Shifting Gears

John Lienhard's The Engines of Our Ingenuity is one of my favorite radio shows. Somehow Lienhard infuses his essays on technologies-past with the essence of the minds at work behind them. He is also a marvel at illuminating the almost invisible threads that connect historical innovations to the way things work today.

In a recent edition, which I heard in the car on National Public Radio, Lienhard discussed the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet—brilliantly tying in the naming of the Disney dog. When I went to the University of Houston's site to check the name of the episode ("Poor Old Pluto"), I found that in addition to offering online transcripts of his commentaries on NPR, Lienhard now also provides them as podcasts. I will admit that I got what I needed from the transcript, but I clicked to listen anyhow, to reignite the flame of inspiration.

This delivery-format multiplicity got me thinking about a discussion going on in our office right now about which publishing style guide we should use. EContent is part of a group of publications that was acquired by Information Today a few years back. Following the acquisition, we continued to use The Chicago Manual of Style—the style guide favored by our former publisher—even though our parent company uses AP style. As we seek to integrate the copy editing workflow of EContent with some other ITI pubs, I wanted to compare the two and see if it was time for us to make the switch.

The first thing I did was head to Amazon and order a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook. While there, I used the "Search Inside this Book" feature and noted that the first edition was released in 1977—pretty new stuff, considering that the Associated Press itself is 160 years old.

When I decided I wanted the same information for The Chicago Manual of Style, I did not turn to my bookshelf. I turned again to Amazon and found that Chicago had not participated in Search Inside. So I navigated over to the book's home page and discovered some interesting facts—like that the Manual was created in 1891 as a style sheet used by "the brainery" (aka, the proofreaders) at The University of Chicago Press. It grew into a pamphlet then was published as a full-fledged book in 1906.

Chicago's decision not to participate in Amazon's digitally savvy sales programs certainly merits discussion on its own, but not today. In this case, it actually had the positive effect of driving me to the press's own site, where I learned that the debut digital edition of the Manual is due out as I write. Back at Amazon, I'd learned from the trove of reader reviews that though many prefer Chicago's style in terms of readability, most think the manual is difficult to use and has an ineffective index. So electronic, full-text searching couldn't hurt.

The Associated Press Stylebook has been available in digital format for four years, which is not unexpected, since the company has an entire digital division dedicated to exploring e-opportunities. What is surprising is that when I asked ITI's copy chief why we didn't have a digital subscription, she candidly replied, "I never thought of it." Well, to be honest, neither had I. Not until I discovered the Chicago announcement did it occur to me—the editor of EContent—that digital subscriptions might be the way to go, particularly given that ITI's editors are situated from coast to coast. And as for quick searchability, it seems like a no-brainer— like moving from a (however beloved) card catalog in a library to an online search database. It's hard to believe editors like me weren't clamoring for an HTML style guide years ago.

So, since this week Sony finally sent me its much-coveted PRS-500 ebook reader, I thought, why not grab digital editions of both, toss ‘em on the reader, and get a whole lot of reviewing bang for my buck? But alas, it was not to be. Chicago's project seems to be delayed, and AP only offers PDF editions to enterprises, not lone reviewers. Thus was my ambitious plan thwarted. I suppose it wasn't all that practical, given that those who'd carry Sony's reader would probably not be doing so for style guides (they'd have them on the desk shelf or hit the site with a laptop, if on the road and a subscriber). Then again, when I look at the 20 books that came pre-loaded on the PRS, I can imagine that having a collection of reference books to tag, bookmark, and search might be appealing to some users out there.

That seems to be the trick, really: to figure out which digital channels will best appeal to your potential audience. Because customizing your content for all these streams ain't easy (just ask Chicago UP), otherwise every content producer would "do it all." Yet there are clearly multiple paths to enlightenment. Guess it's time to rev up the engines of our ingenuity.