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Information on Indexing

Indexing—an entry

by Elizabeth Parson

The Culinary Guild of New England, Volume 11, Number 1 (September/October 2000), pp. 1, 5-7

Reprinted with permission of author

Editor's Note: Guild members work in many different culinary careers. We would like to run a continuing series about these various professions. We welcome your articles. Tell us what you do, day by day. What training and career path brought you there? What are the satisfactions and pitfalls? Please let us hear from you. We begin with Elizabeth Parson's description of a little-known but crucial aspect of cookbook publishing.

Have you ever picked up a cookbook, looking for that recipe for Homemade Granola Bars you made last week, and found nothing in the index under Granola, nothing under Homemade, and then, almost giving up, found Homemade Granola Bars under the main heading Snack? It happens all too often; it makes you want to scream and fling the book across the kitchen. Have you ever wondered who, or perhaps what, creates indexes?

You have in your midst one of the people who does. No, indexes are not computer-generated. There is human thought and judgment behind them. I am one of the humans who does this for a living—a professional freelance indexer specializing in cookbooks.

I am relatively new to the CGNE, having joined because I am a life-long foodie, because I want and need to keep up with culinary trends, and because I enjoy meeting people in the business. Cookbook indexers are at the far periphery of the culinary world. Authors know about us, because most of them have the indexing fee deducted from their royalty payments. Publishers know who we are; they have lists of freelance indexers they have tested out and call when their books are in the final stages prior to printing. Otherwise, we're a fairly low-profile, unknown group of individuals scattered around the country.

Ours is not a glamorous job compared to the work of celebrity chefs, sought-after caterers, and well-known cookbook writers. Our names are never included in the acknowledgements in the front of the book. Still, indexers perform a critical task. Imagine a cookbook without an index. How would you find anything? Most people rely on the index to find what they are looking for.

How are cookbook indexes created? No matter what type of cookbook, the process is usually the same. I get a phone call from a production editor, who asks if I have time to create, for example, an 8 to 10 page index for a 300 page cookbook about breads. We talk, I learn that the book is behind schedule, and, by the way, could I have the completed index back to the editor five days after I receive the final page proofs to make up for the lost time? (Yes, this is the working environment I live in!)

No problem, I assure the editor, my mind racing forward to childcare issues and wondering if my husband will grumble if I ask him to entertain our children for the bulk of the weekend—yet again! We discuss rates, style specifications, and other details. The book arrives the next day, and I get to work. I go through every page, read every recipe, every word of the boxed and sidebar text, and analyze illustrations. I calculate, from the total number of index lines allotted me for the index, how many index entries I can create for each recipe, and how many lines I need to save for indexing boxed text and other non-recipe material. From there, I take my pencil and go through every page again, marking up the manuscript with my shorthand notes, indicating what index entries will be made from each page.

At that point, I'm about a third of the way done. Then I sit down at my laptop and enter all the scribbled notes from the manuscript into my indexing software program. Once all the entries are in the program (two-thirds of the way done and two more days before the editor needs it!), I edit my work. I go through every line in the index, spot-check page numbers, check spelling, verify cross-references, and turn it into a coherent document. I make sure I've kept the length within the limits given me, and then send it back to the publisher.

Easy as pie, you say? It can be, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Let me describe two of the biggest challenges and difficulties I face with nearly every cookbook index:

As in the granola example above, most people take for granted, as they should, that they can find a particular recipe in the index by looking it up under its most obvious term or ingredient. Take a recipe titled Low-Fat Pesto. In a thorough index, they should find it by looking up Pesto, or Basil, or Low-Fat, or, perhaps, Sauces. What happens when the indexer has very little space, with an average of only two index entries per recipe? If the indexer opts to list the recipe under Low-Fat Pesto and under Pesto, Low-Fat, readers who look up Basil to find creative uses for their bumper crop of that wonderful herb will not find it. If the indexer chooses to list the recipe under Pesto, Low-Fat and Basil, readers who seek low-fat recipes will search in vain.

Multiply this by 250 recipes in a book, and you begin to see the errors of omission that can occur in one index. Unfortunately, shrinking profits in the publishing industry today lead to tight budgets in book production. Reducing the number of pages in a book cuts costs, and it is easier to cut index space than to convince the author to drop ten recipes. Publishing is a business; I know the necessity of watching the bottom line. So I try 1) to create extremely efficient indexes, packing in as much information as possible per page; and 2) to convince the production editor to reduce the typeface a bit more, so I won't have to trim another 250 lines in the index to squeeze it all into 8 pages.

Another sticky problem occurs when the editor asks that the index include main entries for Main dish and Side dish and First course, with all relevant recipes as subentries. If this categorization is not included in the text, I groan. In this era of casual dining and meals on the run, how do you determine what's what? One person's side dish is another person's main dish. Sometimes, I'm lucky: the organization of the book's chapters makes the decision for me. Other times, I make a lot of judgment calls. Is New England Clam Chowder a first course, or a main dish? I may find cues in the headnotes. I also analyze how readers might classify it. If the book is classic and formal in content and style, the answer might be First course. If the cookbook features fast, easy recipes and meals for busy families, the answer might be Main dish. No matter what decision I make, I know there will be readers out there who will disagree with it.

You may be wondering how I ever fell into such an obscure profession. After eight years in the banking world and earning an MBA degree, I grew weary of my long commute to Boston, and the angst of leaving my first-born in eleven hours of day care every day. Then my second child came along, and I bid adieu to the banking world. In the fuzzy days of mothering a newborn, I stumbled upon a notice in the paper for a seminar on basic indexing skills headlined "Make money by reading books." I was skeptical, but I took courses, read books on indexing, and practiced my new skill by pulling books off shelves and indexing them, comparing what I created with what was published in the back of the book.

After more than two dozen "practice indexes," I found the confidence to send out letters to publishers announcing my expertise (very reasonable rates and fast turnaround!). A publisher took my bait, one job led to another, and two years later I began seeking out cookbook work. My indexing is now 75% cookbooks, 25% general trade books and textbooks.

For me, indexing is a near-perfect way to make a living by reading what I enjoy and doing what I love. However, it requires constant learning. Good indexing skills and a love of food are not enough. You really must have first-hand knowledge of cooking and a reasonable familiarity with international cuisines. The more I know about the history, trends, and all other aspects of the culinary world, and the publishing segment within that world, the more prepared I am to put myself in the mind of the cookbook user. After all, the real goal of a good index, for a cookbook or any non-fiction book, is to anticipate what the reader will want to refer back to, supply index entries leading to that information, and quickly get the reader to the right page. The index is a road map to all the great stuff the author took great pains to research, test, and write.

So, the next time you pick up a cookbook, take a look at the index. If it is thorough, efficient, and easy to use, take a moment to think about the work that went into creating it. Think about how it allows you to use the book as it should be used: encouraging you to try new recipes, learning new variations on old favorites, teaching about cooking terms, ingredients and techniques, and last, but not least, opening your mind and palate to new cultures and cuisines.