July 9, 2002

An Open Source business opportunity: Software for writers

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
There are millions of people who either write for a living or would like to, and these millions represent a potentially lucrative market for developers who want to look at writers' software needs and fill them at a reasonable price. Best of all, there is no need for a developer who wants to tap this market to write much code from scratch. OpenOffice is a fine base for writers' software, especially for a developer who realizes that professional writers need software that will help them do more than just pound out words.

Different writers need different tools

I've attended more than a few writers' group meetings in my time, and mentally I break writers into three categories:

  • Pure artists. They write poetry, short stories, or relationship-based movie scripts, and have little or no chance of making a living selling their work (although they may not realize this). Artist-writers tend to spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to submit work for publication or production, and just as much time wondering what they can do to get editors' or producers' attention.
  • Aspiring writers. These are the ones who try to write non-fiction articles, "commercial" fiction, and scripts for movies or TV shows that fall into genre categories easily understood by mainstream producers. They obsess over rejections, but exhort each other to keep trying in face-to-face groups, online forums, and in the pages of magazines like Writer's Digest. The reality is that most of the people in this category can't write very well, but they buy lots of books, magazines and software they hope will help them improve or find better markets for their work. Enough in this category gut it out and succeed to give others hope. Great market here!
  • Working writers. Go to a meeting of working writers (or get on one of the many writers' email lists) and you hear discussions about which publishers or producers are buying what from whom, and who pays how much and how promptly. Suddenly the majority of talk is about the business of writing, not about writing, because everyone in these groups has already learned how to write.

Obviously all three categories of writers need basic word processing, spell checking, and other text-production utilities to function. Screenwriters need specific formats -- really just templates that could be made rather easily for OpenOffice and inserted into the menus so that they would be easy to find and open. Writers who specialize in other media may also want specialized templates. For instance, many book and article writers would rather have a "galley" format that puts all text into an endless file rather than breaking it up page by page as OpenOffice does by default.

Another thing both professional and aspiring writers need is a flexible word count utility, one that displays a running total, can leave certain words or blocks of words (like title and other "header" information) out of that count, and can rapidly count highlighted blocks of text. Many writers get paid by the word, and even newspaper and magazine staff writers who get salaries must often write articles that are as close as possible to 700, 1,000, 1,500 or some other arbitrary number of words in length.

An alternative length determination option that would be a real sales feature for many writers and editors would be a "column inches" or "column centimeters" count that could be set to match a given publication's style. Quite often, especially near deadline, publications are juggling space tightly. A staff writer or editor may need to fit four articles into a given amount of space quickly, and might be juggling lengths of all four articles while a layout person is screaming at them to hurry up. A word processing program that could be set to match that publication's column width, and used a font with the same character sizes and spacing the publication used and display a running "column inches" total, would be an invaluable tool for rushed editorial people. (This feature would certainly help spur mass sales to newspaper and magazine publishing companies.)

There are other features I'm sure other writers and editors might need, and a programmer who wanted to make a living selling software to writers ought to poll writers to see what those features might be. There are plenty of writer's Web sites and online discussion groups around. Doing this bit of market research would cost nothing except time.

The business side of writing

Writing is a business. A professional freelance writer sends out article queries and expects to get responses from editors about them within a reasonable period of time. "Reasonable" can vary from publication to publication. Because many writers do not like to submit the same story idea to more than one editor at a time, tracking submissions is essential. The OpenOffice spreadsheet utility could easily be modified to do submission tracking.

The next phase of the writing business is turning out work on time. A professional writer -- either staff or freelance -- is often juggling many deadlines. Freelancers, especially, need to keep close track of what is due when, and to schedule their time appropriately. The more work a freelancer can turn out, the more money he or she earns. But deadline-blowing is a sure way to irritate editors and get them to stop giving you assignments. It's a juggling act for the freelancer, and software that could make it easier is good, especially if that software is part of a single "Writing Software" package that can do many other things too, all for one low price.

One of those other things, of course, must be billing and collection. Some publishers pay quickly, and some don't. Some require invoices in a particular format, others don't really care. Some publications pay "on acceptance" while others don't pay until an article is published, and in the case of many magazines, an article may not run for months after it is accepted, so it is easy for a busy writer to forget who is supposed to pay how much when. A single, easy-to-use application that could handle a writer's submissions, acceptance, billing, and collections tracking would be wonderful, especially if it could generate invoices and print envelopes (which OpenOffice can), and a utility or plugin that could track expenses and assign them to individual articles might also be nice, although it might be wise to ask some of those writers' group denizens if this is truly necessary -- or if there are other business-type features they feel are more important.

Already a proven marketplace

There is no shortage of "writers' software" already available for sale. A glance at the Writers SuperCenter site will show you lots of opportunities I haven't mentioned. Note that all almost all of these programs assume a writer uses something like MS Word as his or her basic word processor, and it really isn't a particularly good one for writers. There has been surprisingly little work done to make a true "Writers' Word Processor," and I believe one would sell rather well, especially if it was a true standalone program based on OpenOffice that could sell for less than MS Word or MS Office, and would sell even better if it was priced at $99 or less, which ought to be an entirely achievable price.

Remember, OpenOffice runs happily on both Linux and Windows, and a Mac OS X version is coming soon, so any writers' program based on it could be truly cross-platform. This is good. Since many writers -- especially aspiring ones -- don't have a lot of money, the idea that they can get a cheap writing and word processing program instead of springing for expensive Microsoft products is a huge advantage, especially if that program is better for a writer's needs than Ms Word or MS Office.

"Better than" is the key. Not "nearly as good as, but cheaper," but better. Price is not everything. For professional writers, especially, the quality of a tool can be more important than its cost, and the smart ones will happily pay for the best tools, just as professional mechanics learn, through sad experience, to buy the best tools, not the cheapest ones -- and also learn that the best tools are not necessarily the ones with the highest price tags.

There is a happy medium in here somewhere. I don't know where it is. This is why I keep saying the thing to do before writing code is to get on writers' email lists and ask questions. One of those questions should be, "How much is this feature worth to you?"

One of many niches

This essay has focused on one little market niche, and one particular piece of Open Source software. How many similar needs waiting to be filled are out there? How many Open Source programs work well but lack features needed to make them commercially viable, features that could become "add on" software that wouldn't violate the base program's Open Source or Free Software license? More people need to be asking this question -- and answering it, and the people who need to be doing the most asking and answering are those who are doing the original Open Source development, because they deserve to reap the fruits of their labors more than anyone else.

More money going to Open Source developers is good. There are also many pieces of software the rest of the world could use that can be developed more rapidly and inexpensively from an Open Source base than from a proprietary software base.

I see this as the next wave in Open Source development. It's really already here. Now it needs to spread, and it will, without a great deal of prompting, because it makes absolute economic sense for both developers and users.

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