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In Search of the Great Unifier

I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.

I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.

So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.

What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.

There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.

That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.

Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.

There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.

I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.

I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.

Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.


  1. Bob Fegert says:

    Serif’s PagePlus looks good… a shame they put adware in the free trial version. Those posts are pretty old…perhaps they have mended their ways?

    Personally, I’d rather go bankrupt than spread malware with my software products.

    I may backup my PC and try installing PagePlus. That way I can easily revert back.

  2. Alex says:

    Have you ever looked into TeX? I have only briefly looked into it, I don’t have the incentive to go through the learning curve as my word processing needs are very simple. It seems to be quite a learning curve, but very powerful once you have mastered it. There seem to be lots of filters for different outputs so I would imagine you could create epub, mobi, etc… from it.

  3. Jim Dodd says:

    I don’t know if newspapers use proprietary software but maybe smaller ones use off-the-shelf applications. You could try visiting a newspaper office to see what they use. They certainly have to go back and forth between layout and content and they have to do it quickly.

    Forgive me if you thought of this already. Perhaps what works for a newspaper won’t work in book publishing. I just remember touring a local newspaper office with our camera club (the staff photographer gave a talk on how he did his job) and I was impressed with the software they were using. But I don’t know what it was. The photographer used ACDSee and it worked with whatever the rest of the staff used for layout.

  4. Larry Keyes says:

    I’ve been trying to use Scrivner for a long time, on the Mac, and I still think it has potential. There is a Windows version.

  5. Rick says:

    I use Calibre . Not only does it create ebooks in various formats (mobi, epub, others), it is also a ‘reader’ that you can use for ebooks of any format.

    I have created books in Adobe Dreamweaver (currently at CS6), or MS Word. I use a simple CSS at the beginning of the DW HTML for spacing, indents, etc.

    Calibre reads in the HTML file, I add the metadata and a cover image; the TOC is automatically created (I use standard H1/H2/H3 headings in HTML or Word), and then Calibre creates the ebook format in under 2 minutes. The result works fine in Kindle Previewer, and other devices.

    Calibre is open-source, user-supported, and excellent. Recommended.

  6. Bill Meyer says:

    I recently downloaded some e-books from a web site, and as they were offered in PDF, mobi and epub, I pulled all three, from curiosity. What I discovered surprised me: errors–are any e-books free of them?–are consistent in all three formats. A first, in my experience.

    I queried the site, and they replied to me that the e-books were generated by something they built in ColdFusion. Not much help, I know, as it takes you back to Adobe prices.

    I am not any sort of professional writer; my tech writing has always been occasional, yet I do crave a solid tool which could do multiple formats, and be less blunt an instrument than Word. I use Sigil for epub, and although it’s good at what it does, it is a bit like the talking dog.

    As I do routinely make use of virtual machines, and cloning an XP machine is but a few minutes of computer time, and nearly effortless, I shall try that, and pull down the malware-loaded PagePlus for a try. I don’t often do such things, but I have purchased the PhotoPlus product from Serif, and have been happy with that. I am a long time fan of Jasc’s PaintShop Pro, and detest what it devolved to at the user level under Corel’s ownership. Maybe I will get lucky with PagePlus. At worst, I shall not suffer malware on my physical machine.

  7. Bill Meyer says:

    Built the VM, downloaded PagePlus SE, and started looking. The malware risks appear to be gone. But I haven’t looked for them, especially, as I don’t care–I can simply delete the VM.

    Of greater import is the reality that in the SE version, so many things are disabled that your opportunities are to learn to compose a document, and to save it and print it, but not publish it. All publishing, to PDF, eBook, and HTML is disabled, so we must apparently take it on faith that that stuff just works and works well, delivering wonderful results.

    With my Kindle, however, I have learned that there are many ways things can be done badly, and I am unlikely, however wonderful the tool in other respects, to spend $100 to see the proof.

    Serif would be well advised to enable publishing of documents, perhaps with watermarks, or with severe length limits, so that potential customers might see what the tool really can do.

    On the good side, there are numerous videos available to lead you through learning to use PagePlus. My initial impression is that it may be conceptually similar to FrameMaker, or perhaps Ventura. The GUI seems to have been given considerable attention, and looks nicely done. I will tinker some, as time permits, and if it seems worthwhile, will report on my experience.

  8. Kiril says:

    I am wondering why you didn’t mention Apple’s Pages program in your investigation. According to your definition it does word processing, page layout and directly export to ebook – straight from a single interface.
    You are very influential writer, to whom I always look for solutions, so I will be happy to know your take on Pages.

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