How to Use Open-Source Desktop Publishing

Forget Adobe vs. Quark and use something free

For some reason, most of the publishing world doesn't take open-source software seriously. There are exceptions: a great number of national governments, large corporations, gigantic ISPs and web hosting firms use it. But in desktop publishing? It's hard to find even a mention of open-source in print or online.

Open-Source Software: Overlooked and Underestimated

The recent article here on Lifewire entitled "Mix and Match Software" was a case in point -- even at the very end of the article where both inexpensive and free software options were listed, the most powerful, professional-grade, and free tools for photo editing, word processing, layout, and press-ready PDF generation were completely omitted. Which is why I'm writing this article!

A Boon for Small Budgets

When I started my own small publishing company two years ago, the budget was a shoestring combined with peanuts. I had already been using the Linux operating system for many years, including some extremely powerful open-source photo editing tools for my "real" job as a professional photographer. It didn't take long to find all the free software I needed to write and publish a large book, full of photographs and CAD drawings.

The proof is in the proofs and the press, of course. Fast forward 2 years. Every printing press I contacted for both the bound galleys (short-run for 150 Advance Review copies) and the final press run (2,000 copies) said "Linux? Scribus? The GIMP? What on earth are you talking about, never heard of them." But two of these presses (Bookmobile for the bound galleys and Friesens for the final press run) also said they were willing to work with beginners, and that they couldn't really care less what platform the press-ready PDFs were produced on, as long as they passed pre-flight.

Making the Leap

So, I thought, "why not?" I had been using these open-source tools for photo editing and promotional materials for years. They seemed to work fine, and local printers never had a problem with the PDFs, even with CMYK at 2,400 dpi.

The first session of fingernail chewing came while waiting for the bound galleys. Result? No problems, your books arrive next week. The next session involved hair pulling as well as fingernail chewing, as I had invested about $10,000 in the press run. Again, same result, the PDFs were fine. The open-source pre-pre-flight showed 100% OK, and pre-flight from the big press showed the same, 100% OK. The book looks great, and is already selling well. And my tiny new publishing company saved thousands of dollars in software costs!

Tools I Used for This Project

I'll cover the free, open-source tools I used for this book in an ala-carte fashion.

OS: My operating system for the entire book project was Ubuntu.

Photo editing: The GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Processor) has been mature technology for many years now. I have never run into a single bug in 10 years of using this software. It is every bit as powerful as Photoshop, with just as many fancy plug-ins available from third parties (except that for The GIMP, they are free).

My photo workflow with GIMP for the book went like this:

  • RAW photos from a Pentax k10d in .DNG format, process to uncompressed TIFF using the GIMP UFRaw plug-in.
  • Convert mode to grayscale.
  • Adjust for full white and full black.
  • Adjust level curve for mid tones.
  • Apply saved press profile for max white and max black percentage. Re-adjust as needed.

Most operations are performed using a right click instead of a menu item or docking bar (though you can certainly do everything with those methods too). The GIMP is available free for all Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

Word processing: The OpenOffice (now Apache OpenOffice) suite competes well with Microsoft Office and its cloud version, Microsoft 365. Just as with those platforms, you'll run into some problems if you write a 300-page book as one file, and try to import it into a real DTP layout program. And if you try to generate press-ready PDFs with any word processor-your printing press CSR will laugh and tell you to buy some real DTP software.

I used OpenOffice to write one chapter of this book at a time, which was then imported into DTP. Unlike the profoundly crippled Microsoft Works package and the platform-critical Microsoft Office, Open Office will read and import almost any word processor format every invented, and export your work in any format and any platform too. OpenOffice is available free for all Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

Page layout (DTP): This is the software that astounded me. I spent years in the past using both PageMaker and QuarkXPress. InDesign was far out my financial reach for this new company. Then I found Scribus. It's perhaps not as elegant as InDesign, and some automatic features of the latter are not included. But the strengths of Scribus far outweigh the few hassles. CMYK color and ICC color profiles are seamless -- Scribus deals with them automatically, you don't have to convert or process anything -- PDF /X-3 was implemented before QuarkXPress or InDesign even had that format included without a plug-in.

Macro scripting is very easy, with many example scripts available free online. And the Scribus pre-flight checker for press-ready PDF generation just plain works -- all my fingernail chewing and hair pulling were for naught. The files were perfect, without even touching Acrobat Distiller! Everything in a downloaded Distiller press profile from the printing company is available in Scribus from a simple user PDF export menu. And we are not talking self-publishing vanity presses here, this was the real thing, with large fees if anything was messed up. Scribus is available free for all Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

Vector graphics: I originally started the CAD for the book using TurboCAD for Windows, because it was what I had. What a disaster -- it was very limited in the formats it could output, and I ended up having to print to PDF files, then import them into the book. About midway through writing the book, I found some open-source tools and switched to using them. Inskscape for vector graphics is a mature package, and has worked well. It's available free for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. So far, however, I've been unable to find a good 3D CAD program in open source.

One of the reviewers of our new book complimented us on how gutsy it was to pursue the entire project in open source. But we are extremely happy with the results, and even included an open-source software statement in the book credits. I highly recommend that anyone, whether a casual home user or a professional, at least give free, open source desktop publishing software a try. All it costs is a little bit of your time!

Was this page helpful?