At one time, Linux aficionados who write – especially self-published authors – faced the hassle of getting access to a system running Windows or Mac to get their books ready for publication. Those days are over. The open-source world offers increasingly powerful tools for writers. Though I’m not aware of a Linux version of the popular writer’s tool Scrivener at this time, I’ve never really felt a need for it, except for its handy e-book conversion feature. Now there are other options.
The first is Calibre, a general-purpose e-book management program created by Kovid Goyal. The program allows you to catalog your e-books, read them on your computer, and synch with your e-reader device. More important to me as an author is the e-book conversion feature. Calibre lets you import your word processor document, apply formatting, and generate features such as tables of contents. It also lets you view and manipulate the raw HTML code that comprises your book, which is really handy for both editing and troubleshooting. I want to give props to the program’s creator, because when I posted a question on the program’s forum, he answered it personally.
At this point I must note that there are two ways a writer can proceed in book creation, One way is to do the formatting in a standard word processor and a conversion application to get it ready. I’ve tried this in the past (on my first book Centrifugal Force) and it was a troublesome approach. Conversion tools inevitably mess up some of the formatting, particularly if you’re using Open Office or Libre Office rather than Microsoft Word. The better approach is to do as little formatting as possible up front, saving if for the publishing program. With this approach it’s helpful to use unique and consistent text markers for specific features of the book, for example, to use asterisks or hash-tags to indicate scene transitions. These can be updated by using the search/replace features of the publishing program. This is how I did my second book, Fidelio’s Automata — and I didn’t have to reboot to Windows AT ALL to do the conversion.
This brings us to the topic of desktop publishing. For those of you have never used one (PageMaker and QuarkXPress ) are popular non-free options), it’s a whole different animal than word processing. Desktop publishing applications are focused on layout, and making the printed matter look good. Word processors do this, but not well. For example, I’ve gone through a rather involved process to make Open Office suppress page headers on the first page of each chapter. Another important consideration is that just-in-time publishers like Lightning Source require a very specific type of PDF (PDF/x-1a:2001) to be submitted for book manufacture. Yes, any good word processor can export a generic PDF, but can they embed fonts and do other necessary setup?
For desktop publishing, the Linux world has Scribus. In the past the program had a number of serious problems. The worst was that the stable version didn’t create the correct PDF formats; for that you had to use an unstable beta version of the program. As of version 1.4.5, this is fixed. Another weakness affects Scribus’ most powerful feature, its scripting facility, which allows you to perform repetitive programming tasks quickly. Scripts must be written in the Python language, which isn’t at all difficult for someone who already knows programming. The difficult is with the program’s library functions, which the script must access to do anything useful. The Scribus help files contain a reference, but it’s not thorough enough. It took me hours of tinkering to figure out how to do search/replace within a multi-page document. It’s also not totally intuitive how to insert or delete pages without corrupting the left/right formatting. As with most open-source programs, there’s an online forum; unfortunately most participants seem to be doing short works like newsletters or fliers, not novels. There are “how to” books for Scribus, but I hate buying a general-purpose book to learn one task. Sometime soon I will convert my notes into a quick step by step guide for novel creation, which I’ll make available for 99 cents on Amazon, along with my custom python formatting scripts.
As you’d expect both of these programs are also available for Mac OSX and Windows.
Next week’s installation, if I don’t get distracted by any wacky news events, will discuss Linux tools for musicians.
About the illustration: some people are crazy enough about Linux to get the Mighty Penguin Tux embedded in the skin. Tattoo by Kyle Dunbar.