By Pamela Whitcomb

Most publishers have a house style—a set of rules and guidelines defining the publisher’s preferences for spelling, punctuation, numbers, dates, abbreviations, bibliographic citations, and so on. A house style usually starts with a commonly accepted, publicly available style guide (there are many, depending on the discipline or type of publication) and a dictionary. The publisher’s house style adds an additional layer of rules for situations in which more than one option is acceptable in the style guide or dictionary (e.g., multiple correct spellings of a word, more than one system for presenting dates, whether or not to use periods on abbreviations, etc.) or when specialized contexts require more specific guidelines.

For music publishers, the house style will also include a set of rules for notational elements. Again, the house style often begins with a published music notation style guide, such as Ted Ross’s The Art of Music Engraving and Processing, Gardner Read’s Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars: The Definitive Guide to Music Notation, or Jonathan Feist’s Berklee Contemporary Music Notation. Again, the publisher’s house style will have additional rules and preferences as needed to meet the specific needs of their publications.

A-R Editions has a house style. We have compiled the basics here, and we expect our volume editors to consult and apply these basic style rules when preparing their projects for submission. We also have more specific documentation for internal use by our editorial, production, and marketing teams.

Why all the fuss about these niggling little rules? Why not just let the author’s choices stand? There are several reasons, of varying importance depending on the context.

Branding. Corporate style guides are developed with branding as a top priority. These style guides are usually directed toward marketing, publicity, and outreach teams, and they define everything from writing style, typography rules, color palettes, and design elements to email signatures, presentations, merchandise, and social media posts.

Book publishers’ style guides also serve to establish brand identity, because their style guides for publications also set the standards for their marketing and publicity teams. But branding concerns have little impact on the individual publications beyond the obvious markers of logos, design, and tone.

Consistency. Publishers most often cite consistency as the reason for establishing and maintaining a house style for their publications, because it is a means of effectively communicating the content. For example:

“The argument for consistency is very simple. Variation that has no purpose is distracting. By keeping a consistent style in matters of detail a publication encourages readers to concentrate on what its writers are saying.” (Wynford Hicks and Tim Holmes, Subediting for Journalists [Routledge, 2002], 19.)

“The consistency [that a style guide] helps provide in your writing gives your readers confidence in the authority of the content, makes your content easier to read, and can help reduce your users’ cognitive load.” (Write the Docs community website)

“A style guide establishes standard style requirements to improve communication by ensuring consistency both within a document, and across multiple documents.” (Wikipedia’s “style guide” entry)

It is easy to understand that consistency of style is important from one article to another in a journal, in a collection of essays, or within a single book. But the case is harder to make from one book to another—why would readers care? Readers per se may not care—but establishing a house style for monographs (or music editions) serves another purpose as well.

Efficiency. The publishing process moves an author’s manuscript across many desks—those of the copyeditor, typesetter, proofreader, publicist, and so on. A house style prevents these various parties from second-guessing the author and each other on these various stylistic issues.

The copyeditor is responsible for ensuring that an author’s manuscript conforms (or is made to conform) to house style. Much of this work is mechanical and involves routine application of grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., but it is the first step in the copyediting process, and a good copyeditor will know when special circumstances require a bending of rules to ensure clarity of content. With an established house style, the copyeditor will work through the more mechanical editing quickly and be able to focus on the more substantive aspects of the text.

Copyeditors typically inform the typesetters and proofreaders of any situations in which house style is purposely not applied. This process allows those parties to make adjustments if they suspect that a necessary house style change has been missed. (At A-R, the typesetter and proofreader will bring these changes to the copyeditor’s attention—just in case the variance was purposeful.) Being able to make these obvious changes in two steps (correction + confirmation) rather than three (query + confirmation + correction) makes the process 33% more efficient.

Publishers are never working on just one book at a time. They have whole teams of copyeditors, typesetters, and proofreaders, all working on projects simultaneously and in different combinations. A house style gives all these team members a foundation that allows them to move from one project to another with ease, efficiency, and efficacy.

Ultimately, it is the efficiency factor that is most important. It is the reason a publishing house cares whether or not serial commas are used, or whether the day or month comes first in dates, or whether certain terms are capitalized or not—regardless of topic or author’s preference. By tying up the loose ends of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and notation, house style allows the author’s content to be the focus in the final publication.

Pamela Whitcomb is Director of Music Publications at A-R Editions.