An Ounce of Prevention: Intentional Communication with Authors
By Carol Reed Fall 2014
This morning, an indexer asked for advice on one of the indexing email lists: how should she respond to an author who was asking for rather extensive revisions that may not serve the index very well? This kind of scenario has happened to many (perhaps most) experienced indexers at some point, and it can be very frustrating for both indexer and author. Best to avoid the whole scenario. But how?
Having recently experienced a similar situation myself, I approached three established indexers who do the majority of their work directly with authors—Margie Towery, Naomi Linzer, and Kate Mertes. I wanted to know how they have fine-tuned their communication with authors. The tips that follow are a summary of our conversation. I’ve already tweaked my communications with positive results, and I hope you’ll benefit as well. Before the Index
Before accepting an indexing job for an author, a few strategies will set the foundation for a successful project.
1. Understand the author’s mindset and your role in the relationship. They’ve just completed an exhausting process and are heavily invested into this work. The book will likely be reviewed by their peers and possibly a much broader audience, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Margie Towery empathizes with the author’s stress. During the proofing and indexing stages, she says, “they are often dealing with the book cover and other final details, and often have a full-time teaching load, plus family issues of their own.” Kate Mertes adds, “The author is handing you their baby, which they’ve spent years of research on. To us it’s a project that we’ll be finished with in a month or less and on to the next thing. It’s important to remember what the work means to them.”
It’s always been the case that authors are surprised to learn how much is involved in the indexing process. Like anything else, it looks easy until you have to dig into it more deeply. Thus, indexers have always expected to educate authors on some of the usability considerations behind our indexing choices. But these days, as more and more research happens via online searching, authors may be even further distanced from standard indexing conventions, and they’re likely to assume more of the indexing process is automated than is actually the case.
The author knows their subject and audience far better than the indexer. This is both a benefit and a challenge, as the author may or may not realize how their intense involvement with the text makes it difficult to see the index through the “fresh” eyes of their readers.
Authors don’t have time to learn the intricacies of indexing, and they trust the indexer to treat their work with great care. They may be paying for the index out of pocket. Empathize with the author’s concerns and pressures—it will help set the stage for productive communication throughout the project.
The indexer is part of a team, working with the author and the press to create the best possible publication. Let the author know how you see your role. This can help build trust and openness.
2. Turn down a project if you see red flags. In your correspondence with the author, watch for indications that this may be a difficult person to work with, or that their expectations of the indexing process are unrealistic. Looking at a sample chapter of the book may also alert you to problems with structure or editorial quality that can make it difficult to create a solid index.
3. Use a project summary or multiple emails to make sure you’re on the same page. Standard agreement items include index specifications, deadline, page delivery schedule, index delivery format, compensation rate, and your hourly rate for additional changes. In addition to those items, you may want to include the following:
Links to the ASI indexing evaluation checklist and the criteria for the ASI/EIS Publishing Award for Excellence in Indexing. Asking authors to review these up-front will educate them on best practices and equip them to review the index draft.
Indexing decisions, such as handling of footnotes and authors who are cited in the text but not discussed.
If you are including an author review in your process, add it into the schedule.
What about contracts? While few indexers use formal contracts (unless provided by the press), it’s good to know that email agreements function as legal contracts.
4. Send a copy of the project summary to the project editor, even if you’re working directly with the author. Naomi Linzer asks for the name of the project editor even when she is working directly with the author. She says the project editor can be your ally if the author delays the review schedule or requests changes to the index that affect usability. It’s also an opportunity to develop a relationship with the project editor and perhaps get more work from that press in the future.
During the Indexing Process
Kate Mertes offers her three main tips for working with authors:
Do a good job - It’s still the best marketing tool in the world.
Don’t pester - Asking too many questions too often can be counterproductive; clients want you to get the job done with a minimum of drama.
Show some enthusiasm - Authors are often exhausted at the end of the whole book grind; showing a little pep and interest in their work can help a lot.
"Do a good job"
Kate’s first tip deserves more attention here, because the author is trusting you to do a good job on the index. No amount of communication will compensate for a poorly structured index. How can solo indexers ensure quality from one index to the next?
As an ongoing part of your business, take advantage of the continuing education opportunities and publications offered through ASI and its chapters and SIGs, as well as the international indexing societies.
Ask an experienced indexer, whose work you have seen and admire, to do a paid review of one of your indexes. While peer reviews can be helpful, the quality of feedback can vary greatly.
The index evaluation checklist and award criteria you sent to the author? Use them. Incorporate them into your own workflow, editing, and proofreading checklists. Update your checklists often to incorporate lessons learned and strategies that improve your process.
Talk to other indexers. Chatting about the issues you’re facing often helps you reach solutions you may not have considered.
Take the time to do a final edit on every index you submit, preferably after you have set the index aside for a day or two. We’ve all seen published indexes that appear to have skipped that step.
Provide status updates and reminders
Sometimes an index is straightforward, and you may not need to exchange emails with the author during the process. If that’s the case, send an occasional update to let them know the index is on schedule for delivery on or before the deadline. It’s one less thing they have to worry about. If you’re working with a first-time author who you suspect is less attuned to the importance of deadlines, Naomi Linzer suggests reiterating the deadline for review comments in an email if necessary.
The Author Review
Having an author review an index you’ve created can be wonderful when the author is engaged in working toward an excellent index, says Naomi Linzer, who also notes that it can also be very challenging if the author doesn’t understand the basics of indexing. Kate Mertes recalls an editor’s term for authors with a lot of questions and suggestions: “high-energy tinkerers.” Mertes says high-energy tinkerers “can be a lot of fun to work with (and probably help produce the best indexes), but they can also be exhausting.” How to make the review process as productive and painless as possible for all involved? It starts before the author even opens the index draft file.
Sending the Review Draft
If you’ve provided links to the index evaluation resources with your initial project summary, your author has a head start on a productive review. When sending the index draft, Kate Mertes says, “I’ve started to send a pretty detailed email covering the review process.” In the email, Mertes links to tips for index evaluation in her website FAQs (see “Once the index is done, how do I know if it’s any good?” and others). Margie Towery anticipates questions the author might have during review, such as the handling of author citations, footnotes, or chapter authors in a book of collected works. She also suggests a review process that emphasizes paying attention to structure. Mertes tells her authors, “If you see a consistent practice you don’t understand, ask me, rather than trying to ‘fix’ it. I usually have a good reason for what I do and I’m happy to explain it.” She’s found that this saves time for both the author and herself.
Incorporating Review Comments
When you receive the author’s comments, they generally fall into three main categories.
1. Legitimate edits - Sometimes the author finds editing or substantive items the indexer missed that should have been deleted, included, restructured, or reworded. Or the author will identify nuances of meaning that improve the structure or wording of index entries. Margie Towery is happy to get this sort of comment. “I really feel that if an author is invested in getting a professional index, and they see what a well-structured one can do, then their tweaks usually make it better.” The indexer’s attitude here is key. “Because I work with authors so much,” Towery notes, “I don't start out with a chip on my shoulder. I start out with a positive view.” Resentfulness on the part of the indexer is unhelpful.
2. Suggestions that will create structural problems – A variety of comments fall under this category: deleting substantive entries; adding a lot of specific subentries that are already gathered under existing subheadings; rewording terms in ways that make them less clear; and deleting helpful cross-references. If the index does a good job of reflecting the text’s structure, it provides a snapshot that may or may not agree with the way the author wants the book to come across (a little like the discomfort many people feel seeing photos of themselves). Naomi Linzer once had an author make extensive changes to an index reflecting their knowledge of the subject, but not reflecting the actual text.
Explaining why suggested changes will compromise structure (and thus usability) can be time consuming, and your schedule might limit how much explaining you can afford to do. Referring to Chicago Manual of Style or the index evaluation lists you provided earlier can save some time here. Regardless, indexers must be able to defend their decisions based on usability considerations and accepted guidelines such as CMS.
3. Suggestions that may not really help, but they don’t hurt, either - These types of revisions are often not worth quibbling over, especially if the changes are easy to make, such as a simple term substitution. Less benign, but still in this category, is the occasional addition of specific subheadings that are already gathered under an existing subheading. While the resulting over-analysis is less elegant, it’s unlikely to create major usability issues if you’re dealing with more problematic suggestions elsewhere (though this is certainly a matter of degree).
Margie Towery suggests picking your battles. If the author still prefers a change after understanding the negative consequences, so be it. “Keep in mind,” she advises, “it is the author’s book. They will be living with the index a lot longer than the indexer.”
Knowing your Limits
Let’s say you’ve communicated clearly throughout the process and have created a good index, but the author is still requesting extensive changes and is willing to compensate you for the extra time. If the request compromises your work on other scheduled projects, or if you sense it would be more efficient for the author to make changes, it’s okay to say so. Occasionally an author gets trapped in an endless cycle of tweaks and un-tweaks in which the indexer is nothing more than a highly paid typist; that’s not a great use of the author’s budget or the indexer’s time. Or an author is obviously rewriting the book during and after indexing. You might respectfully point out that the value the author is trying to add to the index has more to do with their subject expertise and their understanding of the audience’s needs than with your indexing skills.
Many difficult situations with authors can be prevented with some intentional communication at the outset. Like so many projects, it’s easy to skimp on preparation tasks when you’re impatient to get started on the visible work. Cutting corners early on can create disasters later. Improving your communication with authors doesn’t actually take that much time, and you’ll be rewarded with better working relationships, more referrals, and better indexes.