How to Make an Ebook Index – 5 Tips

Authors, these are five things you need to know. Why? Because the indexer you hire to make an index for your ebook may not know them. Ebook indexing is a brand new field with few practitioners.

Because of the technology involved, ebook indexing is not the same as print book indexing. If you are not familiar with what an ebook index looks like, please see my post on, “How to Use an Ebook Index“.

(1) The index should be only one column

This is because eReader devices have very small screens. Even the Apple iPad screen page will be small when the user rotates the iPad sideways so that two pages will appear on the screen. A double-column index will not fit on the ebook screen.

Your PDF for your ebook, like most print book manuscripts, should have around 250 words on a text page in 12 to 14 point type. While print books can use a smaller-size font for the index in order to fit two or more columns on the page, an ebook index will use the same size font as the text. In addition, see Tip 3 below for what sometimes happens when  eReader formatting creates word breaks for a long line in an index that “wraps” over to the line below.

(2) Don’t bother with “continued” headings

When a main heading has a lot of subheadings, sometimes the subheadings run over onto the next page. When this happens, indexers will repeat the heading at the top of the new page followed by the word, “continued” in italics. This way the reader will know what topic the run-over subheadings refer to. But here’s the rub — eBooks do not have pages. Nor do ebooks have a standard font-size.

Even if your ebook formatter specifies a default font for your index, Kindle will over-ride it. Apple will use your default font, but both Kindle and epub books will allow the reader to change fonts and font-sizes at will. This means that the index you create for your ebook won’t be the same one your book’s readers may be seeing when they use it. You can never be able to know where the list of subheadings will start to flow over onto the next page.

(3) Keep headings simple and subheadings concise

Because the font-size can be changed at will, and on some devices enlarged so big that only a single letter will appear on the device screen, you want to keep things as compact in the index as you can. Sometimes this just isn’t possible though. Language is not as precise as the thought that underlies it.

This doesn’t mean cutting corners. One of the advantages of an index over an eReader device Search feature is that an index can use a phrase to express a concept or a name of a person, place or thing. Search tends to use single words or even fragments of words.

So phrases are fine. Just know that if a heading or subheading is very long or contains a lot of big words, an eReader device may “wrap” it using a very odd-looking break in the word at the end of the line.

(4) Place this note at the top of your Contents page

NOTE: This ebook contains an index. To go to the index
PLEASE CLICK HERE. To see a particular section
of the index, use the alphabet letter links below.

To access these links while reading the text, use the
table of contents icon on your eReader to return to this note.


The guide letters you use should be the initial letters found in your index. In the example above, the index did not contain any main headings starting with Q.

Why should you use this note? Because eReader devices have an icon on the frame of the screen that when clicked takes the reader to the table of contents. eReader devices do not have an icon that takes the reader directly from the text to the index.

Remember that an ebook has no pages? Well, it does have screens. Because the size of these screens are so small, an ebook for a 150-page print book can have over a thousand “virtual” ebook pages (or as Kindle calls them, “locations”).

Whether the reader is reading the text or using the index to your ebook, the links provided in this note at the top of  your table of contents will quickly (clickly) take the reader to the exact section of the index where the word or phrase they want to look up is located.

(5) Be sure to use cross-references in your index

As you can see in the Note in tip (4) above, ebook formatters can make links right to a particular part of the index, e.g. main entries beginning with the letter “M”. They can also make links for a See cross-reference from a term not used in the index to one that is used in the index, e.g., Dogs, See Canines. This is so COOL! With hyperlinks you can travel in the mere click of a eye to another place in the index. This beats paging through paper pages any day.

You will want to make sure that See also cross-references are used whenever they are needed for the index. See also cross-references suggest other topics to the reader that they may want to take a look at. Just like See cross-references, See also cross-references  can be hyperlinked by the ebook formatter.

Multiple See or See also cross-references should be separated with a semicolon so that the link creator can correctly link them. For example, under this main heading, Canines, See also Chihuahua; Great Danes; Shih Tzu; Yorkshire Terriers

For more about the value of using cross-references in an index please see my blog post on, “Costs of a Book Index: Cross-Referencing“.

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  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for this.

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