of page numbers alongside. It won’t make an allowance for context or usefulness, however. It also won’t differentiate between different forms of the same word. For example, in the case of ‘tiger,’ ‘tigers,’ and ‘tigress.’ It is, however, possible to toggle whether the search should be case-sensitive.

As a tool, it’s rather blunt and unsubtle, so you may need to use it with care and low expectations.

Styling your index

However you decide to create your index, once it’s finished, you can hand it back to your book designer for styling. They’ll add the index to the back of the book and typically lay it out in two columns using a smaller font. They’ll also style it with hanging indents so that readers can see each indexed word and its subentries easily down the left side of the page.

Considerations for ebooks

If you’re planning to convert your indexed book to ebook format, then it’s worth us mentioning ebook indexing.

This is important because the page references in your printed book index won’t make sense when you convert your book to an ebook. The amount of text on an ebook ‘page’ isn’t fixed. It flows to fill the screen according to the screen size and the reader’s settings. What’s on page 47 of one person’s ereader may be entirely different to someone else’s. It will all depend on how big their screen is and how big they’ve set the font, spacing, and margins. Knowing this, many authors worry that their index will be affected.

There’s no need to panic, however. A good ebook conversion knows exactly how to handle the index properly to maintain a good reading experience. The conversion will change the index to show 1, 2, etc. to indicate that word or topic’s 1st and 2nd instance, rather than page numbers. Readers will be able to click the numbers to navigate to the correct position in the ebook.

So, as long as you use a good conversion process, there’s nothing to worry about.


Deciding to include an index at the back of your nonfiction book will add enormous value. Your readers will love you for helping them find and explore complex topics. And your sales value will go up as you give browsers, book buyers, and librarians a tool to gauge the scope and depth of your book quickly.

However, this does all depend on you creating an index that’s high quality, intuitive, and comprehensive. There are ways and tools to help if you would like to try doing it yourself, but we’d only recommend this if your book is not overly complex.

A professional indexer is definitely the best way to go if you can. Source a good one now, and you’ll be able to kickstart the process as soon as your designer has typeset your book. And if you still need a recommendation? Feel free to ask us!