Formatting Book Titles in the Digital Age

A reader wonders why he is seeing book titles presented in all capitals:

I’ve even seen publishers and editors do it, so I started thinking maybe I was misinformed.

Typing book titles in all caps is a peculiarity of the publishing industry. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, the practice originated in the days of the typewriter when titles that are now easily italicized on a computer had to be underscored; typing the title in all caps for industry correspondence and interdepartmental memos saved time.

The all-caps practice has continued into the digital age, perhaps because early email programs transformed italics into gibberish; typing titles in all capitals insured that they would be readable. Most of today’s email programs handle italics perfectly well, but the practice persists. Many sites offering advice to writers recommend the all-caps approach when corresponding with publishers and agents. Here’s an example from a model query letter on the Writer’s Digest site:

I’m currently seeking representation for my YA [Young Adult] novel, FALLS THE SHADOW. Given your interest in science fiction, I thought it might be a good fit for your list.

CMOS does not approve, not even for email. Their recommendation “when italic type is unavailable” is to type an underscore at the beginning of the title and another at the end of the title, as in this example:

When I first read _The History of the Siege of Lisbon_, I was so grateful to discover a book about a proofreader that Saramago’s hypnotic stringing together of sentences nearly sent me into an ecstatic trance.

Here is the CMOS stance on the formatting of titles of creative works:

1. The titles of novels, long poems, movies, and television series are italicized.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a novel)
Flowers for Algernon (a novella, but still long enough to warrant an italicized title)
Paradise Lost (a poem of about 10,000 lines)
Enoch Arden (a poem of about 900 lines)
To Have and Have Not (a movie)
Downton Abbey (a television series)

2. The titles of short stories, short poems, songs, chapter titles, and television episodes are enclosed in double quotation marks.

“Lucy Looks into a Wardrobe” (chapter title from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
“Ulysses” (short poem of 73 lines)
“Deus ex Machina” (episode title of television series Person of Interest)
“When You Wish upon a Star” (song)

Note: British usage prefers single quotation marks (e.g., ‘Ulysses’).

As with certain other matters concerning mechanics, The Associated Press Stylebook does not concur with CMOS.

AP style recommends enclosing the titles of all of the following in quotation marks:

computer games
radio and television programs
works of art

AP does not enclose the following works in quotation marks:

the Bible
software programs

As with apostrophe use, it’s up to the writer to choose a style guide to follow. Writers in search of publication are probably wise to do as the Romans do.

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