Read as Heather Dubnick talks about her career as an Indexer. Find her at www.heatherdubnick.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I index, edit, and proofread books.
How would you describe what you do?
I work to improve the usability and quality of published material.
What does your work entail?
Individuals, publishers, and packagers contract me to edit manuscripts, proofread books in production, or create indexes for books about to go to press. For indexing, I am usually given a book as a PDF file. I skim through the book once before starting to enter terms in my dedicated indexing software (SkyIndex or Cindex). I can usually enter between 5 and 30 pages per hour—it really depends on the book. Then I generate the index in Word and begin the editing process, which generally takes about the same length of time as entering the terms does, but again, that depends on the complexity of the material.
What’s a typical work week like?
I spend about a third of my time indexing; the rest of my time is spent on editing or proofreading projects. I work between 40 and 60 hours a week. I have some flexibility in my schedule, but I try to be available to respond to clients during business hours. I often work evenings and weekends. The first six months of the year are generally much quieter than the second.
How did you get started?
I started doing freelance editing and translation while in graduate school. After teaching college for a couple of years, I decided to pursue a degree in library science at Simmons College. While enrolled in that program, I took a course called Subject Analysis in which I first found out about the possibility of doing freelance indexing for a living. As I was already editing, I decided that I would combine my editing and indexing services into a single business.
What do you like about what you do?
I am very intellectually curious, so I love the fact that I am always learning new things and that I get to read for a living. I also like being able to work independently and to choose the projects I work on.
What do you dislike?
Indexes often have to be turned around very quickly, as they are completed after the book is in pages but just before it goes to press, so the pace can be very demanding and physically grueling. (You’d be surprised how grueling sitting at a desk can be.)
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
How I charge really depends on the client. Some pay by the page, some by the hour, some by a flat rate. I am paid upon delivery of the completed project. In some cases, I request that clients make a small deposit before I begin work. I am usually paid by check, direct deposit, or PayPal, usually, but not always, within 30 days.
How much money do people in your field make?
I believe the American Society for Indexing did a survey a few years ago estimating that full-time indexers can make around $70,000. I think it takes a while to build up that much business, so beginning indexers should expect to make far less than that over the first few years.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
You need to have excellent language, customer service, and time management skills. I think at least a college degree would be necessary in order to be successful. Advanced degrees in writing, library science, languages, or specific subject areas (especially science, medicine, and technology) will help you to market your skills and do the work.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Managing an unpredictable schedule and accommodating clients who often require quick turnarounds.
What is most rewarding?
Being able to spend my time learning new things and working independently.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Indexing is bound to change along with the rapid developments in the publishing industry (i.e., digital publishing, self-publishing). Keep up with what’s going on and try to learn as much as you can about new developments in the field. Don’t expect things to take off immediately because it can take a few years to build a full-time business.
How much time off do you get/take?
Very little, but that’s a personal decision to some degree.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That it can be automated.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
I’m excited about all the new things happening in publishing, and I am looking for new opportunities to apply my skills in digital publishing and beyond. I’m especially interested to see how words and images will be integrated in the future.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It’s not for everyone. It’s extremely demanding work requiring a variety of skills, a good education, and a lot of self-discipline. It can also be very isolating, and it’s largely invisible work appreciated/recognized by very few people.