May 5, 2006

A 100% free software-based Italian publisher

Author: Marco Fioretti

Journalist Zenone Sovilla founded publishing company Nonluoghi Libere Edizioni (the name approximately means "Non-Places Free Editions") in 2002 after two years' experience running an online community called, which he created to discuss social and political issues, with particular attention to the relationships between democracy and information. The focus of the newborn publishing house was on participatory democracy, libertarian theories, and nonviolence. Right at the start, Sovilla decided that this new business would not only support the philosophy behind free software, but also practiced it in full, since "it looked to be the only way to be consistent with the company mission." In practice, adopting free software was a bold choice in autumn 2001.

Setting up an online presence was almost a piece of cake. runs without problems on PHP-Nuke, and its online book store will be based on osCommerce, while the forum is built with XOOPS.

The actual creation of books, however, was an entirely different issue. Sovilla is not a programmer, just a determined end user. His main problem was that, regardless of the maturity (or lack thereof) of Linux as a publishing and desktop platform in 2001, Sovilla couldn't find any other publisher who was already working in the same way. Even the most militant and progressive ones were firmly fixed on proprietary software.

Nevertheless, Sovilla started studying every free software application that was available for pre-press work. After some trial and error, he found that a SUSE distribution running on an Apple iMac G3 gave him everything he needed to create his cover graphics and perform pagination, and at the beginning of 2002 he was finally able to begin production. Later, he replaced SUSE with Mandrakelinux. These days, after a period spent on SUSE 9.x PCs, Ubuntu is the default distribution for all Nonluoghi workstations.

Sovilla's first trials in 2002 were made with Scribus 0.6, which had some problems with font management and was quite slow to use on a 230-page book. Eventually, everything went well, thanks to direct contacts with Scribus developer Franz Schmid. Another Nonluoghi author and Sovilla's friend, free software programmer and advocate Mario Alexandro Santini, helped him solve many other software problems. Several LUG members from Belluno and Trento in northeastern Italy were also helpful on more than one occasion.

After his initial experience with Scribus, Sovilla limited its usage to covers, and moved other tasks to, which he found simpler to use for pagination and word processing. Sovilla also tried to create LaTeX books via Lyx, but, due to lack of time, he never managed to make it work satisfactorily. All Nonluoghi graphics, including those for the covers, are made with the GIMP.

Before OOo was able to do it natively, Nonluoghi converted manuscripts to PDF with ps2pdf. With both Scribus and OOo, there were never any PDF-related problems with interchanging files with the professional typographers who were actually printing the books. Some of them were Mac shops, other were Windows-based, but all were almost always able to create top-quality books straight from the PDF files generated with free software. The only exceptions were the manual checks and corrections needed to work around the absence of direct four-color management in the GIMP. Even the bar codes, created with, never created problems. Nonluoghi creates its catalogs, brochures, and other advertising material with these same tools.

Since the foundation of Nonluoghi, Sovilla has published 19 books in this way. All of them are available under a license that allows duplication for non-commercial purposes. Their colophons mention that each book was created on GNU/Linux desktops with GPL software, and in some cases list the software applications that were used. Several Nonluoghi books, including one from Sovilla himself entitled Bicicrazia. Pedalare per la libert? (Bicycle-cracy. Pedaling for freedom), can be downloaded at no cost in PDF format. Even if you don't read Italian, you can see from the documents the results of a 100% FOSS-only publishing workflow.

The next steps

Today, Sovilla acknowledges that choosing a 100% free software workflow complicated his working life. He also notes, however, that a great part of his troubles came from an early start, at a time when programs such as Scribus weren't mature enough yet. Today, he says, the situation has improved considerably, and publishers who are willing to experiment with an alternative software platform can, and should, try it without fear: "Right now, GNU/Linux-based pre-press is absolutely doable without problems."

This year, maybe because Linux publishing has become so easy, Sovilla will turn over management of Nonluoghi to a cultural association (of which he remains a member). The business will continue to be based on, and to experiment with, GNU/Linux software.

One of the reasons Sovilla is reducing his book-related activities is because he has started to explore another kind of publishing. Today you are much more likely to find him working as a journalist with a camcorder or editing the resulting video, of course on a GNU/Linux desktop. After some experiments with Lives, Cinelerra, and MainActor on SUSE, he is now using Kino and Audacity for audio and video editing. Sovilla says, "From books to video publishing using only FOSS tools? Hey, you can do it, if you just want it!"


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