Index length

Winter this year in Copenhagen has been cold and snowy (and I’m sick and tired of shovelling all that white stuff; the searing heat of Bangkok tomorrow should be a shock). Overcoats are seen here far more than is usual, some looking more comfortable than others. An index is like an overcoat: too small and its squeezes its wearer in a wrestler’s clamp, too big and it lets the cold air seep in underneath.

Knowing beforehand

A year or so ago, we hired someone to index one of our books. He was very good, very thorough, and also flagged up a number of typos and inconsistencies in the text that had been missed. There was a problem, however. The index delivered was 64 pages in length (about 23 typeset pages), the maximum amount of space available 12 pages. Drastic cuts were made.

A key lesson we learnt from this experience was to be (even more) clear about how long we expect an index to be. In your case, your production editor should know how many book pages are available for the index. Make sure that you are informed about this before you start indexing.


Is there any real limit to how long your index should be? Yes. In fact, there are several factors at play here.

  • Perception. Indexes are like books: if too short, they may be treated with disdain (a 2-page index may be seen as pathetic and laughable) but, if too long, they may be regarded as unwieldy and ‘over the top’.
  • What is physically possible. Books tend to be sized in multiples of 16 pages because that is how they are printed (on big sheets of paper holding 8 book pages on each side; more about book length here). If (say) the total extent of your final proofs is 276 pages including prelims, then no more than 12 pages will be available for the index (or 28 pages if an extra 16-page signature is to be used).
  • Flow-on effects. In the above example, no publisher will agree to an index that when typeset fills 13 pages and causes there to be 15 blank pages at the end of the book.
  • What has been announced. A 12-page index is quite reasonable, even generous. In the above example, it would be unlikely that an index longer than this would be permitted if the book has been announced as being 288 pages in length.

Calculating size

Of course, there is a confusion and potential trap for you when I talk about ‘pages’ above. The number of typeset index pages is not the same as the number of ordinary (A4 or US Letter) pages on which you prepare your index in Word or another word processor.

Typeset indexes are generally set quite tight in a smaller font size and laid out in at least two columns whereas more than likely your index will be prepared in 12-point Times Roman with generous line spacing. As such, your typesetter should be able to fit a bit more than two of your word-processed pages onto one typeset page in the book.

As a rule of thumb, then, if told that you have (say) 8 pages available for the index, then you can count on having 17–18 pages in Word for your index (though obviously not single-spaced in a tiny font size).

If the amount of space is too little or (in some ways, worse) too much, then there may be an issue of what (how much) you are indexing, the subject of my next post. If so, re-evaluate your situation and – if not resolved – contact your production editor urgently.

(Post #7 of the Indexing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


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