I discovered an interesting topic in the indexersdiscussionlist (a great list for taking advantage of the collective wisdom—go here to sign up) a while back: Indexing time. So, how long does it really take to build an index, and how much time can one spend in the mental task of indexing before burning out?
I agree with some of the other posters on this topic that the actual mental task of reading and organizing the document’s narrative into a usable index is often very demanding, and I tend to hit burnout after about a six-hour stretch. So, a typical scholarly book index (which has been most of my work over the years) of, say 250 pages at about eight pages per hour, would take about one workweek at six hours a day. Keep in mind that not all book indexing projects go this slowly; many lighter how-to or textbook projects will average ten or more pages per hour.
But, you can begin to see why indexing rates are mostly higher than proofreading and copyediting rates. Indexing does involve more than just reading through the text looking for something; you also have to create a separate document of the index terms and spend time organizing/editing that independent document.
Probably a decent minority of indexers do copyediting and proofreading, and vice versa. I’m first an indexer and then later became a copyeditor and proofreader. Varying the mental tasks involved in a given day can help extend that valuable billable time. I find that although I feel mentally limited by the indexing task, I can extend my work hours by taking on other book production-related tasks like these.
Freelance book indexers and other publishing freelancers, though, have to take into account that in addition to actual billable time on a project, we also have to spend time managing our businesses (accounting, marketing, project management, etc.). The usual freelancer’s whine. 😉 But we like the freedom, limited though it is, of working in our own space and at our own pace as long as we meet our deadlines. And we can say no to a project also, which is harder to do as an employee.
For long-term time-use (not just daily or weekly), I manage multiple projects of different types over a month’s time and like to have a two-week window to fit the average project into to deal with shifting schedules. Something to keep in mind when talking to clients about availability.
Other indexers do this, but I do not like to work more than one indexing project at a time; my brain loses efficiency in trying to deal with shifting between two or more subject areas and narratives. That said, the actual type of content matters. Scholarly books are notoriously mentally taxing, whereas an easy business-advice or other how-to book that’s well-organized may be a breeze.
As with all indexing tasks, so much depends on the text being addressed. As I point out to my indexing course students, every book index is a custom job. 🙂