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March 15, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

A very important matter: Should ebook titles be in quotes or italics?

We’ve been writing quite a bit lately about ebooks and their potential as a distribution mechanism (and maybe even revenue driver) for journalism. Whether it’s Foreign Policy, The New York Times, ProPublica, or N+1, lots of news organizations are interested in the medium as a place for work that sits somewhere between a news article and a full blown traditional book.

But that opens up a question we’ve been debating here today and that I’m hoping you can help me answer. How, visually, do you refer to the titles of these ebooks that fall in between? Do they get italics or “quotation marks”?

(I know — I promised this was a very important matter.)

Here at the Lab, and like many of us were taught in high school English, we use italics for traditional books. It’s Here Comes Everybody, not “Here Comes Everybody.” And that holdover from print still seems reasonable to me. But does it apply in the same way to ebooks, which by their nature can be much more varied — including, when natively digital, often much shorter — than a cloth-and-spine acid-free hardcover?

Argument for italics: Did you see the word “book,” right there inside “ebook”? Books get italics! Most ebooks published are still digital versions of print books, and if it’s The Sun Also Rises on your shelf, wouldn’t it also be The Sun Also Rises on your Kindle?

Argument for quotation marks: “Ebook” is a flexible catch-all term for lots of different kinds of things. Sure, it can mean Hemingway, but it can also mean a few short pages of tales about Jennifer-Love-Hewitt-as-superhero (seriously, go buy that, three bucks, Kevin Fanning’s great), a single Robin Sloan short story, or a bunch of tweets strung together with a title.

Many traditional style guides say “A Short Story” goes in quotes, while A Real Book goes in itals. But what happens when you publish and sell that short story on its own, outside the confines of the larger book container? Similarly, when Sebastian Rotella writes a story for ProPublica’s website, it’s “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story.” When it gets shifted to the Kindle, word-for-word, does it somehow become, Transformer-like, Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story? Heck, when you email a Word doc to Amazon to convert it to Kindle format, does it magically become Fred Davis’ Grocery List, March 2011 Edition?

What the experts (or “experts”) say

I note that Yahoo’s style guide comes down on the side of quotation marks — but it’s making a broader argument that isn’t specifically about ebooks. Even a print first edition of “The Sun Also Rises” is denied italics in Yahoo’s eyes.

In contrast, Wikipedia’s style manual says italics for all books. It doesn’t address ebooks directly, but notes that “[t]itles of shorter works should be enclosed in double quotation marks (“text like this”)” and says it “particularly applies to works that exist as a smaller part of a larger work.” (But the same work can now be a smaller part of a larger work and its own freestanding work per se.)

The AP Stylebook doesn’t use italics for anything — but that’s thanks to historic newspaper printing conventions, so it’s not of much relevance here.

The MLA and APA style guides apparently treat ebooks as regular books with italics. Same with Chicago, although all three are really thinking only of the most traditional, book-like ebooks.

The Atavist uses quotation marks for its Kindle-length nonfiction. But Amazon puts those same works in italics. (Except when it doesn’t. But it never uses quotes, far as I can see — it’s either italics or plain roman.) Wired, of all outlets, goes italics.

Or to look at the world of music, which has a similar whole-vs.-part problem: Albums get italics (The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I), songs get quotes (The Dismemberment Plan’s “Memory Machine”). So are these new ebooks more like EPs, which get italics, or more like a 7″ single, which would generally get quotes despite having multiple songs on it?

Or as Megan (a known italics supporter) just suggested, will the usefulness of both go away as the continued hypertexting of everything means you can just link to Emergency & I for anyone who really wants to know more about it, reducing the need for a visual cue for what-this-is?

Italics, “quotes,” “both,” or neither?

My impulse is in the direction of quotation marks. I long ago decided that news outlets would not get silly italics (it’s The New York Times here, not The New York Times), because the italics are all about the physical artifact of a newspaper, not the news organization that backs it — and the Internet era has made it abundantly clear the creating entity is the organization, not the dead tree. I feel similarly about ebooks, that they’re part of a general dragging of books away from being A Separate Holy Thing and toward a world where content of all shapes and sizes sits together on common platforms, whether that’s your web browser, your Kindle, or your iPad.

But does that mean that print books need to be dragged over to quotation marks with their electronic cousins? Or is it okay if it’s The Sun Also Rises in one format and “The Sun Also Rises” in another? Should some ebooks get quotes and others get italics? Is the container, the form, no longer the defining quality — is it a case-by-case question now?

I bring this up not because the world will care one bit which we use, but because it’s a broader sign of the disruptive power of new digital forms. Our rules about titles are largely rules about packages and forms: What kind of a box does something fit into? Books get x, articles get y, films get z. But those containers aren’t as neat as they used to be, and they don’t always tell us the same things about their contents as they used to. So it’s only natural that the way we talk about them — and the way we think about them — will evolve alongside them.

So what do you think? Italics, quotes, or some variant thereof?

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 15, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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