Free Software for Indie Authors: Desktop Publishing

(Post has been updated at the end of the post.)

I’m sorry I didn’t post this last couple of weeks. Came down with an illness (or really bad allergies) and could hardly think. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Being unable to get onto the Internet most of last week didn’t help.

What matters is that I’m back now. Onward.

Only one program today, but that’s because this is the only substitute for InDesign I’ve seen (so far).


This is a very good program but it has possibly the worst interface ever. Seriously. With Inkscape and GIMP I was eventually able to muddle through it. Not Scribus.

I’m about to rant, and that’s not my point because this really is a great program. Let me start with the good things.


– Beautiful PDF conversion for print. Seriously, this program makes fantastic PDFs for print when compared to the other software I’ve mentioned. Only Open/Libre Office can compare. So, you may ask, why not use them for print interiors instead of Scribus? See the next point.

– It’s very good with layout. I switched to Scribus for Shining Armor’s print version when I found drop caps could act funny in Apache OpenOffice if there was only a one-line sentence for the first line of a chapter. In fact, the first difficult thing about this program is realizing that it’s not a word processor. Although you can add text, it’s designed to treat text as an image that gets moved around. That’s why the layouts can look so gorgeous.

– Master Pages are the best thing since sliced bread. Once you figure out how to use them, you’ll want to turn the whole document into a series of master pages.

– Works well with AOO and LibreOffice. It natively accepts .odt files, which means that once you’ve formatted your chapter in your word processor, it’ll go right into Scribus, styles and all. (I’d recommend, however, doing this chapter by chapter and not worrying about trying to carry headers or footers over.)

– Styles are pretty straightforward.

– Wide variety of fonts.

– Color management tools including the ability to add your own colors. Very useful.

– I really love its document manager. Much more intuitive than InDesign (I can’t believe I just called something in Scribus intuitive).


Here we get into the real downside of Scribus.

– Has a tendency to crash with large documents. So, if you have a 500 page book that needs to be formatted, DO NOT COPY AND PASTE because the chances are good, given the way the styles are, that you’ll lose hours of work because saving it is a bear and the thing takes forever to reload after you’ve saved and good gosh why isn’t anything moving and oh. It’s gone. 😦

If you can, import.

– Styles can’t be applied globally inside Scribus. In other words, if you copy and paste text, you can’t select the text inside the text box, click on the font and font size you want and change things. You have to set up the paragraph styles you’re going to use, right-click on the text box, select Edit Text, wait for the dialog box to come up, pull down the appropriate pull down selections to the left of the text inside the dialog box, one…by…one…through the whole amount of text you want to change.

Again, if you can, import.

– It doesn’t split books into files. Let me explain that one and why I think that’s a bad thing.

InDesign can be used to create one long document. It can. But a better use is to divide the book into files either based on chapter or section breaks, depending on what makes the most sense. All these files are linked to a “book” within InDesign. So, for example, when I built the interior of Lady Fair (print version coming soon!) I slightly modified my front matter file, added it to the book, created the chapter files (one file for each chapter), added them, then added my back matter with whatever modifications had to be made there. I saved it, then used the commands that turned the whole thing into a single PDF file.

By working with only a portion of the file at a time, it’s possible to avoid the burden a large file puts on the CPU. It was difficult to understand at first, but now I really like it.

Scribus keeps things in one document. As I mentioned before, it has a tendency to crash when working with very large files and I’m guessing this is a big reason why. It also means you have to create a template with front and back matter added, then add or subtract pages within the document instead of simply adding modified front and back matter as files.

One last time, if you can, import. That will help with this issue as well.

– It’s difficult to figure out how to do things. Seriously. Difficult. There is nothing intuitive about this program, except that one part about document creation. Have I mentioned that? I can muddle through most programs and figure them out without having to buy a guide.

Not this. I had to hunt down how to even begin to use Scribus, let alone use it to create a book.

Thankfully, I can point you to someone who is pretty familiar with Scribus, has used it more than once to create print versions of her books, and does so in a way that might keep an indie author from ripping her hair out. I don’t get any money for mentioning this book, except for the small bit I get as an Amazon affiliate if you buy a copy through the link below. Mostly, I get the satisfaction of knowing that I’m promoting an excellent book that will help those who want a good alternative to the pricey InDesign whilst (and at the same time) keeping hair on the heads of frustrated indie authors.

That book is Creating Print On Demand Interiors & Covers Using Scribus 1.4.1 by D.J. Mills (I own version 1.4.5 and I didn’t see much difference between what she describes and what I have in front of me. Then again, I don’t use Word, so if there are differences there, I’m afraid I can’t spot them.)

Not only does she cover basics, like how to use the dang thing, she also covers setting up templates and master pages, styles and formatting, using the story editor and linking pages, page numbering, importing (including how to import a Word document), and a whole host of things that you’ll think you can figure out until you actually face trying to do what you want to do in the program.

Even after listing the cons, I would most definitely recommend using Scribus instead of InDesign if you’re an indie author/publisher, especially if you use Libre Office or Apache OpenOffice for your word processor. The import works very well between the two programs and should make creating a book a pretty quick affair.

InDesign, based on my experience with it, seems to be designed more for high-volume producers and those who are doing print runs (i.e. working directly with printers). Most indie authors are going to be uploading .pdf documents to either CreateSpace, Lightning Source, or Lulu. Scribus is definitely up to the job if that’s all you’re going to do. (Heck, it could probably do print runs as well. I don’t know because I just don’t see the need for print runs anymore, given current technology.)

This may or may not be the end of this series. We’ll see.

Update: Two of the commenters mentioned a good resource for using Scribus, and it’s free. Here’s the link.


7 thoughts on “Free Software for Indie Authors: Desktop Publishing

  1. Pingback: My Scribus review is gone? (and other updates) | Amy Keeley

  2. a.l.e

    nice rant!

    one think i can suggest you, is to go through one of the first chapters of the flossmanual linked above:

    if i understood it correctly, your biggest issue is that you didn’t get into edit mode, for inserting your text, but started using the story editor.
    that’s not (any more) the default way to edit text, but a workaround for the cases where the in frame edition does not work.

    and don’t forget the properties palette! (window > properties; F2)

    have fun


  3. Thank you for recommending my Scribus POD Layout book. 🙂

    As to selecting text inside the text box and assigning styles globally, I do that. I select all the text I copy from the word document into the scribus text box (eg: one chapter) then select the font and size and the Indent style from the drop down item on the top right side of the menu items (just right of the justification icons) and click the green check mark to save and close the text box. All the selected text changes in font, size, and style on the displayed pages in the main window. I open the text box again, and only change the individual selected paragraphs (Drop Cap, centre, etc) one at a time using the left side style drop down menu item. I make sure I unlink the next empty page before copying in the next chapter text. I think the smaller amount of text in each text box window is what makes my pages load quicker, but not sure. 🙂

    Also, thanks for mentioning you have version 1.4.5, because I am now using version 1.4.3 and need to update to test if my book is still relevant with the upgrades.



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