Do-It-Yourself Publishing Tools

Do-It-Yourself Publishing Tools

by Vaughn Treude

The old saying “You get what you pay for” is not always true. For writers on a budget – as well as those who like to tinker and have things their way – the open-source world offers increasingly powerful FREE software tools for writers. You are likely familiar with Scrivener, and I agree that it’s a good writing tool at an affordable price. Being a Linux user, however, it’s not an option for me. Now there are alternatives which work not only on Linux but on Mac OS and Windows as well. Since these products are free, their creators solicit help in the form of technical expertise or monetary donations. The two programs I describe below are well worth supporting.

For the production of e-books, there’s Calibre, created by Kovid Goyal. It’s not just for publishing; it’s also a general-purpose e-book management program which allows you to read books on your computer and sync with an external device. The publishing feature is fairly simple. Calibre lets you import your word processor document, apply formatting, and automatically generate features such as tables of contents. The conversion works best when you follow some simple guidelines for style selection; see their website for details. Probably, however, you will need to tweak the results, so Calibre lets you view and manipulate the raw HTML code that comprises your book. That can be intimidating for non-computer folks, but most of the critical adjustments can be done in the CSS (cascading style sheet) files, which are relatively simple in structure. Calibre also lets you import a cover image

Preparation and formatting of a print edition can be much more challenging. Just-in-time publishers such as Lightning Source (which is the one I use) require a very specific type of PDF (PDF/x-1a:2001) to be submitted for book Lightning Source manufacture. Any quality word processor can export a generic PDF, but very few can support this specific format. This is a job for a dedicated desktop publishing application such as QuarkXPress. Unfortunately, this sort of software can cost many hundreds of dollars.

The free open-source alternative is called Scribus. Because it’s a fairly complex application, it’s managed by a committee rather than an individual. The Scribus team consists of Franz Schmid, Craig Bradney, Louis Desjardins, Jean Ghali, and Andreas Vox. Scribus is powerful but has a relatively steep learning curve. Thankfully, there are on-line forums and video how-to instructions for that purpose. Scribus allows you to set up and define the format for your book’s pages. These can then be chained together to produce one continuous container for your text. You then import or paste the contents of your book into this area. Like Calibre, Scribus allows you to import a word-processing document, but for me, that operation seemed to hang up on novel-sized files with hundreds of pages. That was on my 5-year old ASUS notebook; it will probably work better on my new, faster Lenovo.

Copy-pasting plain text into a Scribus document is the most flexible method, but in doing so you lose formatting. I got around this by using my the word processor to mark italicized, bold and indented text blocks with formatting “tags” similar to those used in HTML. Scribus supports scripting in the computer language Python; this is how I converted these tags back to formatting. Yes, it sounds daunting, but there are “how to” books and videos available for Scribus. I found that the information you need to create a standard novel could be condensed into ten or twenty pages of instructions. Someday I may get around to converting my notes into e-book form and publishing them as a 99 cent step-by-step guide on Amazon.

The on-line revolution in self-publishing has spawned a secondary revolution in self-publishing tools. For those willing to put in the effort to figure them out, open source applications are a very cost-effective way to go. Check out Calibre and Scribus. Happy publishing!

vaughntreudeVaughn Treude grew up on a farm in North Dakota. The remoteness of his home, with few children nearby, made science fiction a welcome escape. After many years in software, he realized that the discipline of engineering could be applied to writing fiction. Check out his works at

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1 Response to Do-It-Yourself Publishing Tools

  1. Matthew Howard says:

    Thank you for the review of Calibre; I have been considering trying it, but there are so many options out there that I got a bit put off by the daunting task of trying them all.

    As for Lightning Source, I would not call them a publisher. As a self-publisher who works with self-publishers, I find it important to distinguish between printers and publishers. As self-publishers, we hold the rights to all our work. We control it and we own it. The job of places like Createspace, Lightning Source, and BookPatch is not publishing but manufacturing and distribution. They hold no rights to our work; they merely print what we send them and, in some cases, distribute the product to major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I may be splitting hairs on the strict definition of publishing here (dissemination of information), but it’s empowering to realize we as creators can be publishers, regardless of who we get to print and distribute our work.


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