Linux as a Publishing Platform

by Clay Dowling

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.

Linux in After-Purchase Care

Taking care of customers after they purchase a product is an important part of developing a good reputation as well as repeat business. Because book authors and publishers thrive on repeat business, this kind of after-purchase care is especially important for Clinton. Open-source software is helping Clinton address that issue in two different ways. The first is through his Web site, where he posts supplemental materials for his books, which often is material provided by his customers. The contents of the Web site are maintained as a text file and are converted with Python DocTools. He uses CVS to maintain version control on those contents, including the text of the book itself. This work is done at Clinton's home, on his Linux machine.

The single largest part of after-purchase care is the player forums Clinton maintains at The Forge, an on-line site for independent game publishers. Hosted on Linux and using the popular phpBB forum software, it provides a low cost, highly effective mechanism for building a community out of existing customers. These customer forums suggest new ideas and serve as a good introduction to the product for new and prospective customers. The forums also help provide inspiration to existing customers when they read what other customers have done.


Although many technically inclined people are out there with something to say, there are many more small publishers that are not technically inclined. When I asked Clinton about this, he said that the combination of, Scribus and The GIMP is suited perfectly to willing users, even if they aren't technically advanced users. As the IT director for a printing company, Clinton has helped introduce many non-technical employees to and The GIMP. Most if not all of the people he introduced to these tools stopped using the commercial software equivalents. The users cite the superior features and ease of use as the reasons for their switch to open-source tools.

The single biggest hurdle for most people is installing Linux itself. Converting to a new operating system is no small move, even if it is more powerful and offers a serious price advantage. Linux distributions such as Ubuntu make the move easier. To help address that concern, Clinton is presenting sessions on self-publishing at gaming conventions. He also will be giving away copies of Ubuntu, his preferred distribution. Ubuntu is designed with the end user in mind and is intended to be a desktop Linux distribution.

The first steps to capitalizing on Clinton's work, however, may not involve Linux at all. and The GIMP already are available for Windows and Macintosh OS X systems. Users who become comfortable with these new tools on a familiar operating system then may become more open to trying a new operating system where all of their tools are already available.

The compelling story here clearly is the ability to publish without fear of expense. Although print-on-demand publishing isn't appropriate for every book, it is suitable for a lot of books. Low overhead coupled with a low initial investment in tools can make it possible for many more authors/publishers to distribute their work.

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