In today’s world, when we read so much content on-screen and can so easily use the find” command, you might question whether an index is still necessary. The answer is yes (read on for why), and that means that once your manuscript is complete, someone (read on for who) is going to comb through your book and create a list of terms (read on for how) that will help your readers efficiently find whatever it is they’re looking for.

Why do you need an index?

As in all things book publishing, the answer lies with the reader. We want to make your book as usable, useful, and efficient as possible for your readers. A good index makes your book more accessible by providing an alphabetical list of terms that a reader might want to be directed to. Someone who’s already read your book may remember much later, “Oooh, that book had a really good discussion of threshold concepts.” They can then flip to the index and find all the substantive sections on threshold concepts in the book (and not every single use of the word “threshold” in the text, as you’d get with the “find” command).

“This painstaking intellectual labor serves readers of any longer work, whether it is searchable or not. For searchable texts, an index provides insurance against fruitless queries and unintended results. In a word, a good index makes the text more accessible.” (Chicago Manual of Style 2017, 924)

The parts of an index entry: reference locators, main headings, and subheadings
The parts of an index entry (example is from Writing about Learning and Teaching in Higher Education by Healey, Matthews, and Cook-Sather)

Also remember that different words and phrases can be used for the same ideas. “The book index bridges a gap between author and reader. It reconciles the vocabulary of the reader with that of the author” (Mulvany 2005, 6). For example, in the index for Promoting Equity and Justice through Pedagogical Partnership, the entry for “universities” has a cross-reference to the term “postsecondary education.” This reconciliation can be especially important in books (like those in our Open Access Book Series) with an international audience.

An example of an Index (letters A-C) for Pedagogical Partnership

Who should create the index?

This question is an important item to discuss with your publisher early in the process. Many academic publishers leave it up to the author to either create a list of index terms themselves or pay for a professional indexer (which can be quite expensive). It’s important to note that no publisher will ask you to include the page numbers (or reference locators), since that can’t happen until after the typesetting stage.

A perk of publishing in one of the CEL book series is that we will help you create your index. We ask authors and editors to provide an initial list of index terms, which we (usually Jessie and our publishing interns) will expand upon and refine.

How do you create a list of index terms?

Read through the manuscript again with a specific eye towards creating your index terms. For each section, think about what words or phrases encapsulate the main idea, as well as what words readers might be thinking of when they need to read or reread this section.

  • Index headings should always be nouns or concise noun phrases (not adjectives). For example, use “reciprocity” instead of “reciprocal”. A concise noun phrase might be something like “challenges to developing pedagogical partnership.”
  • The organization of the book might guide decisions about index terms. Headings within the text might signal a concept that should be in the index.
  • If there are many references to the same heading, consider whether subheadings would be useful to further direct readers toward specific subtopics (as in the example of “blogs” in the figure above).
  • Headings should start with the most important word. For example, use “Jewish population, partnership program for” rather than “partnership program for Jewish populations.”
  • Include all proper names (both individuals and institutions) as long as the reference to them is substantive.
  • After drafting an index, use the “find” feature to see how many times the term/concept appears; dozens of results might suggest a need for subheadings (or that the term really isn’t that useful in the index), while limited results might suggest a need to rethink the relevance of the term (unless those limited results include consequential discussions of the concept).

For a much more exhaustive discussion of how to create an index, refer to the “bible” of book indexing, Nancy C. Mulvany’s Indexing Books.

Once your list of terms is complete, alphabetize it and submit it with your manuscript—and know that you’ve done your best to make your book a bit easier for readers to use.


Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. 2017. University of Chicago Press.

Mulvany, Nancy C. 2005. Indexing Books. University of Chicago Press.

Jennie Goforth is the Center for Engaged Learning’s Managing Editor. She works with authors to shepherd their work from proposal through production in the Center’s Open Access Book Series. She also manages production of book websites and supplemental materials for the Stylus Publishing/Center for Engaged Learning Series on Engaged Learning and Teaching.

How to cite this post:

Goforth, Jennie. 2021, November 16. “Academic Book Publishing: Indexing” [Blog Post]. Retrieved from