June 17, 2004

Open source cracks publishing wide open

Author: Mary E. Tyler

Once upon a time, publishing was the domain of large corporations. Then
came desktop publishing and the tools to produce a book shrank from
the cost of an aircraft carrier to the price tag of a PT boat.
Now, small publishers on the bleeding edge of technology are
fomenting a revolution that may change the publishing market forever.
Open source publishing tools, long derided as not being ready for
battle, are proving themselves in the trenches of small publishing.

If you walked into a production lab of just about any small- to
medium-sized publisher, you'd find pretty much the same tools:
Photoshop for raster graphics; Illustrator, Freehand, and Corel Draw
for vector graphics; InDesign and Xpress for page layout; and Acrobat
for creating camera-ready output. Together these programs cost well
over a thousand dollars, and any publisher who wants to play has to
pony up. The book buyer pays at the point of sale.

What makes book production expensive isn't just the cost of
software. Proprietary publishing tools run on proprietary operating systems -- Mac OS and Windows. They require high-powered hardware. They might even have
intrusive product activation "features" or draconian licensing restrictions. In short,
publishing is like most other markets -- it's very close to a D-Day
invasion by open source forces.

Linux lubbers

John Bartlett owns and operates Bartlett Publishing,
which puts out approximately four titles per year in programming,
business, and ... religion. Huh? Those don't go together, do
they? This is the strength of small publishing, to bring together the
disparate genres that make up a particular publisher's passion.

Bartlett is a true believer, in God and Linux. He chose open
source tools because he "believes in free information." He uses the
DocBook DTD,
running the manuscript through OpenJade with a heavily
customized version of Norman Walsh's
stylesheets
. "Using OpenJade and Norman Walsh's stylesheets to
typeset gives me a huge advantage in both costs to produce a book and
time to market. In particular, with DocBook, an index is amazingly
easy to produce," says Bartlett. Post-processing of the PDF is done
with Perl's Text::PDF module
and Adobe
Acrobat
for complex work. A professional graphic artist produces
the cover and Bartlett does post-processing with the GIMP. Finally he uploads the finished
materials to CafePress or LightningSource.

Bartlett's recommendation of the open source tools he uses is
unequivocating. "DocBook makes your book look professional with very
little effort. The combination of DocBook and a good cover artist
gives you very professional results with a minimum of time and money."

John Culleton of Able
Typesetters and Indexers
provides services for small- and
self-publishers with a completely Linux-based workflow using variants
of TeX. First, he keys in and
corrects the source text in Gvim.
Culleton compiles the text to PDF with ConTeXt or pdfTeX and views
the output in Xpdf. He
also uses various other bits and pieces: grep; the Ghostscript ps2ascii
translator; pfaedit (FontForge); PSUtils
for brochures, makeindex
for indices, and some custom macros and scripts. He does image
processing in the GIMP and has recently begun using Scribus for book covers because it
can handle ICC profiles and
produce CMYK output.

Culleton makes two points about the strengths of open source
software. First, "All of these tools are supported by active email
lists. I don't have to call an underpaid clerk.... I
get superior support from users and maintainers of the software." (Ask
any XPress user about Quark's customer support. It's infamous.)
Second, when Donald Knuth backed away from TeX, others picked up the
torch. Development continued and TeX is still going strong.
Meanwhile, in the proprietary world, PageMaker is dying a slow and
painful death and is no longer the behemoth of book production;
FrameMaker has been losing ground as well. Adobe now pushes InDesign.
QuarkXpress went years between updates on the Mac, still
the dominant desktop publishing platform. With proprietary software,
Culleton says, "[You] face the potential discontinuance of the
product, just like users of the once excellent WordPerfect have found
their own purgatory -- the Curse of Corel."

Mac-o-philes

The work flow is a bit rougher in the Mac world. Mac-based senior
editor Kevin Walzer of WordTech Communications
LLC
produces 50 poetry and literary criticism books each year. In
the recent past, WordTech used all proprietary software for its
workflow. But Microsoft Word is giving way to OpenOffice.org and LaTeX. They're
replacing InDesign with Scribus, and Corel PhotoPaint with the GIMP.

Most of the open source offerings are not Aqua-based, but run under
Fink. "The Fink packagers
and Apple have done a brilliant job in bringing this software over to
OS X," says Walzer. "But it seems to run a bit more slowly and
certainly doesn't integrate as cleanly into the Aqua environment as
native software.... We see a huge difference in the interface between
Microsoft Word for OS X and OpenOffice.org that isn't there on Windows."

But in general, Walzer is satisfied with his open source tools.
"Scribus was a bit rough when we first used it for cover layout
but ... version 1.1.6 supports color mixing, better text editing,"
says Walzer. "Gimp has proven to be a very able tool. We're still
using Word for most of our manuscript formatting. We are planning
to experiment with OpenOffice.org and AbiWord (now in a native OS
X-Cocoa build) and see if these are compatible or offer
improvements." LaTeX is a powerful tool but has a very steep
learning curve, and thus WordTech is moving slowly on that front.
Vector graphics are a more of a challenge; WordTech hasn't found any
of the open source vector-editing programs, such as SodiPodi, to be equivalent in
power to Corel Draw. "We are still using CD for vector art
development."

Windows on open source publishing

Many of the same open source tools that run on Linux have been
ported to Windows. Whil Hentzen of Hentzenwerke Publishing Inc. runs
a cross-platform shop. About two-thirds of his mostly freelance staff is on
Windows, and the other third is on Linux. "We start in Word 97 or
OpenOffice.org, whichever the author or editor is comfortable with," says
Hentzen. "We have fairly unsophisticated needs -- text, figures, a few
tables. The neat thing is that it's transparent. I was using Word on
Windows and then OpenOffice.org on Linux. No one knew I'd changed.
OpenOffice.org plays well with others."

PDFs created in OpenOffice.org go straight to Hentzenwerke's offset
printer and right into their machines. Once the printer figured out
exactly the right settings, it was less work than when Hentzenwerke
used Adobe Acrobat and Distiller. Perhaps the best aspect? Hentzen
doesn't need heavy duty hardware, "Our computers were getting creaky
running the Windows stuff. They run the Linux programs just fine."

The future

It is harder than ever to "get published" by the big guys in New
York. There are now only five big publishing conglomerates
increasingly focused on double-digit profits in a shrinking market.
Big New York Publishers (BNYPs) no longer put out books because they are
good, or important, or of lasting literary value. BNYPs see, at most,
35% of the cover price of any given book and about half of that goes
to printing costs. They want -- and can afford -- only blockbusters.

Anything that brings down the cost of production makes it possible
for large publishers to take a few more chances on a few more books.
Open source tools mean more opportunity for authors of all stripes.
Open source tools lower the barriers to entry. More
self-publishers and more small publishers in business -- and profitable
because of lower costs -- widens the market for books of all kinds.
This is an increase to freedom of expression across the board.
Instead of just the same old same old King, Jordan, and Roberts, new
voices get heard.

If you like to write -- or read -- that is very exciting.

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