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Scribus Powerful Desktop Publishing for Free

written by: Brian Nelson•edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•updated: 10/24/2010

Whether you already work in desktop publishing, or are just starting out, you've probably heard about the big, complex, expensive products used in DTP to generate high-quality printable documents. The names are familiar, Adobe, Quark, Microsoft. But, take a look at Scribus.

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    In the world of desktop publishing, there is no shortage of contenders for your dollars. Adobe alone makes three products depending upon how you count. Other major contenders include Microsoft Publisher, and QuarkXPress. And, there is no shortage of other players in every niche and specialty out there.

    These products generally are not cheap. Adobe PageMaker lists at $499, InDesign CS3 at $699, QuarkXPress 8 weighs in at a hefty $799, making MS Publisher the cheapy of the group at either $169 or as part of the higher end Office Suites. That high outlay means that many writers and publishers make due with products that aren't specifically designed for desktop publishing, but there is an alternative.

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    Scribus is an open-source desktop publishing software package. Open-source means that the actual computer code the program is written in is available to anyone who wants in. In addition, that code can be used, updated, fixed, or added-to by anyone as well. Around open-source products, a community of stewards and developers forms, and this becomes the product's open-source community. If you are familiar with Firefox, then you are familiar with this basic concept.

    Open-source also means the product is free. That's right, free.

    If you are thinking that means that Scribus is some stripped down child-level desktop publishing platform, think again. Scribus is best known inside the Linux community where it is the only desktop publishing platform available, but it is equally powerful and ready for the more traditional Windows and Mac platforms.

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    Desktop Publishing

    The difference between desktop publishing and mere word processing is in the layout. While modern word processors provide great capabilities in this area particularly in the realm of justification, columns, and tables, they still fall short of the pinpoint control and accuracy required for publishing. Because desktop publishing is primarily about the eventual printing or other creation of a physical document, the precise layout and color matching becomes as important as the content. If a user is to be able to be confident enough to order 10,000 copies of a publication, it is necessary for the user and the printer to know that there will not be any glitches or issues due to a difference in formatting caused by versions, or margin settings, or a different interpretation of "magenta". Such precisely laid out documents are known as "print ready" and they are the purpose of Scribus.

    Scribus is primarily aimed at professionals which means the user interface can at times be unintuitive. However, there is usually good reason for such things. For example, inserting an image that is too large for the space allotted results in a cropped image not a resized one. While resizing is the way to go in standard word processing, there are few professional publications that would settle for the quality of image made by such embedded resizing and would instead insist on the image being resized at the highest level of quality prior to being used in the document. Thus, cropping makes more sense for a professional level product like Scribus.

    Don't let the word professional scare you, though. Scribus comes with tons of easy to use features and templates including dragging and dropping elements, tools and wizards, and easy to use measurement features. Scribus also comes with its own Story Board so that you can do your text typing off layout.

    That means that whether designing a professional newsletter, poster, manual, magazine, or book, Scribus can give you everything you need without costing you a dime.

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    Scribus has its own Level 3 PostScript driver which supports font embedding and sub-setting using TrueType, OpenType and Type 1 fonts. The driver fully supports Level 2 PostScript constructs as well. Scribus also has robust color management capabilities including full CMYK management and support for ICC profiles. In addition, it supports most graphic formats including SVG, EPS, JPEG, PNG, and XPM. It can also import Photoshop PSD files and layered TIFFs.Of course, not everything is typing, and Scribus has a very usable vector drawing tool.Scribus' entire goal is "print ready" output. To that end, it delivers fully implemented, multi-layered PDF files which are fully compliant with PDF/X-3 standards.Scribus can import most text formats as well as MS Word files. What it can't do is import QuarkXpress or Adobe InDesign files. Of course, there are serious limitations on the ability of the commercial programs to import such files across multiple products and versions. To help solve this issue, Scribus' native file format is XML based, and for the next version, the format is to be fully XML compliant which means that you will be able to import your Scribus files into other products even if those product's files won't import into others.

    Scribus also allows for extensive user customization so that the features you use are the ones that are close at hand. Keyboard shortcuts are particularly easy to define so that you can setup your own "left hand friendly" shortcuts to keep your right hand on the tablet.

    If all that weren't enough, Scribus uses fewer system resources than the major commercial DTP programs and thus can be comfortably run on a standard modern laptop. In fact, there is even a Scribus Portable implementation which is scaled down to fit and run from a USB drive.

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    Here We Come

    Over the next several days and weeks, I'll not only introduce you to the robust environment of Scribus, but also show you how to use it in a real world business environment. Stay tuned, and you'll be turning out professional quality print ready files in no time.