Linux as a Publishing Platform

Using Linux, OOo, Scribus and The GIMP lowers the barriers to taking your book to publication.

In December of 2004, Clinton Nixon published his role-playing game, The Shadow of Yesterday. The content of the book was nothing shocking, nor was the fact that he published the book himself. Independent authors have been writing role-playing games for as long as there have been role-playing games. Likewise, self-publication is not a new phenomenon. The revolutionary thing in Clinton's case is the fact that only open-source tools were used, from authorship to artwork to page layout.

The Process

Clinton's choice of tools is slightly unusual for an author. He wrote his text with vi, an editor more traditionally used by programmers than by authors. His choice partially is explained by the fact that Clinton also is a programmer.

Because he's a programmer, it also was a natural choice for him to use Python's DocTools to convert the text source to HTML, the format used to publish the book on the Web. This copy of the book was released under a Creative Commons License.

From the HTML files, Clinton was able to load the book into Writer. Writer interpreted the HTML files beautifully, converting HTML tags to styles.

The next step in the chain was an accident. At first, Clinton had decided to use Create from Stone Studios, a Macintosh layout program, to do the print layout design. When it was time to start layout, however, Clinton's Mac went up in smoke. He had to find a solution quick, and it showed up in the form of the CVS release of Scribus, now at version 1.2.1. Capable of reading his files and retaining the style information, Scribus was a perfect match for his layout needs.

This wasn't the first time Clinton published a gaming book, so he was familiar with the process of laying out a book and with a variety of programs. He said Scribus and it's integration with made it by far the easiest program to use. Additional power came from the ability to script Scribus using Python.

One of the few faults of Scribus, though, is objects on template pages that intrude into text boxes prevent the text from flowing around the box. Because Clinton's layout used a graphic around the page number that intruded into the text box, the text flowed directly over his graphic, obscuring both text and image. He was able to use Python scripting, however, to draw an invisible box automatically around the graphic, causing the text to flow as expected.

Clinton said that the Python scripting feature is what made his layout in Scribus possible and is one of the features that made Scribus such a good choice. The other feature is, without a doubt, the integration. The ability to read Writer files allowed him to get his print book done in time to go to press. Without that ability, the print book simply wouldn't have happened.

When I asked Clinton about what he'd like to see improved in Scribus, he mentioned the template objects issue and better table support. Other than that, he said it was the best layout program he's used, surpassing expensive commercial offerings.

Business Implications

Although Clinton had a miniscule print run--150 books--he recouped all of his publishing costs within five weeks of publication. Several factors played a role in that rapid profitability. The single largest expense for this book was artwork, costing about $500. For a printed role-playing book, this price was very low and can be attributed to the fact that the independent role-playing community, like the Open Source community, has a strong tradition of collaboration.

The second largest expense was printing, which cost Clinton only $300 for materials. Working at a printing company, he was able to make use of his employer's presses and equipment. Although this option isn't available to most self-publishing authors, print-on-demand services are available that eliminate or reduce the need for large, expensive print runs. Traditional book printing and binding, on the other hand, requires a run of 1,000 or more books and several thousand dollars paid up front.

The marketing expenses for the book were low. The book had a Web page on a site shared with Clinton's other books. He did his own design work, which meant the only marketing expense was his Web hosting service and domain registration.

Although Clinton didn't choose to use a Creative Commons license specifically for business reasons, that he did so helped him sell books. The book was mentioned on Slashdot, and many readers took advantage of the chance to read it on-line. In fact, several people who purchased the book mentioned that the ability to preview the text helped convince them to part with $20 for a self-published game book.

This book project could not have happened without Linux. The high level of integration between separate tools simplified Clinton's workflow. The fact that he did not need to invest money in software kept his start-up costs down. Even with his print run of 150 books, he was able to recoup expenses and turn a profit within his first two months of publication. His first print run has sold out already, and he plans to reprint using Express Media, a print-on-demand printer specializing in small print runs.

Because of the profitability, Clinton is able to bring out another book that will expand further the world created in The Shadow of Yesterday. That book will be published using the same tools and process that helped to make the first book such a success. Clinton also plans to use the process to re-release an earlier game book, Paladin. This game will be published as part of an anthology with two other authors, and the proceeds will be given to charity.



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Great work!

Denwer's picture

Thank you for so informative and useful source, guys. Thank you.
[saved to "favourites"] :)


Anonymous's picture

As someone that just finished writing and publishing a 244 page book using OpenOffice, I was very interested in reading how Clinton used these tools in the production of his book. While I will admit that using custom scripts is more than I needed to do, I did seriously consider using Scribus for the final layout. The deciding factor in my story was the lack of time to learn how to use Scribus which I am correcting right now. I did all my layout and final editing using OpenOffice 1.4 which worked quite satisfactory. My own walls to writing and publishing completely in open source were that I already use and know Photoshop and did not have time to learn GIMP although I did give it a quick try just to see. My next book will use more open source tools like Scribus and GIMP along with OpenOffice.

It is a amusing to watch a geek try to be a publisher in a few short months. And I thought networks were a pain... darn it, why wont that graphic STAY WHERE I PUT IT!!

The fun part is telling people that I used a free word processor and watch their faces.

Mike Sweeney
"Network Security Using Linux"


grj's picture

Maybe Clinton Nixon should publish a book on publishing books with the tools he used.

the revolution was 35 years ago.

Anonymous's picture

The first book published using only free software might be the TeX book, circa 1970. This was the real revolution in publishing. Since that time, thousand of books have been written entirely with TeX or LaTex.

The TeX - Revolution

Betsy Winni's picture

Well well - TeX was - and is an exellent tool for doing books and hi-tech writing. Yes, indeed! I personally liked the old WordPerfect - just a black screen and lot's of shortcuts you had to remember.

But that were the old days. Today it has to be WYSIWYG to be sucessuful

Quite a few people also run S

Alex's picture

Quite a few people also run Scribus on their MacOS X systems using Fink.

Scribus template objects

Anonymous's picture

The behavior of objects on a Scribus template that this article describes as a fault isn't. The whole point of templates is that they override what is added to ordinary pages.