Getting The Work Done

Several weeks ago I decided it was time to delegate some of my work. I needed a set of notes from one of the classes I taught converted into an eBook. I knew that I wanted to be able to edit the material myself and that I wanted everything to be done in an open source tool. "Easy," I thought. "I'll just hire a F/LOSS person to do this for me." It turns out: not so easy after all. I asked my network of people if they knew any graphic designers who did book layout and worked in open source tools. What came back was the sound of crickets. Inconceivable! How could there be no one who did this sort of thing?

A colleague of mine told me that he often uses online "freelance" networks to job out some of his tasks. He recommended both Elance and oDesk. I decided to give them a try. My job description was short:

I need someone to do layout work on several short ebooks (~20 pages). Due to their technical nature (HOWTO programming guides) I need to be able to edit the documents easily if mistakes are reported. Even though it's not a layout tool, I would prefer the work to be submitted as documents with styles correctly applied (not manually adjusted per heading/paragraph etc). 1. Are these constraints you are able to work within? 2. Approximately how many hours do you think it will take to create and apply a style guide to a short ebook?

The list of applicants was even shorter. On Elance I received three applicants, one of whom asked me, "Do you have MS Word? It has excellent layout capabilities, and I prefer to work with that program." oDesk returned a much longer list of applicants from Asia Pacific. None of these candidates seemed to know what was. I thought that open source software was big in India, Thailand and Malaysia? I ended up hiring a Belgian through Elance with a Masters in Graphic Design who'd never used before. She was a delight to work with and caught on quickly. (Look for "anndesign" on Elance.)

While oDesk and Elance both have a lot of open source software tools listed for server-side tasks, they are devoid of people offering desktop publishing skills. Fewer than a dozen providers on Elance have DocBook listed, and only one provider has listed It's possible there are swaths of people with desktop publishing skills who are looking for work elsewhere, or perhaps they are so busy with work they aren't using sites like Elance or oDesk. Either way, this makes it difficult for me to get my work done.

Even though I have an excellent graphic designer who sends me all source files for business cards and other graphic work, eBooks do not have an obvious cross-platform open source file format. Most graphic designers these days seem to use In Design. While the open source application Inkscape can open Illustrator files, there is no crossover application for book layout. There are perfectly viable open source tools, yet the demand is simply not there for graphic designers to take the plunge. Here's what we need to do:

  • If you are someone who works with open source desktop tools, please register your services in one of the online freelance marketplaces. If you already are registered, please let me know where to look for you.
  • Ask your graphic designer to return source files in an open format.
  • Seek out professionals who work with open source tools. Name specific F/LOSS applications as part of your job posting. My Elance provider saw the software name and downloaded it before replying to the job posting.

We need to show that there is a new demand for skilled labour with experience in open source applications. We've done a good job of getting server-side F/LOSS tools into the language of the server room, now we need to do the same in the front office. It's up to us to ask for the skills and educate our workforce--it will give higher visibility and increase adoption of our applications of choice. There is no easier way to affect change than to simply make it part of our daily routine.

This piece was originally published on April 2nd on the Open Source Business Resource.

In my opinion, epub is the

In my opinion, epub is the standard ebook file format (even though Amazon is dragging its feet at supporting it). Calibre is open source software that does a good job of converting between file formats. Besides Calibre, Okular and FBReader can display epub and other ebook formats for reading in Linux.

I'm surprised that Scribus

I'm surprised that Scribus isn't being used for eBooks. I mean it does wonders for layout in printed magazines and books, so why not eBooks... Maybe I'm missing something, of course.

Well, DTP field doesn't seem

Well, DTP field doesn't seem so FOSS-empty since there is LaTeX, which is definitely the most powerful typesetting system out there, and one of the rare FOSS tools which is fully cross-platform.

But for graphic designers it seems that FOSS tools still aren't good enough. E.g., Inkscape's output is pretty unreliable (i.e. when saving/exporting in .svg and .pdf formats, .png is OK; problems with transparency and shapes: you can even get a circle from a rectangle in some cases:), GIMP doesn't support CMYK yet (!), Scribus still has problems with embedding OpenType fonts and displaying them in some pdf viewers, and there is occasional instability and crashes, as well as some other issues. I've been using these tools (including exclusively when preparing books for press for my publisher, but they really gave me a hard time not once; I had to combine a lot and often to write down steps and tricks I used to successfully finish the job since they were not "normal" procedures and hard to reproduce and remember...

And, at the end, everything is fine when desired output is .pdf or .tiff or similar. But, when you have to provide source in form of .doc, .indd, .psd or other proprietary format, things really can get nasty :)

I'd love to know what the

I'd love to know what the perfectly viable tools are, but judging by the other comments, all have issues (except LaTeX?) and don't do both font and graphic handling well. Open Office is no more a page layout program than MS Word; does a similar crude job but not to desired standards for professional published output.

@Lynda: Don't get me wrong:

@Lynda: Don't get me wrong: those tools I mentioned are great, just need a little bit more "polish around egdes".

Scribus is widely used for DTP and its user base seems to be growing every day. It does lack some features, but none of them is something too serious; most of things they do can be done in some other way, in Scribus itself or in combination with other FOSS tools. Scribus can and is used for professional work (last year a book created in Scribus won Belgian Design Award, which is just one example of its use in professional typesetting). Embedding of OpenType fonts I mentioned in my post is done a little bit differently than in, e.g., InDesign, which can make confusion. However, this issue is due to .pdf itself, not Scribus (even InDesign doesn't do "real" embedding for PDF 1.5 and lower, but embed OTF fonts as TTF instead of OTF; real embedding of OTF fonts can be done only for PDF 1.6 and later, which will very likely be supported by Scribus too very soon).

Inkscape is great for doing vector graphics, but .svg format in which it saves work can be problematic: it seems that every app has its own "interpretation" of it, which makes it pretty unreliable when sharing source files between different apps and/or exporting as .pdf. However, export in bitmap works fine, which can be kind of a workaround in some cases.

As for GIMP, you may create graphics and import it in Scribus to get feel how it'll look when printed (i.e. CMYK) and edit it in real time as necessary. Of course, if output doesn't have to be CMYK, but RGB, then GIMP is definitely way to go :)

LaTeX (and Xe(La)TeX, for use of OpenType fonts) has only one "issue": it is rather complex and has a little bit steep learning curve. And, of course, it should be mentioned that LaTeX is not "page layout" app, but full-blown typesetting system, which means creating a magazine in LaTeX can be a real challenge :) But if anything is near perfect in terms of typographic quality, reliability, stability, power..., then LaTeX is.

Sorry for the length of the post/comment.

Hi, have you tried publican

Hi, have you tried publican already? If you write your book with docbook, it's able to generate good-looking documents in PDF, HTML (single/multi pages), ePub. As an author, I'm also interested in the topic and publican is the best that I could found up to now. You can't do manual design like you would with any other tool (Scribus, OpenOffice) but for me it's a feature as long as the resulting document looks professional (and it does, that's what RedHat uses for their manuals).

Hi, By searching Latex and

By searching Latex and friends, i found a web site publishing for creating
books by the web.

It's in french but perhaps feeds your needs :

hope it helps

Remember also that I was

Remember also that I was looking for someone to do the work for me. I wanted to hire someone who I could hire to use these tools. Does anyone know of contractors that are using these tools for a living?

I think this person seems

I think this person seems like someone you described.

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