Publishing on a Shoestring: Open-Source Software for Self-Publishers

Step into any big business office and you’ll find lots of software with big names attached: Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Intuit QuickBooks, Adobe InDesign, and many more. These software packages have a long history behind them and a huge installed user base. Many people learned to use them in college and have continued using them throughout their professional lives.

For a do-it-yourselfer trying to get started in self-publishing, however, they have a big disadvantage: they’re all expensive as hell. Even if you have access to them through your primary employer, you’ll probably be violating some terms of service if you use them for your own for-profit work. Getting yourself into murky legal waters is the last thing you want when you’re trying to get to market as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent tools available that can do everything the big-name software titles can do, but which are completely free or very inexpensive. Here are a few that I couldn’t do without.

OpenOffice & LibreOffice: Two different versions of an MS Office-style productivity suite, originally the same product but now on different development forks. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and more. I use the spreadsheet program, Calc, to track my revenues and expenditures for my publishing business, since it currently isn’t a large enough enterprise to justify a full-blown accounting program. I also use the word processing program, Writer, for most of my blog entries and short stories.

Scribus: A desktop publishing program, the open-source alternative to Adobe InDesign. I use Scribus to lay out my books for print publishing. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but invest some time in it and it really pays off.

Sigil: This is an open-source EPUB editor, and it has solved many problems with my e-books that I didn’t even know they had. Forget about using the built-in EPUB export functions on word processing programs, or (even worse) the online EPUB converters like Smashwords Meatgrinder: import your DOC files into Sigil and fine-tune them yourself. Sigil is so invaluable to my e-book business that I set up Boot Camp on my Mac with Windows XP specifically so I could run this program. (A Mac version is now available, as well.)

Gimp: Short for the GNU Image Manipulation Program, Gimp is the open-source answer to Adobe PhotoShop. It used to be kludgy and hard to work with, but recent versions have gotten very slick and professional. I have used Gimp to compose the covers of all of my e-books.

Scrivener: It’s the only software on this list that you can’t get for free, but I couldn’t fail to mention my secret weapon for novel-writing. Scrivener uses a folder-based file storage system that lets you easily organize notes, reference materials, and the entire structure of your novel — and move things around through a simple drag and drop. At $45, it’s a bargain.

With these tools and some royalty-free fonts and artwork, you can create and self-publish your books without breaking the bank. If you have any favorite software tools you’d like to share, mention them in the comments section below!

(Special thanks to J. Daniel Sawyer for bringing Scribus and Sigil to my attention, as well as for some very handy tips on cover creation. My products would not look half as good without his advice.)

Posted by chriswlester