About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

A writer’s cheat sheet — and how I maintain mine.

One of the challenges facing writers — especially tech writers — is maintaining consistency and proper usage of words and phrases that describe the things we write about. Is it toolbar, tool bar, ToolBar, or Tool bar? Is it Fonts panel, Font panel, Font window, or Fonts Pane? Is it iBookstore or iBookStore? Is it inspector or Inspector?

This might seem trivial to most folks, but for writers and editors, it’s very important. Inconsistent or incorrect use of established terms is one of the things that mark the work of an amateur. Professional writers do everything in their power to get things like this right — and editors help.

Style Guides

Chicago Manual of StyleStyle guides help, too. A style guide is a collection of words or phrases that might be used in a work, all presented as they should be in writing. You may have heard of some of the more famous style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. These are style guide books published for professionals who write about a wide range of topics.

But there are also style guides for more narrow topics. Apple, for example, publishes a 244-page document called the Apple Publications Style Guide. This is one of the books I turn to when I write my Mac OS books and articles. Written for developers and Apple’s in-house documentation teams, it lists the right and wrong ways to use hundreds of words, product names, and phrases. Not only does this include a correct list of all Apple trademarks, but it goes into tiny details. For example, did you know that you can “click the icon” but you can’t “click on the icon”? Page 37 of the latest (2009) edition is pretty specific on that point.

Microsoft Outlook 2011Individual publishers also have style guides. For example, when I wrote Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step-by-Step for Microsoft Press, I was handed not one but two style guides. They covered all of the product names and program terms I might use, as well as rules about usage. For example, I wasn’t allowed to write a sentence like this: “Outlook enables you to send and read email.” Why? Well, the word enables (in that kind of usage) was verboten. (The average reader has no idea what writers deal with when writing technical books for well-established publishers.)

My Style Guide Needs

Microsoft Outlook 2011Although I never used to have trouble remembering the proper forms and usages of the words and phrases I included in my books, as I’m aging — and as my life becomes more complex — I’m having trouble remembering the little things. So this past summer, when I worked on Mac OS X Lion: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press, I developed and maintained my own style guide for the book.

The trick was to put the style guide in a place where it was easy to consult as I worked. I wrote (and laid out) the book on my old 24-inch iMac. I was living in my RV at the time, comfortably parked at an RV park with full utilities, but my workspace wasn’t large enough for the luxurious dual 24-inch monitor setup I have in my home office. I experimented with keeping the list of words and phrases in a Word document file, but the amount of overhead — Word running all the time, big window with all the trimmings, etc. — made it an awkward solution. Ditto for Evernote. All I needed was a tiny window where I could list the words I needed to use — these applications made maintaining and consulting such a list multiple times throughout the day a real chore.

The Solution: Stickies?

Stickies IconI stumbled onto the solution while writing the book. One of the apps that comes with Mac OS X is Stickies. This is an app whose sole purpose is to put virtual sticky notes up on your screen.

I never liked the app. I thought it was kind of dumb. After all, who would use an app to put a sticky note onscreen when you can just put a real sticky note on your screen?

But then I realized that the tiny windows Stickies creates were perfect for the simple lists I needed to consult. I could easily fit them on my screen, beyond the area I needed to work with InDesign.

Style Guide in StickiesAnd so I began creating and maintaining my style guides in Stickies.

And I continue to do so today.

There are a lot of benefits to using Stickies as a solution for this problem:

  • The contents of Sticky Notes are saved, even if you quit the application.
  • Stickies are easily modified and updated.
  • Stickies supports formatting, so if I want to remind myself about a word or phrase that should never be used, I can format it as strikethru text.
  • Stickies can be exported as plain text, so I could, theoretically, save a style guide list before closing the Stickies window when the book is done.
  • Stickies take up very little room onscreen.
  • All active Stickies notes open automatically when you open the app.
  • It’s easy to set up my computer so Stickies automatically opens at startup.

Sounds good, no?

For me, it’s a win-win. I get a solution to my problem. But what I also get is a reason to use a silly little free app like Stickies.

Amazon’s Bribe to Publishers: KDP Select and the $6 Million Fund

And why I’m giving it a try.

I published my first real ebook back in the end of October: Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs. I built the book in InDesign, spun off a color print-on-demand version through MagCloud, and then painstakingly prepared ebook formats for the iBookstore, Amazon Kindle, and Barnes & Nobel Nook. Within a week, it was widely available and actually began to sell.

The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library

Not long afterwards, Amazon.com sent a chill through the publishing industry by announcing that Kindle owners who were also Amazon Prime subscribers would be able to borrow books — for free — from Amazon.com. The program is called Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and its an obvious ploy by Amazon.com to make its Kindle hardware more attractive to readers. After all, you must have a Kindle — the actual device and not a Kindle app on an iPad or computer — to borrow the books for free. So for those readers who don’t need all the features of a real tablet computer, this program makes a Kindle a bit more attractive.

I immediately questioned one of my publishers in its private Facebook group:

As an author, I’m wondering how Peachpit’s participation in this program (if they do participate) will impact royalties.

After all, I don’t earn royalties from borrowed book; I only earn royalties on purchased books. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking about this. The Mac Observer published a piece titled “Amazon’s Lending Library Raises Publisher & Author Hackles” that explored the program and responses to it in some depth.

In the Facebook group, the publisher’s response was quick and to the point:

[Publisher Name] is not participating.

I found this reassuring. The reason: If readers knew they could get my books for free, they might stop buying them. If they stopped buying them, I would not be able to earn a living. Pretty simple, no?

So I saw the program as a threat to my livelihood and was glad to hear that my biggest publisher was not going to participate.

Fast Forward to Last Week

On Thursday, I got an email message from the Kindle Direct Publishing service. That’s the service publishers use to get their ebooks for sale on Amazon.com. It started like this:

We’re excited to introduce KDP Select — a new option dedicated to KDP authors and publishers worldwide, featuring a fund of $500,000 in December 2011 and at least $6 million in total for 2012! KDP Select gives you a new way to earn royalties, reach a broader audience, and use a new set of promotional tools.

It went on to say that if I opted to include my book in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, I could get a cut of a monthly $500,000 fund based upon the total number of times my book was borrowed. Of course, Kindle owners would be attracted to these books because they were free to borrow. And now I could get a royalty payment on a borrowed book.

It seems like win-win-win:

  • Amazon wins because it gets more books in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, thus enhancing the value of the Kindle and Amazon Prime programs.
  • Kindle Owners with Amazon Prime memberships win because there are more books available to borrow for free.
  • Authors/Publishers win because they actually get paid when people read their work.

I thought long and hard about why I might not want to give this a try with Making Movies.

The only drawback for me as a publisher is that I had to give Amazon.com the exclusive right to sell/loan my ebook for at least three months. I could not distribute an ebook version of the title anywhere else — not on Apple’s iBookstore, not on Barnes & Nobel, not on MagCloud, and not even on my own website or blog.

I looked at the sales figures from all the places my book appeared. I’d already sold more copies with Amazon.com than with all of the other retailers combined.

It was a pretty easy decision.

So today I enrolled Making Movies in KDP Select.

The way I see it, three months is not a very long time. If I fail to bring in enough royalty money during that period to continue allowing Amazon to have an exclusive on my ebook, I’ll drop out of the program.

And I know of at least one other author who has enrolled his title: Andrew Dambe with his novel Soleá. (I started reading it; it’s a neat book.)

It’s worth a try, right?

Another Quick Groupon Story

Another real-life story about Groupon users.

A friend of mine in Washington owns a small winery. It’s open two days a week for tastings. He charges $6/person and waives the fee with the purchase of two bottles of wine. For the $6, you get a 1-ounce taste of every wine he makes that hasn’t sold out. He had eight varieties; two were sold out as of mid August.

A while back, a hotel in nearby Wenatchee called him. They wanted to do a Groupon wine-tasting deal. Would he allow the people who bought their Groupon to have a free tasting? Other local wineries had signed on.

My friend didn’t know much about Groupon. But he’s a nice guy who wanted to help the hotel folks and he liked the idea of having more people come to his winery. He figured he’d reach new people and sell some wine. This was before three of his wines won awards at a blind tasting of area wines; before his wines started selling out.

They started coming without warning on a Saturday afternoon. Dozens of them. They soon took up all the seating in his tasting area. He called me for help. I put on some clean clothes and rushed over to help him pour.

We poured, they drank. They didn’t seem to have much interest in the wine. The seemed more interested in the list of wineries included in their Groupon. The more wineries they visited, the more free wine they’d drink. My friend sold one bottle for every three or four people who tasted.

One table of eight young women were there for more than two hours. I guess they figured that their Groupon had entitled them to a shady place to spend their entire afternoon. Collectively, they bought two bottles of wine. They left chewing gum stuck to the table.

Some people without Groupons didn’t stick around. There wasn’t enough seating for them. They didn’t feel like waiting.

This was repeated on the following two weekends. My friend had to pay someone to help him pour to keep up with the crowd. He lost money on every Groupon tasting. And he doubts the Groupon users will be back.

My friend learned a valuable lesson. As you might guess, he won’t be offering his own Groupon deal anytime soon.