Laurence Errington gave up an academic career in biomedical research after eleven years, and has worked since full-time and exclusively as an indexer.
After taking a first degree in biological sciences in Sussex he moved `temporarily' to Edinburgh in 1971 (where he is still to be found) to gain a PhD in molecular biology, and remained there conducting research in that subject, genetics, biochemistry and medicine. He co-authored more than twenty publications in journals with such catchy titles as, `Cytoplasmic RNA sequences complementary to cloned chick delta-crystallin cDNA show size heterogeneity'. As funding issues became too dominant over both the direction of research and the lives of researchers, though, rather than seek yet another grant, and remain stratified in the hierarchy of departmental authority, he elected to be his own master.
Fate seemed to indicate indexing. A neighbour, too busy to index his latest medical book himself, asked Laurence to do it, telling him of the best indexing texts to learn from (`Knight etc.', then). Laurence's wife-to-be worked in medical books publishing and could offer valuable advice from that viewpoint as well as useful contacts. He had already bought a computer, from interest - a BBC.
Laurence applied successfully for a grant under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which paid about £40 a week to help set up new businesses; read up accountancy as well as indexing; borrowed a printer and `somehow managed to format indexes in an IBM-compatible format on the BBC to send to publishers/printers'; and set up an office in the home.
Commissions flowed in. So much is published and needs indexing in the biomedical field, so that highly qualified indexers are sorely needed. For witness, we quote a letter from one grateful author of an anatomy text in restorative dentistry: `the very technical nature of the text due to the small and specialised field covered usually leads to much confusion for those not familiar with it. The indexing of many of the standard works on the subject ... is of a very low standard for this reason'.
Laurence got faster and more expert; acquired an IBM-compatible PC; bought MACREX. Now, ten years later, he has compiled indexes to over 700 books, for almost all of the principal publishers in the biological and medical sciences, and regularly indexes 30 highly specialist journals each year. He is a member of SI, attending meetings of the Scottish group and making frequent contributions to the newsletter. He is particularly concerned with the business aspects of the profession.
Laurence works full-time every weekday in his home-office. Breaks can be spent in the on-the-spot company of wife and children, in place of enjoying `the social interactions with co-workers that can help break up the day'. The downside for the family-home-worker is, `there are times when I could do with more peace, and being at home makes you more immediately accountable for household obligations than if you were at least a telephone call's distance away'. Sharing the time for paid work / household chores with his wife, now learning to be a piano teacher, `I often have to walk straight out of my daytime work into household duties, and sometimes envy those who have a short journey between home and workplace'.
He is considering setting up a separate office, as freelances have reported doing in the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders' and American Society of Indexers' newsletters. This would give more space, and, he thinks, `might also help publishers to regard me more professionally than when they know I am a home worker, with the occasional attendant background family sounds'.
Laurence has mainly confined his indexing work to medicine and the biosciences, including among his larger volumes three successive editions of Pharmacology (H. P. Rang et al., 900 pages) and two of Respiratory medicine (R. A. L. Brewis et al., 1600 pages).
He sees a prime factor in the mental pre-design of an index as `publisher conversations - on budget limits, flexibility, whether the author is paying, etc.', and believes that one of the more difficult skills indexers must acquire is judging the length of index that each text needs: `the art of indexing is an area that publishers may know little about, so it is up to us to determine how to provide a product of appropriate length and depth and within budget. It is crucial to get the balance right between quality of product and sufficient income. If you produce an index longer than publishers require then they may not have space for it, you may exceed the deadlines, and you must either charge more than the publisher wants to pay or compromise your rates of income. We cannot inflexibly adhere to advice on theoretical lengths recommended in various indexing texts'.
The chief danger Laurence sees at present for indexing is the increasing use of computer-generated indexes. What we all must do, both individually and collectively as Society members, he considers, is convince publishers that the indexing skills of human experts in their field will produce indexes sufficiently superior to those generated by machine to warrant the higher cost.
Not many family breadwinners rely exclusively upon indexing for their income. In Laurence Errington we have such a totally committed worker in the field.
(Written by Hazel K.Bell, reproduced with permission)
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