Basic Book Design/Software Applications

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Choosing the right software application is perhaps the most important book design decision. Different software applications are better for different books.

LaTeX, ConTeXt — For Academic Books and Other Long or Structured Documents[edit | edit source]

You're writing your Ph.D. dissertation in physics. You appreciate the efficiency afforded by being able to define commands like


and then use them by typing \sumvec{1}{2}{3}{4}.

You know who Donald Knuth is (he's right up there with Einstein for hard-core computer science types).

LaTeX is a document markup language, while ConTeXt is more of a typesetting system. Both are created on top of the older TeX typesetting language. They'll produce the most professional-looking books. They run on Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX computers. They run reasonably well on the oldest, slowest computers. The source files never crash or become corrupted. They're free (although you can choose to spend as much money as you might wish on books).

The defaults are set for professional typesetting. If you don't know what you're doing, LaTeX and ConTeXt will automatically produce a professional-looking book. They'll put chapter numbers on all your chapters and section numbers on all your sections. They'll give you a choice of three basic fonts—Roman, Sans-Serif, and Typewriter while also allowing one to use special fonts for mathematics.

Of course you can change these default settings. You can install other fonts. While font installation is now well-documented for LaTeX and ConTeXt, newer tools such as XeTeX and Lua(La)Tex make accessing fonts (including TrueType ttf and otf), using utf-8 features for other alphabets, and OpenType (otf) font features like ligatures, much easier..

There are even packages for embedding videos behind pictures for the electronic (screen readable) versions of your printable book pdfs.

If this sounds like you, download the software (yes, for free) from or or

Nicola Talbot, among many others, freely offers helpful getting started information, and even packages for making newspaper or magazine formats which can also help with special book layouts, and provides an application (Jpgfdraw) and lists others for making native drawings for LaTeX.

These OpenSource (Linux/Unix, Windows, and Mac OS X) Editors can help as well--- LyX which is a bit more WYSIWYG, and ---

TeXworks, which is a typesetting LaTeX editor, which has a pdf output previewer (with editing synchronisation built in) --- most up to date Developer version: TeXworks can be customised with JavaScript or Lua (Python on the way), and so extra interfaces (forms with buttons and drops downs and so on), can also be made by a user, to extend the editor's functionality.

Adobe FrameMaker, Corel Ventura Publisher—For Long, Structured Documents[edit | edit source]

You're a technical writer working for ABC Company. Your team of tech writers is working on operations and repair manuals that will need to last for many iterations. You want a clean translation for conversion to Adobe Acrobat. The manuals will also be available on CD-ROM, and on your company's website. The manuals will be translated into sixteen languages, including Japanese, and be converted to XML at some point.

The manuals have many files that need to be compiled into large manuals, as well as text that can be hidden or displayed based on conditions you set. You have multiple level indices, multiple cross-references that link to other files ("see page 234 in Chapter 16, Book 1"). You would also like to publish the book online in a completely different format without rebuilding all the tags and page formats from scratch. The modest $800 price tag doesn't concern your company.

Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, Scribus, Microsoft Publisher—For Advertisements, Brochures, and Websites[edit | edit source]

You're a graphic designer working for an advertising agency. You create colorful ads, brochures, catalogs, and webpages.

For the Beagle Boy jeans catalog, you put a little dog in the corner of each recto (right-hand) page. Then you get an idea: let's change the dog's tail on each page, so that when readers flip through the catalog, they see the dog wagging its tail!

You do creative stuff with type. You love to go through your collection of 5000 fonts, pick out just the right one, twist and turn the letters to follow a complicated graphic, change the size and shape of each letter, color the letters with a rainbow of hues (subtly shifting with a gradient), and, finally, adjusting the kerning to make the words read smoothly. By lunchtime, you've written three words.

You don't do footnotes or references. You don't care about typesetting conventions—you break the rules, not follow them!

You use the latest Windows or Macintosh computer, with the fastest processor, gigabytes of memory, and big, beautiful monitor.

Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, LibreOffice Write —For Writers[edit | edit source]

You write books. You make your books easy to read. You want a word processor that's easy to use.

You know that easy to read means looking conventional, like other books, not breaking new ground.

You use graphics and tables, but you try to keep these simple. You expect your work to look professional, but learning arcane typesetting conventions isn't your hobby.

You use footnotes and references. You use indices and tables of contents. Your book will be printed on paper, not on a CD-ROM or posted onto a website. Your final book will hopefully be properly typeset using a professional desktop publishing (DTP) application such as InDesign, QuarkXPress, or a typesetting system such as TeX or LaTeX. Word processors are for processing words, not laying out pages.

You need to send your work to your editor, who uses the same software you use.

You can afford to buy a middle-of-the-line computer every two or three years.