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A not-so-quick look at the DTP and authoring software

July 26, 2012

Today I’d like to talk about DTP and authoring software. For those who do not know this, DTP stands for Desktop Publishing and I will use terms DTP software and typesetting software interchangeably. How to select good software for task at hand? There seems to be plenty solutions, but which are really good and produce top quality results? Let us see.First of all we have to think – why use separate name? Isn’t those “office” kind of applications what are you looking for? Definitely not! Names aren’t given by mistake and office applications are good for offices, serial correspondence, gathering data about orders or workers, simple analysis of gathered data, making presentations from those for monthly meeting or writing formal letters. They aren’t good for authoring longer texts or preparing text for publishing. Those are very different tasks.

Authoring texts is on the first place in the process of preparing book. This is of course most important part of work to do, but there are very few good solutions to support this. What features should be present in good authoring software?

  • Text often changes during authoring, good authoring software should provide easy means to refactor the text. This includes text rearrangement, references handling and more, usually obtained by using so called outlines.
  • Distractions are bad, authors shouldn’t be forced or provoked to think about form at this stage. Good editor shouldn’t divide the text into pages, it should be single text from beginning to end. It shouldn’t provide any formatting other than logical one – think about command “chapter title”, not “Comic Sans 24pt bold (ugh)”.
  • Good editor should provide ability to save snapshots in time, or hold the data in plain text files for use with external version control system like SVN/Git/Mercurial/whatever. This is related to refactoring, if you change text into something you don’t like that much after all, it’s always good to have easy way to come back.
  • Ability to collect and keep references in single place is good. Think about collection of images or documents you cite or use in text. Ability to manage such library is very useful at the time of writing.
  • Ability to apply comments that show in text as annotations for correspondence with editor and corrector is extra benefit.

Which of those features are present in common office applications? They usually provide only two of those, and this is snapshots in time and annotations. Forget about distraction free editing, reference gathering or refactoring. They are not meant for this. So what solutions do we have?

  • There is Scrivener, application from Literature and Latte. It uses corkboard and outliner for easy management of files. It provides support for distraction free editing and logical formatting (thanks to Markdown plugin) and most features you might need during the authoring process. There is final versions for MacOS X and Windows (price ranging from 35$ to 45$) and beta version for MacOS X, Windows and Linux (it’s trial, but before it ends new beta is released so you can keep using new beta, just be warned it might not always be stable).
  • If you write fiction book or similar, yWriter might be enough for you. It is free app but not as extended as Scrivener, anyway it is also quite good. It is written in Visual Basic so of course it works on Windows and for quite a long time it was working under Mono on Linux and MacOS X. Currently authors recommend using Wine instead of Mono due to unstable/buggy Mono winforms implementation, too bad. yWriter is freeware, although not open source.
  • Another solution for fiction books is Liquid Story Binder XE. It provides lots of features for fiction book writing and some good visuals. It’s Windows only and costs almost 50$, but still is good solution if you are serious about your book.
  • There is also LyX. LyX is strange kind of animal, somewhere in between a good authoring software and good typesetting software. While it is brilliant soft, in my opinion it has to many features for fully distraction free editing while hiding too many features for professional typesetting. It is my choice when I have to typeset something quickly and not return to it in some time. Anyway, it is worth looking at – it might do just what you need. It is free and open source, and available for Windows, Linux and MacOS X.
  • Finally there are multiple light full-screen editors or outline editors, but again they do not provide all you might need. I’m looking at PyRoom, Leo or Zim here.

In my opinion, Scrivener is currently on top of authoring software, but like with any piece of software, this can change any day. Now, to typesetting software. What should it have? We can assume we received script in some form and it was was already reviewed and checked. This isn’t our task to check text for correctness so no need for spell checkers. Also out software does not need to provide us with all that fancy outlining or refactoring stuff – we got finished script. Instead, our software needs to place the text where we want it and producing print quality output.

  • Our software should be able to produce PDF files, but not any PDF files – PDF files conforming to PDF/X and PDF/A standards. Most common in industry are PDF/X-1a:2001 and PDF/A-1a:2005, where first one could be used for print and second for interactive documents. Of course if it supports other PDF/X and PDF/A standards, it’s extra benefit. This requirement ensures a lot more, like being able to use CMYK/RGB profiles in documents, font embedding and more.
  • We should be able to use OpenType or equivalent pro fonts with all their features, like optical sizes, true small caps, old style digits, font variants, etc.
  • It should support microtypography, at least by providing protrusion (or so called hanging punctuation or optical margins) and expansion (providing multiple width variants of fonts). Other microtypographical features like tracking (also called letter-spacing), kernings and word-spacing adjustments are extra benefits, but they are mostly cosmetic and depend on situation, so they do not have to be automatic. Ability to specify them manually is good enough.
  • And of course, ability to layout our work how we want it, headers, footers, multiple (balanced!) text columns, margin notes and footnotes, chapter headers – tools to get all the visuals you can dream of and tools to keep them consistent.

Those requirements should define good typesetting program. There are few solutions that met all those requirements in at least some degree. They are:

  • Most notable one, is Adobe InDesign. This is definite king for all the publishing solutions. The bad – it costs quite a lot and is available only on Windows and MacOS X. You can save some cash buying it as part of Creative Suite together with Photoshop for example (photo processing is also important part of preparing books) or get educational license if you qualify (what is interesting, you can use educational software commercially, even after you finished your studies/school – this particular license does not prohibit it).
  • There is also open source brother to idea of InDesign, Scribus. Last versions of Scribus has really powerful features and for many uses is comparable to commercial alternatives. It’s available on Windows, MacOS X and Linux.
  • There is also TeX, more exactly pdfTeX, LuaTeX and XeTeX engines all of which are part of TeXLive distribution. Those engines provide really good quality output and support all required features. Of course they are free but require good knowledge of TeX language to obtain some more complicated layouts.
  • Just like I listed LyX as authoring program, it can be also seen as typesetting program. This is true, because on top of GUI, LyX is using TeX to process documents so it has all it’s features – just not all are easily accessible.

There are also other paid solutions, like QuarkXPress or Corel Ventura. They are very similar to InDesign, and choosing which one you like is probably a matter of taste. I did not recommended them here though, because I do know if they provide font expansion like other above solutions. I wasn’t able to find information about their microtypographical features other than optical margins. It of course does not mean that I recommend not using them, it’s not that. I’m just not sure about them. If you know if they support font expansion, please let me know and I will update this post.

As a side note, it is interesting to know how microtypography got into applications recommended above.

It all started with Gutenberg Bible, known as 42-line Bible. It is considered one of best typeset books. The important thing is, it has a constant greyness across the pages and justified margins. It is important to note, that it was printed in times of metal type, when justified text was usually obtained by increasing spaces between words. How Gutenberg obtained such perfect result? It is said that he used almost 300 characters, different font variants in different shape and width. He also used what we call now optical margins, where margins do not form straight line geometrically, but optically. All those features are today known as microtypography.

Until 1988 those features were not available for computer based typesetting, but then Hermann Zapf and Peter Karow created Hz-Program. It was application designed to perform paragraph formatting, using microtypography. The program was licensed to URW and is nowadays non functioning, but its features remain active in world. In 1998 Hàn Thế Thành introduced on EuroTeX conference his version of TeX, called pdfTeX. It is modification that allows to use Type1 and TrueType fonts directly, enabled microtypography features and allows to control PDF output in a way not possible in TeX before, adding meta information, hyperlinks and more. Most of work was done in cooperation with Donald E. Knuth, creator of original TeX and Hermann Zapf himself – though because of licensing issues it contains different, engineered approach. It does not mean, that this approach to microtypography is better or worse, it is just new and because created with cooperation of original author of Hz-program, I would risk saying that it can be superior. Year after publishing paper from above conference, Adobe releases InDesign 1.0 – its new flagship product for typesetting. One of its said features, is that they bought paragraph breaking algorithms from Hz-program and threw it into their application. It is not known if InDesign still uses those or not. In year 2000 pdfTeX author finishes his MSc thesis, in which he writes about enabling microtypography in pdfTeX. Few years later, in 2007 – Scribus was to follow. Using pdfTeXs author thesis, Scribus developers enabled microtypography in 1.3.4 version of their application, raising resulting quality and making them the only true InDesign competitor, in both commercial and open source application world. Later XeTeX engine enabled microtypography in its algorithms and new engine, LuaTeX appeared.

So it can be said, that most applications that support microtypography have common origin for their features. It all went from Gutenberg and Herman Zapf.

And finally – what I use for my own needs? For now I use beta version of Scrivener for Linux (for works that do not contain mathematical equations), carefully laid out text files and Vim (for works that contain mathematical equations) and pdfTeX engine in conjunction with LaTeX format – this is for books or longer documents. For posters or shorter documents, I use Scribus. For now I have not paid a single penny for this and I’m happy with it. Will I pay for Scrivener when it comes out for Linux? Yes, definitely! Will I pay for some commercial typesetting apps? Not really. Scribus and pdfTeX give me currently all I need. If I had to, I’d probably go with educational version of Creative Suite, but still – when you compare the price to features, Scribus wins!

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