Page Layout Programs

There are two schools of thought among fledgling independent publishers, particularly those who are interested in keeping the cost of their books as low as possible. One school holds that doing quick and dirty (and cheap) layout in a word processing program will produce a book that looks like it's been professionally typeset. The other holds that only a layout program produces professional results.

The issue boils down to the perception of quality. For a book to look like it was produced with professional care, the typography must meet accepted trade book standards. Book buyers (those who are buying for their stores) won't buy a book that doesn't look like it was professionally typeset. Surprisingly enough, retail buyers often won't buy a book that doesn't follow typesetting standards. The wholesale buyer will know why he or she didn't buy the book. The retail buyer may not be able to pin down why he or she didn't buy, but poor typography, subtle though it is, may be the difference between a sale and a book that's put back on the shelf. That subtle difference may very well occur if you use a word processing program instead of a layout program.

Word processing programs and page layout programs use different algorithms to actually "set the type." Word processors have many features that make them ideal for the creative writer or for business writing projects. Many of the features of word processors make writing and revising text easier--and these features are far superior to anything offered by a page layout program. You wouldn't want to compose your work in a layout program. It's far, far better to write your book or to have it key-entered using a word processing program.

A page layout program is designed to give the user maximum control over the appearance of the page and the position of type on that page. Many of the controls that may be hard or impossible to apply in a word processor are easy to select and apply in a page layout program. Page layout programs have superior algorithms for the setting of type.

Look at the following sample prepared in Microsoft Word 98 (Macintosh version. Windows and later versions of Word produce similar output):

This sample was set on a 4 inch line (comparable to many trade books) in 11 point Palatino with "single line" spacing. Notice the "rivers" (large spaces between words that align from line to line most obvious on a diagonal) that run through this text. If you set this text as "ragged right" (right margin uneven), then apply (full) justification, you will see that MS-Word merely adds space between the words to make an even margin. The result is awkward (some would say ugly) typesetting.

You may want to use a word processor if you're preparing a simple book for a very small audience -- perhaps a family history which will be produced with a press run of fewer than 50 copies. More serious work -- that which you wish to sell to the general public -- is better served by being prepared in a page layout program.

Now, look at the following sample prepared in PageMaker 7.0:

The PageMaker sample is set with the same 11 point type, but line spacing was adjusted to 13 points from the default. Notice that PageMaker has closed up the text and has selected rather different places to break lines. PM also has adjusted the spacing of the letters and the words to make the whole paragraph appear smooth and consistent. (Note: PageMaker has been discontinued, but many copies remain in use. PageMaker 6.5, the most common version in use, has the same typesetting code as version 7 used here.)

Here's the same paragraph prepared in InDesign CS (version 3.0):

With the InDesign version, we see that the "type color" (spacing) is even more improved. Unlike all other page layout programs, InDesign's "type engine" looks at complete paragraphs to select the best compromise of letter and word spacing and line endings. InDesign also offers automatic "hanging punctuation" -- if there were hyphens at the end of any of the lines, you would see that they would extend slightly into the margin. Likewise, capital letters such as "A" and "V" will also extend slightly into the margin should they appear at the beginning or end of a line. InDesign also offers "optical" letter spacing. This takes into account the physical shapes of the letter outlines and adjusts spacing accordingly (ignoring the built in font metrics). A particular advantage of the optical spacing is that it sometimes can improve the appearance of a font that might otherwise be unusable due to poor quality of its internal spacing tables. All other page layout programs consider one line at a time. InDesign is the first page layout program that approaches (and in some cases exceeds) the quality and control available in the previous generation of dedicated, computerized typesetting systems--this is a "first" for a "desktop Publishing" program. (Note: The "type engine" of InDesign CS3 (version 5.x) is not significantly changed from InDesign Version 2.x.)

Yes, that's all there is to it... but the difference is obvious to any professional book buyer. (A printed version of these samples would make the differences even more obvious, due to the limited resolution of the computer screen) The ordinary reader may not immediately notice, but tests have proven that poorly spaced type is difficult to read and quickly causes readers to become fatigued. Since the whole point of publishing your project is to have it read, you should make the effort to insure that it is readable!

What page layout program should you use?

There are five professional quality page layout programs: Adobe InDesign, Adobe PageMaker; Adobe FrameMaker; Corel Ventura Publisher, and Quark XPress. In addition, there are several other page layout programs that are out of the mainstream. They may offer certain advantages (usually a low price), but you'll have greater difficulty finding a printer who can support them. Note that when a printer agrees to accept an "odd" file format, they usually charge significantly more to cover the extra cost of working with it or for "just in case" problems that might occur.

On January 5, 2004, Adobe Systems announced Adobe InDesign CS PageMaker Edition, an extension to InDesign CS designed to make a quick and successful transition to InDesign. PageMaker (the last available version being 7.0) has been withdrawn from the market. PageMaker, should you have an old copy, is still a credible program for typesetting a book. Unless cost containment is a major need, upgrading to Adobe InDesign would be a preferable solution. As time passes, fewer and fewer people will be able to handle PageMaker files and the version of Acrobat Distiller included on the distribution disc has long been superceded by newer, more feature-filled updates.

Adobe FrameMaker offers a number of features that are particularly attractive to academic publishers (e.g. automated footnoting features and table making features) and computer or other complex technical documentation publishers (support for multiple formats, languages, and numerous document versions). FrameMaker was specifically created for long document creation (and is somewhat difficult to use for shorter documents). It is available in versions for some UNIX computers and for Windows machines only (the Mac version has long been discontinued). Adobe FrameMaker 8.0 sells for $899. Upgrades from previous versions start at $299. Framemaker is sold as part of the Adobe Technical Communication Suite. It is difficult to learn, somewhat difficult to use, and is lacking in flexibility. Framemaker has little to offer beyond the more commonly used InDesign program. Unless you have specific needs for particular features of this program, it's not recommended for independent self-publishers.

Quark XPress is particularly popular with designers/graphic artists and magazine publishers. It also supports a number of features and add-on programs that make it particularly desirable in large, networked publishing organizations. Quark has tried to improve XPress' long document features, but it still falls short of InDesign in that respect without purchasing special (extra cost) utilities (Quark Extensions) from third party software developers. The typographic spacing defaults in Xpress result in rather poor letter and word spacing. You will need to learn how to make adjustments to the default values to get acceptable typography. XPress has a reputation of being expensive, and the Quark company has a reputation of sometimes cantankerous customer support--although management changes a couple of years ago have improved the situation. Quark is available for both Mac and Windows platforms, but has a relatively miniscule share of the Windows platform due primarily to the heavy "tilt" toward Quark XPress by the professional graphic design market (Macintosh has up to a 90% share of the professional graphics market depending on how it is measured). If you are experienced with QXP, there's little advantage to learning another product, but if you are just starting out, there are better choices to be made.

Quark Xpress 7.x is the current version. Its list price is US$799, although it is generally available for $699 or so. List prices of upgrades from earlier versions range from $299. XPress 7.0 has received reasonable reviews -- "In many ways, it's a great leap forward. In other ways, it falls short." QXP 7.x seems to have been designed to retain existing Quark XPress users rather than attract users (back) from InDesign. Version 7.x solves some of the shortcomings from the decidedly mixed opinions about version 6.x and the unusuable 5.x. The newest version also improved collaboration features (not relevant to a single user) and has most features on par with InDesign, except the very critical "multiline composer" that only InDesign offers. Again, my recommendation is, if you're a Quark XPress user, then use Quark XPress. It can do the job and produce completely acceptable results. But, if you're new to page layout programs, then I suggest learning InDesign.

Adobe InDesign originally began as a complete rewrite of PageMaker. The end product turned out rather different than expected. InDesign is the page layout program with the best typography of any of the competing products. It is the first "desktop" program that rivals the dedicated computerized typesetting equipment used in the previous generation (in typographic quality). Adobe InDesign CS3 (Version 5.x) has excellent support for long documents with table of contents and index creation features. It also has improved footnote handling and creates tables with ease. Early InDesign versions were criticized for leisurely operation but since the original CS version (3.x) it provides a good user experience without any leisurely waits for various actions to complete. The excellent typography is accomplished with an algorithm that looks at a complete paragraph to find the "best" combination of line endings. (The priorities can be adjusted by the user.) Adobe, keeping the lessons of PageMaker in mind, has created a very robust program that is only slightly more difficult than PageMaker to learn. (The additional difficulty is mostly due to the large number of additional features.) You can download a demo copy of InDesign from the Adobe web site. InDesign is probably the best choice for book layout and design. Many of the professional book designers who previously used PageMaker switched to InDesign. InDesign can be purchased as a stand alone program, list price $699, and is also sold as part of Adobe Creative Suite which comes in a variety of editions (see the Adobe web site for details. The standard Creative Suite includes InDesign, Photoshop (photo editing and manipulation), Illustrator (vector graphics/drawing program) and Acrobat Professional (create, view, and limited editing of PDF files) at a list price of $1199. The premium version adds Dreamweaver (web site development software) and the Adobe Flash (animation software). Several other combinations of products for web development or large production operations are available. The "Master Collection (that has all the compnents in all the other packages) runs $2499. The programs within the Creative Suite aren't just packaged together, they are modified to work together more closely than ever before. Either of these versions represent a substantial savings when compared to the list price of individual components. Most small book publishers will find the standard package of Creative Suite useful. You might consider the "design premium" package if you plan to prepare your own web site.

Corel Ventura has gone through several owners over the years. Once a strong PC-based program, it suffered from lack of attention during its "middle age." Now owned by Corel (of Corel Draw fame), Ventura version 10 has been released for Windows computers only. It's been a long time since I've seen any work prepared in Ventura, so it's difficult to comment on its quality. It previously was a competent page layout program. So, if it is available to you for a modest price, it's certainly worth considering. (It has the very important ability to create PDF files without outside software.) Corel states that Ventura is being targeted at "corporate users." This is a reflection of its low penetration of the design market. Ventura has not been widely supported by book printers in recent years, making it a less desirable product for publishers expecting to pass their project to a book printer.

CorelDRAW is the related program for creating graphic illustrations and technical drawings. It is similar to Adobe Illustrator.

Not quite ready for prime time:

Stone Studio is a $299 package that includes "Create" which features page layout, web page creation, and illustration functions, "GIF Fun" that makes animated GIF images for web sites, and "PStill", that is an advanced PostScript distillery to generate PDF files from EPS and PS files. Stone Studio runs on Mac OS X only. It is unlikely to be supported by any book printers, but you may be able to deliver acceptable files in the PDF format. The few reviews I've seen aren't particularly encouraging. There are better choices. The Mac OS X only aspect may limit interest by the many small publishers who are operating with Windows computers. (As of May 2008, there's nothing new to report about Stone Studio.)

RagTime is a program that's been around for a number of years. Version 6 has been recently released. It has interesting possibilities, but is somewhat flawed. The program combines functions of a spreadsheet, drawing program, and word processor/page layout program. You can have "active" spreadsheets inserted into your documents. With all other alternatives, a table from a spreadsheet is "dead" in that you must go to the spreadsheet application to revise the material and then must update or re-import the revision in your document. RagTime's page layout quality is on par with PageMaker and Quark Xpress. The program supports CMYK -- very important for assembling a book cover. The jack-of-all-trades concept also completes itself with the corollary "and master of none." Each of the components of RagTime are less robust than the standard stand-alone programs. While quite superior to laying out a book in MS-Word, RagTime unfortunately has an interface that suffers from being rather far from intuitive. Functions are not logically arranged on the menus (with many important functions relegated to a menu called "Extras") and keyboard short cut commands are absent for some functions (like placing an image) forcing the user to fiddle through menus and dialog boxes. Oddly, columns and hyphenation is treated as paragraph or characters attributes making for odd outcomes if selections aren't carefully made. List price (U.S.) is $695 -- which puts it way overpriced when compared to InDesign (a far superior program for page layout and books).

Ready, Set, Go! is an early page layout program that almost disappeared. It's been kept alive by overseas developers and is available in version 7.7 for Mac OS X for US$175; in version 7.2.8 for Mac OS 9.1 or 9.2 for US$150; and in Windows, version 2.3 for $50. (The Mac and Windows versions can share files.) There is also a new "Ruby" version (for Windows) that costs $350 and has extensive Web design capabilities. While this program, one of the pioneers that even predated PageMaker, is a reasonably solid page layout program, it is unlikely that you will find any printers able to accept native RSG files. Windows version 2.3 apparently will require a utility like Jaws PDF Creator to output a PDF, but the Windows Ruby and the Mac version 7.7 both allow for native PDF export. The cheap $50 version is certainly a program to consider for the budget-conscious Windows user. The Mac version is quite moderately priced for a relatively full-featured page layout program. While RSG! is not at all superior to InDesign, it may be a viable alternative (although support will be difficult to obtain since there are few users).

iStudio Publisher is a new page layout program that's currently under development. One important consideration is that this product is intended to have the sophisticated multi-line composer similar to the one used in Adobe InDesign. So far, the samples of type I've set are reasonably good, but the composition engine isn't entirely working yet. Keep an eye on this one. It's going to be priced at only $49.99 in the initial version. A book-length project version is planned for later on. Pricing for that product isn't available yet. As of 9/1/09, the program is in commercial release as version 1.9. I have plans to download and test it for an updated reveiw. You can download a 30 day trial version -- so it's probably worth a shot. The program will run on Mac OS X 10.4 or later only. (It is likely that this product will be somewhat more tedious to use (with more manual manipulation required) than InDesign, but for $49, what can we expect?)

Microsoft Publisher is inexpensive, heavily promoted, and very popular, but it shares some of the serious typographic flaws that word processors do. It's not really suitable for book production. MS-Publisher 2007 is only $169 or is available as part of certain of the MS-Office suites for Windows. (No Mac version is available.) I was unable to find a professional level review of the product and the reviews on are typical -- some very positive and some not so positive, so you're really left to come to your own conclusion. The most serious short-coming in earlier versions was very poor support for CMYK (a must for cover design), but the 2007 version appears to support CMYK, even though it was not well documented in the online materials. Obviously, Microsoft is targeting this product at light users, either home or office, to prepare fliers, marketing brochures, newsletters, and a variety of other short documents. It comes with a multitude of templates (but none for a book) and clip art that has very limited usage rights. (i.e. you can't use any MS clip art in a product that's "for sale" -- like a book.) The few people I know who've used MS-Publisher to prepare a book have admitted, that they'd never do it again.

A really bad choice unless you have an engineering mind set: TeX (The "E" should be a subscript -- the word is pronounced "tek"). I know I'll receive much harassment for my opinion. The cost conscientious may be drawn to TeX, as it is, essentially, free. TeX is not so much a "program" as it is a series of utilities and a coding scheme. Developed a few years before "desktop publishing" became available, it was devised by a mathematics professor to enable him to publish math text books. TeX has a powerful typography algorithm (and is the basis for the algorithm used by InDesign) and is capable of producing excellent typography. Unfortunately, it's difficult to work with, requires using "macros" to encode your material and can be frustrating for the non-technically gifted to use effectively -- although there are a few pre-prepared macros that might help someone prepare a book. There are some commercial applications available that support TeX and there is an extensive network of "true believers" who will support newcomers (and who often provide me with much harassment -- and who have complained for years that I previously simply ignored the existence of TeX on this web site). From my point of view, TeX should be avoided. I am not without significant, relevant experience with TeX as my staff (when I supervised the publishing contractor staff at NASA Ames Research Center) received many TeX documents -- which (1) never could be processed through the system on schedule, (2) often had "macros" that failed and required difficult troubleshooting, and (3) required us to retain an expensive outside consultant to trouble shoot the worst problems. I tried to discourage use of TeX, but I found it rather difficult to explain anything of this nature to "rocket scientists." (Even a "rocket scientist" couldn't always make TeX work right. That says it all...)

Generally, I recommend that a new user learn InDesign unless they have particular and strong needs for the special features of FrameMaker. Those who use Quark XPress should stick with that program. Ventura, while not widely supported, is a candidate for the Windows market; although it offers few benefits over the competition, other than (possibly) a bargain price when bundled with other Corel products. There are a couple of products at the lower end that have interesting possibilities, but they are not widely used so finding program specific help may be difficult -- but for those who must have the lowest cost system, the extra effort some of the low-end programs require may be worth it. A miniscule number of people will be able to successfully use TeX. I wish them well.

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