The Basics of Independent Publishing 02 by Jim Driver


The Technical Stuff: A. Hardware
Depending on how much you want to do yourself – and here I’m assuming you want to save money and do as much as you can – at the very least you will need a good computer. At The Do-Not Press we work exclusively on Apple Macintosh and so I’m totally biased on that direction.

In 1994 when I started – on an LCIII with a total memory of 8MB!! – Mac was the only choice for the serious publisher. QuarkXPress – the best page layout program – and Photoshop – for working with photographs and scans – were originally designed especially for the Macintosh and every publisher and designer I talked to recommended I get a Mac. Nowadays, things have changed in as much as the majority of small publishers now use PCs and the key programs are usually available in both formats. Still, every printer and studio I come across still prefer to use Macintosh and The Do-Not Press will continue to do so until they stop making them or until hell freezes over. Despite the problems of compatibility – most authors are PC users, which shows what they know! – and the constantly-changing operating systems Apple keep coming up with (as I write, system OX is the latest, though we’re still stuck on 9.1), a Mac is a pleasure to work on and there’s something about being a member of a persecuted minority that appeals. Plus there’s the smugness of knowing that email virus warnings never apply to Mac users: for some reason, makers of nasty computer viruses seem to target Microsoft products for the PC. Can’t think why…

The CPU – central processing unit, a fancy name for a computer and for the main chip inside it – is the most important single item. Spend a little more money than you think you can afford. Once you’ve got the sucker, it’s too late to wish you’d gone for a bigger model. Secondhand computer prices are low, so don’t bother selling to upgrade. And don’t buy secondhand unless you’re really broke: there’s too much that can (and will) go wrong. Get the fastest processor (usually represented by MHz) you can afford; the most RAM (memory) you can squeeze in;the fattest hard disk or drive (represented these days by ‘gigs’ or ‘gigabytes’); and the biggest screen you can afford. Bigger numbers are invariably better. My year-old iMac is starting to creak but – as a guide – its screen is 17 inches (built-in); CPU speed, 400 MHz; hard drive, 10GB and the RAM is 128MB. Treat these figures as your minimums. When I can afford it, I’ll upgrade the RAM to 256MB and I wish I’d got a 40GB hard drive.

To get the most out of it, you will need a good working knowledge of your computer, how it works and what it can do. imac for dummies It’s not our job to do that here, so I suggest you invest in a couple of suitable books or search the Internet for information – but watch out for pop-ups on some of the so-called ‘information’ sites. I learned most of what I now know from a couple of books and from the subsequent trial and error we all end up going through. If you’ve got a pile of money, you might even consider taking a couple of courses, but these can be expensive. Beware of cheap seminars run by get-rich-quick merchants in hotel conference rooms. If you buy an iMac (recommended), the latest edition of the book I read, ‘The Flat Screen iMac For Dummies’ by David Pogue (IDG Books), answers most questions in a simple but entertaining way. (Buy it here from Amazon) It is always best – though tedious! – to read the manuals that come with the software you will eventually have to buy (see Software below).

In addition to the CPU you’ll need as many of the following as you can afford:

CD burner
Unless you are particularly lucky and/or have a relative who’s an Apple Mac dealer, expect to pay upwards of £2,000 for the hardware – though for better quality equipment the sky’s the limit – and maybe the same again for basic software. Try and buy as many items as you can at the same time. This has the double advantage of making sure (well, pretty sure, anyway) that everything will be compatible and it also gives you a strong bargaining position when it comes to asking for a discount. Most outlets will knock money off for a big order – especially if you threaten to go elsewhere and look like you mean it – or at the very least give you something for free. CD-writers and laser printer toner cartridges seem to be favourite for this kind of extra. If they won’ play ball, and if they’re not the cheapest by a long way, take your business elsewhere.

Always ask the sales person if you’re not sure about something and take his/her advice when it looks like they know what they’re talking about, but only to a point. Remember that these people are not as impressed with you as they might appear, and that the bottom line for them is the commission they’ll earn on your purchase. In fact, you’ll probably never see them again after you hand over your money. If anything goes wrong, forget it – they’ll bounce you off to another department before you can say ‘But you said…’.

Printer: A good quality printer is essential. We recommend a sturdy laser printer equipped with PostScript. PostScript is a computer code language (and an Adobe trademark) that ensures that what you see on the screen will be reproduced exactly on to the printed page. Non-PostScript printers tend to print misshapenly and so are pretty useless for proofing purposes. A good quality laser printer can also be a useful marketing tool, and you really need to find one that can cope with heavy use. At The Do-Not Press we’ve settled on an HP Laserjet 2200D after a variety of less suitable printers. Though not perfect – we occasionally get postscript errors when printing through QuarkXPress and it totally refuses to do anything with Internet Explorer (another good reason to use Netscape or Opera for web browsing) – it usually does the job with the minimum of fuss. We paid around £500 for it in 2001.

If you plan to proof colour work (covers, illustrations, etc) you will also need something that prints in colour. Ideally you’d want a colour laser printer but, as these are so expensive, a decent inkjet will have to do. We use an HP Deskjet 990Cxi and get round the fact that it’s non-Postscript by printing through Adobe Acrobat. By shopping around you can find something good that prints photo-quality images (though this has to be done on special, expensive paper) for less than £200. For some reason models that print A3 are vastly more expensive. Before you buy, always check the cost of the ‘printer peripherals’. Some big brand name printers appear inexpensive, but have drums that need replacing after a few thousand copies and toner cartridges that cost almost as much as the printer.

Scanner: These days a scanner is a necessity, especially if you plan to build and run your own website. Go for the best you can find within your budget: you will probably be using it to scan images for your books and quality is important. Reliable brand names include Agfa, Heidelberg, Microtek and Epson. Prices are dropping all the time but you can get a good scanner that will do everything you need for between £300-£750. Search the web; shop around. 1200dpi (dots per inch) x 600dpi – or more – is what you should be aiming for. Try and find one that comes with a full version of Adobe Photoshop and an OCR (optical character recognition) program. It’s worth paying extra for full versions of these programs as this is usually the cheapest way to get them and you’re going to need both anyway. ‘Lite’ after a program’s name means it is a reduced version and will often lack the very function you’ll need most. It is usually possible to upgrade later, but this costs more and will invariably turn out to be a false economy.

CD-burner: or CD-RW, as they’re often called. You will eventually be sending a large amount of information (text and picture files can be huge) to printers and others and I’ve found that the best method is to burn it on to CDs. These days everyone has a CD-player and burners can be had for a hundred pounds or so, with decent quality CDs now only costing a few pence each. Of course, files don’t have to be sent by CD; other media are available. In our time we’ve used Syquest and Zip disks and even – in the old, old days – floppies. Discuss your requirements with your dealer and see what the other options are, but expect to end up with a CR-RW.

The Technical Stuff: B. Software
Having got the hardware, you will need to invest in some software to run on your computer. It is unlikely that any of the stuff that came bundled free will be of any use in book production, except maybe a word processing program, if you’re very lucky.

What you’re definitely going to need are programmes to help with:

Page layout
Manipulating photographs
Converting scanned words to text (OCR)
Professional software is expensive and some independent publishers rely on pirated versions, ‘borrowed’ from someone else. This is undoubtedly cheaper than buying your own, but there are several major drawbacks to using unauthorised software. First, you won’t have a manual or be able to access telephone helplines or online help. You also won’t be party to information on upgrades or hear about bugs that may need fixing. You may also need to reinstall the software and that can be tricky unless you’ve got the original disks. Also, ‘borrowed’ software is deemed to be stolen software and the firms that develop it are getting more and more successful at finding out who’s using it without authorisation and tracking them down. If you can possibly afford it, it’s always wise to pay for whatever software you use.

Page layout: At The Do-Not Press we use QuarkXPress and throughout these articles that’s what I’ll be referring to. If you intend to use other software, don’t worry, they all work pretty much the same and I don’t intend making this a Quark workshop. The main problem with Quark is that it’s expensive – anything from £500-£850 in Britain – but it’s certainly the best programme for producing books and general artwork. Just about every serious publisher and designer uses it. Alternatives – all cheaper, some significantly so – include Adobe InDesign, FrameMaker and PageMaker, Corel Ventura and Microsoft Publisher.

Manipulating photographs: The programme everybody uses is Adobe Photoshop, which does just about everything you could ever want, including organise scanning, retouching and resizing photographs, changing files from one format to another, altering colours, file sizes and so on. Other programmes do parts of this but only Photoshop does it all. For creating illustrations and logos you’ll need something like Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia Freehand or CorelDRAW, but we tend to get by just using Photoshop and Macromedia Fireworks, which is primarily a web utility and something we have already. The ‘Lite’ version of Photoshop is OK for scanning, but lacks several major functions of its big brother.

OCR: stands for ‘optical character recognition’ and it’s software that, used with a scanner, can turn a manuscript or book into editable text. Very useful if you don’t want to type in lots of copy yourself. But don’t think it’s that simple. Although the technology has been around for years, it tends to be something of a hit-or-miss process, and unless the original is clear, fairly large print and typeset, you can forget that ‘99% accuracy’ the ads claim. The golden rule of OCR work is checking. You must proof-read the results carefully, no matter how clean the text may have appeared. The best software includes OmniPage Pro, Textbridge Pro and Presto! OCR Pro. The ‘pro’ in the name is important: it stands for ‘professional’ and means that you’re more likely to get good results. To get cheap OCR software if you intend to be serious about publishing would be a false economy. The ‘lite’ versions that come with scanners are fine as far as they go, but they’re obviously not as good or as useful as the ‘pro’ versions.

Well, that’s about it for computer hardware and software. We’ve covered just all you need to get started in publishing. There’s a lot more you’ll want, but that’s another story…

More information next time…
© Jim Driver, September 2002