Sunday, October 2, 2011

Seeking Advice

I'm looking for some advice from readers who have experience with simple, easy-to-use desktop publishing programs -- and when I say "simple, easy-to-use," I mean "simple, easy-to-use" for technological incompetents such as myself. The truth is that I have a large number of projects that I really want to get off my plate and out there for others to enjoy, but, to do that, I need to get them laid out in a format suitable for PDF and/or POD printing.

Now, I know many people would offer to lay these things out for me and I appreciate these offers. However, since these projects aren't likely to generate much income (assuming they're even sold rather than just given away), I really feel I ought to lay them out myself. Likewise, there's the fact that, when dealing with volunteers, one can hardly complain about either a lack of follow-through or tardiness in completion, two problems that have plagued past efforts on my various projects. Finally, I like to tweak and to tinker layouts, so I feel it'd be less of a headache for all concerned if I did all the work.

So, with that preamble, what do people recommend? Obviously, I can use programs like word processors and blogging software. I can even manipulate images to a limited extent. Beyond that, I am hopeless. What I want is something that lets me straightforwardly produce pages that might contain a few images, tables, and charts but would otherwise be mostly filled with text. I don't need the pages to be especially clever in their design, though I'd be glad if the program gave me some options for prettifying them as needed. I'm not adverse to paying for the program if necessary, but I'd never turn up my nose at a free program if it otherwise meets my criteria above.

Thanks in advance.

54 comments:

  1. Scribus is the open source desktop publishing software that I use. It is free, and relatively straightforward to use, plus there is a tutorial on their website that walks you through the layout of a magazine.

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  2. I've found that the Mac version of Microsoft Word (2010 or later) makes a fine publish program, as it has all of the features of Publisher built right into it.

    I use it to make PDFs of player handout and that sort of thing. It works great. The problem is that you'd 1) need a mac 2) need a pretty powerful one if you're planning on creating something with many images that's more than 20+ pages.

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  3. I also recommend Scribus. Though there's a small learning curve it will ultimately save you a lot of time and headache to use the right software.

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  4. I have "ThinkFree Office 3 Write". If I can fig. it out, a 2 year old can. Plus it has a simple click BAM!! pdf, very nice.

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  5. For clean, simple layouts, there's not much you can't do with Word. Its advanced features are no more difficult to master than tackling a new, unfamiliar program.

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  6. I'd suggest Serif Pageplus. There's a free version you can try out to see if it's right for you.

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  7. I second Word here, that's the best choice for a low-scale indie for modern garage aesthetics. It's easy to use, you probably already have it, and it can do a basic layout as long as you don't want anything too fancy. It also exports directly to PDF. Even without Publisher it's easily enough for publishable indie projects, as long as you don't mind that certain punk feel.

    Scribus is a full-fledged layout software, so it beats Word on utility when you want to make eg. magazine-like layouts or complex things in general. However, my own experiences with Scribus (from a couple years back the last time) have indicated that it's annoying to work with seriously due to various rough spots and illogical solutions. It's definitely able to be used, but I find its niche to be small: if you're just fuzzing about without professional ambitions in graphic design and layout, then Word will serve you well enough, and if you're going to get serious, then you should get Adobe InDesign as soon as possible (the entire creative suite, in fact), preferably at some discount. Scribus sort of falls in between those use cases for me, and it's a narrow place to be.

    (The philosophical point in using Word is humility: I think that there's nothing wrong with it if a hobby project looks like one, and it often verges on pathetic when people put a lot of effort on looking upscale and failing. Scribus will make much more sense if you disagree here and want to make your project look the best it can without paying for a professional software.)

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  8. I am an OpenOffice person myself, but Scribus is also quite handy.

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  9. I completely concur with isabout's post.

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  10. I looked at Scribus once and found it very off-putting to me. As I said, I am very incompetent when it comes to computer programs.

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  11. Scribus isn't simple, not impossible to learn but there is a learning curve. Also like mentioned in other posts there are some rough spots.

    I normally use Adobe Pagemaker 7.0 to layout my material. However because of all the tables I used Word 2007 to layout the Majestic Wilderlands. However for Blackmarsh I reverted back to Pagemaker as I figured out how embed tables created with Excel into a document. (Just use the special paste.)

    There are various used copies of Pagemaker on Amazon that can be gotten inexpensively.

    If your layout isn't overly complex then I would go with Word. Invest in some fonts and art and your project will look good.

    In the long term I plan to accumulate enough to get Adobe Indesign (the successor to Pagemaker). In desktop publishing the commerical version is still simpler and superior to use than the open source alternatives. Although this may change.

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  12. I *almost* wrote a series of posts about this, because I recently did some layout work for someone; that always gets me thinking about how to advise someone on layout. And since I have to live cheaply, I think about that angle, too.

    For very simple layouts, you can get away with OpenOffice. However, avoid doing your *writing* in OpenOffice/MS Word (or in fact any word processor,) if you can avoid it.

    Do your writing in plain text, using Markdown syntax (very simple markup, like *single* or **double** asterisks for levels of emphasis.)

    Each chapter goes in a separate text file. Make sure table rows are on separate lines, and table columns are separated by tabs.

    Use Pandoc to transform the final text into HTML.

    Load *that* into a word processor, verify that the right words are emphasized and the right section headers are used.

    Change fonts and header appearances by editing *styles* not individual words.

    Select chunks of text that are meant to be tables and convert text to tables (there's a menu option for this in practically every word processor.)

    Reposition tables as necessary, and insert graphics where desired.

    Select the main body of text (not the header) in each section and mark it as a section. Sections can be edited to make them 1- or 2-columns, without affecting the positioning of other sections.

    Insert hard column and page breaks where needed, to position text properly. You may have to insert more graphics to avoid pages with orphaned words or lines on mostly-empty pages.

    Print to PDF.

    You can, of course, do more with a real layout program, but if you follow these steps, you can avoid the problems that usually crop up with layout in a word processor.

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  13. Talysman,

    I would love to be able to do a decent layout using something like OpenOffice (that's my preferred word processor these days), but, slug that I am, all the steps you describe make it seem as if it'd be a lot of work to do so viably, especially, since, as I said, I am an utter incompetent in these matters.

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  14. Oh, and I should add: if you need to do fancier layout for a single page, like for a character sheet, and need something with more advanced positioning similar to Scribus and InDesign, you can use Inkscape. The deciding factor between using a word processor and Inkscape (or Scribus/InDesign) should be: do you need to change the position of an entire *block* of text, perhaps by very small amounts, and line up multiple blocks or images precisely? Each block of text in Inkscape can be moved separately, and Inkscape has the capability to create guidelines. InDesign (and presumably Scribus, which I have yet to try) has these features plus the ability to link blocks of text, so that when you change the size of one frame around a block, text shifts automatically between linked frames.

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  15. I like Open Office. It has enough features to make it useful, and it's not that complicated. Being able to create a table of contents is great. Scribus has more features, and you can get really fancy, but like others have said, there is a bit of a learning curve. For graphics I like Paint.Net. With plugins there is a lot you can do with it. Of course GIMP, and Inkscape are useful also. Sometimes I use Jarte which is a great word processor, but all I use it for is writing, not layout or PDFs. All the programs I mentioned are free/shareware.

    Aside from Scibus, I can't find an inexpensive/free "desktop" publishing program.

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  16. I've used OpenOffice to produce fairly decent-looking gaming documents, then exported as PDFs. It's somewhat clumsy, but it works perfectly well if you don't want complex DTP design options. Just plan ahead a bit in terms of layout. Using Acrobat to put it together can be useful too. Talysmans advice above is very good and will help you avoid typical word processor issues.

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  17. Unfortunately, with more features the programs become more complicated. That's why I like Open Office. Scribus is great, but if I don't continuously use it I have to relearn it all over again.

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  18. Oops, cross-posting problems...

    I know the steps sound hard, but they aren't, really. I mostly separated the steps the way they are to create barriers to futzing around with stuff too early.

    I forgot to insert the links. I did
    a short post a while back on Markdown and Pandoc
    .

    You don't need to actually download anything for Markdown, just read the style (syntax) guide, which is very simple, since it's based on the way people wrote emails before HTML and fancy rich-text email programs were invented. You probably already know all the rules.

    Pandoc is command-line, so it just needs to be unzipped, not installed. The command you will use will basically always be the same:

    pandoc -o output.html input.txt

    You already know how to open the output.html file in OpenOffice. The rest of the steps are just about avoiding the temptation to fiddle with fonts and styles on a per-word or per-phrase basis. It's more like discipline than technological know-how.

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  19. I'll reiterate what others have suggested: Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer. (LibreOffice is the successor fork to OpenOffice, because many of the contributors don't trust Oracle, who now controls OpenOffice.) Both are capable of generating professional, elegant, if simple, designs. The key to either is making heavy use of Styles. Never format a paragraph or heading by fiddling with font, size, bold, etc. Instead apply a Paragraph Style, making a custom one if necessary. Then format the Style to change how it looks globally. If you're using LibreOffice, you can use Character Styles to do the same for emphasised text, definition terms, or similar.

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  20. I don't think there is a layout program that doesn't involve a learning curve. I would suggest to you any simple text-based program (Office or Word) you can insert images into and you could generate pdfs from. POD formatting also means you need to understand the requirements for output or else there is a good chance results will be messed up. There is no easy solution beyond learning layout or getting help.
    One tip I can offer that has helped me immensely in design: index cards. I learned this from someone that does digital media. I've found If I write down all your basic ideas I want to cover and physically move them around, the less actual editing I do later on the computer. This will minimize the "tweak and tinker" stage that you may encounter.

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  21. I've never used it, but I've heard high praise for Adobe InDesign from several folks that are dealing with layout for their dissertations. Doing that in Word or similar is hassle, especially working with text and images. Apparently it's quite intuitive.

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  22. I use InDesign and I totally recommend it, but I don't think it's completely intuitive and it requires a degree of time investment. A text document in Indesign is relatively easy, once you add graphics and formatting it gets a little complex.

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  23. Platform specs? Mac, Linux/GNU, Windows 7?

    Adobe InDesign is going to be cost prohibitive I think for James, the full version being $699.00US.

    Some mentioned are free, but all things equal Open Office and Word are going to be similar experiences. Does James already have one or the other? Are either not being considered in hopes for something else better?

    On the Mac platform I would recommend Apple Pages, $79US. Chuck Morrison of windsofchaos.com produced two award winning adventures for WFRP using Pages, http://bit.ly/mQa7iy.

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  24. If you're on a Mac, Pages from the iWork collection is dead easy I think it's $20 on the app store.

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  25. @Tim: Good catch on the price of InDesign. I'm used to thinking in terms of educational pricing for the Adobe Suite. One of the few bits of actual ivory in the so-called Ivory Tower of academia.

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  26. Yeah, InDesign is pretty good, but expensive. I only wound up using it because I knew someone who worked at Adobe and had an enormous employee discount, so I paid much less than normal.

    It was doing layout in InDesign for other people's docs (in MS Word or OO format) that taught me about pitfalls. InDesign does not seem to like it when people use sections in their docs, and it is sometimes maddening trying to get headers to appear in the right font, size, and color if the author changed headers on a case by case basis.

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  27. What is it you are looking for? i use Word for pretty much everything but painting.

    In word you can insert an image inside an object and have text avoid that shape allowing you to sit an image in the middle of the page. Its for that reason I use it to generate massive D&D hex maps.

    I'm sure you can do all the stuff you mention and more but I never had a need.

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  28. I use Scribus extensively for short documents—game master screens for Gods & Monsters, player handouts, that sort of thing. It’s great. However, I would never use it for anything lengthy like a rulebook. The people I know of who used it and loved it for longer documents are programmers: for example, Clinton Nixon, who, as I understand it, wrote his document in a text editor and then used custom software that he wrote to slurp it into Scribus. (One of the nice things about Scribus is that its “macro language” is Python.)

    For a rulebook that is mostly words, I would use a word processor; I’ve yet to see page layout software designed with writers in mind. I used to use Word on the Mac; I now use Nisus Writer Pro. The main advantage for me of NWP when writing is that it is much easier to use styles (and in general, everything’s much more intuitively laid out—when you can say that this new software package you just started using is more intuitive than the one you’ve been using for more than a decade… well, that says a lot about at least one of those programs).

    Almost everyone has free trial downloads; I’d say try a bunch of them and see what is likely to work best for you.

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  29. @el Miko, you're correct. $19.99US from the App Store. I have the iWork suite and paid $79US.

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  30. Jerry, I'd agree that a page layout program is not designed for writers. The usual workflow is that you write in something else first, and then you import text into your page layout program to lay it out and format it. Over the years, software has gotten somewhat better at helping manage the transition: for instance, by importing Word, OpenOffice.org, or RTF documents and allowing you to translate the styles. That way the author can use styles to tag headings and so forth, but they're translated into the appropriate styles in the layout program on import.

    The way I like to work these days is to separate the act of writing from the act of layout, no matter what programs I'm using. I'll work on getting the main text out and flowing well, then I'll go back and make it pretty, whether that be by formatting in Word or importing it into something else.

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  31. Another PC user Open Office fan here. I use the Draw part of the program to lay graphics out. Then export to PDF. Should be pretty simple to export from Write which is very Word like. Hotlinking graphics can be pretty straightforward too (in the most recent version anyhow). Currently can't afford the adobe editors and I try to limit use of "borrowed" software on moral grounds. ;) I don't you think can make layers with Oo but I could be wrong.

    (I may have to investigate these other programs people are mentioning) :)Another PC user Open Office fan here. I use the Draw part of the program to lay graphics out. Then export to PDF. Should be pretty simple to export from Write which is very Word like. Hotlinking graphics can be pretty straightforward too (in the most recent version anyhow). Currently can't afford the adobe editors and I try to limit use of "borrowed" software on moral grounds. ;) I don't you think can make layers with Oo but I could be wrong.

    (I may have to investigate these other programs people are mentioning) :)

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  32. Sorry about the duplicated text there. My E63 does bizarre things sometimes. D'oh.










    rre things sometimes. D'oh.

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  33. I suggest taking a look at early issues of Star FrontiersMan (http://starfrontiersman.com/). If you are happy with that look, than all you need to use is MS Word/Open Office. That's all he used to create this fanzine.

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  34. Do you think a Scribus, Word or OpenOffice template or example document would help you James? That's the sort of approach that a big engineering company such as I've worked at takes for consistent technical documentation. It's 1,000,000 times easier to tweak some headers, footers, title pages and then just copy, paste and modify.

    I've thought about making templates available for this purpose before but I'm not in the swing of writing modules. Writing a template "just for the fun of it" seemed like a punishing way to spend my leisure time so I canned the idea.

    Is there anyone who has such a beast who can make one available?

    Is there an exemplar document that you like, James, that someone can get some kudos for imitating the general design?

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  35. You have a Mac? If so, just use Apple's Pages. It has a page layout mode which makes short work of any page layout project.

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  36. Apple Pages is your best bet. If you don't have a Mac then use MS Word. They both make PDFs quite well and as a writer they will be most comfortable to you.

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  37. I use OpenOffice; I write in Writer, layout tables in the Calc spreadsheet, and copy those in as desired. (I also tried to use Scribus in the past and gave up on it.)

    A process such as Talysman's wouldn't work for me, because my text writing and page layout is not a one-time-one-way (waterfall) process. I go back-and-forth lots of times, using the book at the table, tweaking both text and layout for at least a few dozen playtest versions (in my most recent project) to try to make it as useful as possible. His process makes more sense if he's spent time taking other people's completed text, and doing strictly layout for it. And, as I say, "Don't fight the tool".

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  38. If you want a software which does most of the formatting automatically, then LaTeX might be good. It's a document processing software (as opposed to word processing) i.e. the processed unit is the text. It's the professional solution used to write books; it's mostly used by scientists since it handles formulas in a way that Word or similar could never do, but having used it for many years for many different projects, I can say it works very well. You simply have to write plain text, with interspersed "commands" which markup sections, paragraphs etc. It handles automatically the references, so you never have to worry about the dreaded Page XX errors. A good Windows implementation is the MikTeX package, together with the TeXniccenter editor, from which you can control the generation of output (e.g. pdf.)
    If you need more info feel free to contact me at antonio dot eleuteri at gmail dot com

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  39. Noooo! :-) I was waiting for someone to chime in suggesting LaTeX. I use it too, and I _love_ it, but I don't think it's simple unless you're a programmer type (I am), especially if you don't want your end product to look like an IEEE paper or a PhD thesis. I agree with the content-not-formatting philosophy to which LaTeX subscribes and I agree that other packages do it so much worse. But I don't think it's James' answer. (Unless you've got a great LaTeX style you can furnish us! :-))

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  40. :) eheheh well there are literally TONS of styles around. Not to speak of fonts (ever seen the Tengwar and Klingon ones?) Even just producing a two-column text with tables and graphics is so much easier than with other packages! I have a mathematics/computer science background so I might be biased, but I know lots of people who don't have any computing background that find it easy to use.

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  41. Herewith a simple and very effective document class:
    http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/macros/latex/contrib/memoir/

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  42. I'll check out your link because it's a dream of mine to have a LaTeX style for modules - thanks! :-) - but I do really think that LaTeX is overcomplicated for James' needs. If the aforementioned Pandoc is too much then LaTeX is off the scale.

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  43. I used Microsoft Word to do the interior of ASE1, and Scribus to do the cover (because that way I could get a color background - otherwise I would've used Word for the cover as well).

    I wrote the thing in two-column format, and then did layout after writing, which involved putting lots of extraneous column breaks, so that things wouldn't break in unnatural spots. It wasn't very hard - but if you do any editing AFTER you've started layout, it's a nightmare, because you have to go check every following column break to make sure things still look good.

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  44. I'm a LaTeX fan, but it probably wouldn't be right for James. Anyone who's curious, though, could start with the word-processor-like GUI front-end to LaTeX, LyX.

    Apple's Pages would be ideal for James, but I'm guessing he's on a Windows box. The learning curve for InDesign (or Pagemaker) are too steep.

    I'm loath to recommend it, but Microsoft Publish might meet James' requirements. He could watch some of Microsoft's getting started with Publish videos to see how it looks.

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  45. I'd consider looking at Word, working out what you want to do with it that you can't, then asking for specific help with that. You might find that Word can actually do what you want.

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  46. @Delta: There may be a way to modify the process I described to suit more of a back-and-forth style you describe.

    I was reading up on Pandoc's other features that I never use (for example, it will turn Markdown into TeX or LaTex.) Pandoc can turn Markdown into ODT (OpenOffice) format directly, but I never do that, so I had no idea that there's an option to use an existing ODT doc as a reference file: it pulls the styles from that.

    So, you can do your main work in plain text (Markdown,) convert to ODT, edit the styles in OpenOffice, and later use that as a reference doc for later edits. You edit your original plain text version, generating a new ODT with the same styles as the old.

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  47. Serif's PagePlus. Cheap and powerful.

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  48. I actually do have a style file for modules. There's an example of the output at http://www.springies.com/layoutsample.pdf (thought I'd posted it earlier, but it's either in a mod queue or I forgot to hit the right submit button).

    Really, it doesn't do that much. I've got some commands for formatting typical abbreviations, doing boxed text, putting mood images in decent locations, as well as keep track of room numbers and references to other rooms across sections. It's not documented.

    The thing that I wanted to do but never got around to doing was a way to automatically format stat blocks, similar to the way that bibtex can automatically format citations.

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  49. I love Scribus (lots of power and you can't beat the price), but if you are looking for a very easy to use, user-friendly interface DTP program, PagePlus from Serif if the way to go. You can "kick the tires" for free and Serif will make you offers every once in awhile to pick up the full blown software for much less than the $99 retail price. It's similar to MS Publisher if you've ever used that, but much, much better. The six or so online video tutorials on Serif's site are short (no more than 8 minutes long each IIRC)and will have you up and running and producing in no time.

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  50. InDesign for Dummies. Personally, I find it the most intuitive program in the world (Word sends me into apoplectic fits) but I also grew up using Adobe programs. I mean that literally; I learned Photoshop for projects in grade 6. Which is to say, they can be kid-friendly if the kid has access to someone who knows how it works. They've got lots of stuff, but once you know what the basic tools you need can do that will cover 99% of your functions in that program.

    That said, powerful programs just allow you to screw up horribly (see CoC 6th ed... or 90% of RPGs since 1990). The layout skills necessary to make something not look like crap aren't complicated, but there's some basic typographic things which have to be consciously thought about when you're doing it. The standard 'how-to-not-mess-up' text is this book, and it's a pretty quick read. The best book on it that I've come across is probably Thinking With Type, which has basic explanations for why the "rules" are what they are, and a lot of examples of following them and breaking them well.

    If you want someone to do a test-read to look for problems or suggestions, let me know (my email's on my blogger profile).

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  51. I've used Scribus and found it to be over-complicated. A couple of years ago I switched to PagePlus from Serif and I haven't looked back since. This is a really, really easy tool that you can do some amazing things with. I do everything from basic layout to marking up maps and graphics with this tool.

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  52. I love Quark. I've used it for years. It can do all you need. Not sure of the current price, but I assume it's less than indesign.

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  53. This thread is growing cold now but further to the LaTeX subdiscussion, I just saw this on Hacker News...

    "How do I make my document look like it was written by an Cthulhu worshipping madman?"

    http://tex.stackexchange.com/questions/29402/how-do-i-make-my-document-look-like-it-was-written-by-an-cthulhu-worshipping-madm

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