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Layout/publishing software for making a low budget guidebook?

Original Post
cashmab · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 1,879

I've been working on text for a new low budget guidebook, but I still haven't thought too long or hard about the presentation and layout. I'm wondering what the best cheap/free software options are for 1) creating maps/topos, 2) creating general page layouts that are readily printable by a printing outfit.

It's a small area in terms of number of routes (about 50 routes over about 5 climbing areas) so it's not going to be a whole lot of pages. I'm thinking it will be a small 6"x9" softcover, in color.

I know next to nothing about layout and publishing software. Can I use something as simple as MS word or do I need something fancier? Has anyone used "blurb" the online DIY publisher?

For maps and figures, what is most user friendly? Adobe illustrator? Photoshop? MS Paint? :P

Any thoughts or experiences from folks who have put together guidebooks would be welcome!

Brendan N · · Salt Lake City, Utah · Joined Oct 2006 · Points: 375

Mac Pages is a good combo of drawing and writing and layout

dave custer · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2010 · Points: 1,256

Inkscape is a free & open source substitute for Adobe Illustrator:
Save often to avoid losing your work.

Chris C. · · Seattle, WA · Joined Mar 2016 · Points: 327

Adobe InDesign is the tool for the job. Illustrator and Photoshop are tools for art creation, not print. They may come in handy for creating topos or gaphics, in which case you'd probably want to use Illustrator. Keep in mind that the barrier to entry for all these tools is pretty high as ease of use is pretty low.

If you want to stay really basic and if you have MS Word already, you can just use that too. Export to PDFs and any printer will be able to run it. MS Word does suck for editing graphics, and MS Paint just sucks flat out. Check out Paint.NET - it's free and has most of the basic tools of Photoshop that are understandable to the average user.

In all honesty, you'll probably be a lot more successful and a lot less frustrated if you use Word and Paint.NET. The Adobe products are professional tools and you'll probably spend significantly more time trying to learn how to use them than making your book.

Keeghan O'Brien · · Boston, MA · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 30

I think Adobe InDesign would be the ticket. They have a monthly subscription service now so you can use all the Adobe programs without having to buy them for one large lump sum. If you were just using it for a short time it could be worthwhile.

It isn't the most user friendly set up but you can probably do some tutorials/googling and get the jist. My wife is in graphic design so feel free to email me if you have any questions.

brian n · · Manchester, WA · Joined Sep 2016 · Points: 87
dave custer wrote:Inkscape is a free & open source substitute for Adobe Illustrator: Save often to avoid losing your work.

Love Inkscape. A bit of a learning curve as I was steeped in Gimp. But Inkscape is much more powerful and versatile.
Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0

For maps/topos, I like to use CalTopo ( I don't know what the TOS is for publishing, though, so be careful there. If you want more control, I would look at either ArcGIS or QGIS. ArcGIS is not free, though, but it is the industry standard for GIS. You can export to PDF, PNG, etc.

For page layout stuff, I prefer LaTeX. It's open source and free. The learning curve for LaTeX is a bit steep, but once you get the hang of it, you can focus almost entirely on the content, and LaTeX and its "templates" / design patterns deal with the layout and formatting for you. Almost all of the open-source software manuals that I've seen are written in LaTeX, and there a couple books I've seen (but not read) that were written in LaTeX.

Nathan Hui · · San Diego, CA · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 0
Ginger Grizly wrote: Sorry.. guys by the way is there any convenient software that allows to work with all kind of HR processes?

By HR I presume you mean high-resolution.  How hi-res are we talking, and what specific processes?

John Reeve · · Itinerant · Joined Nov 2018 · Points: 0

I've occasionally made money doing design work, and I work with a lot of professional designers.

The "right" tool is Adobe inDesign for the layout, Illustrator for the drawings/maps, and Photoshop for tweaking images.  LaTeX is great, too and professionals do good work with it.

Now, those are all professional tools, and while they are great they are also very difficult to use casually.

But that's the rub... the task of designing and laying out these kinds of texts isn't trivial.  And if you're asking what tools to use, then you probaly have a steep, steep road in front of you.

I mean, if you're motivated and really have no money, then just use Word and MS Paint, and you'll have something that works.  But if you are wanting to get something to print that looks "professional", you're better off hiring someone.  I pay $50/mo for Photoshop and Illustrator (and I know how to use them)... I wouldn't recommend learning them unless you want to use them in a professional context, because they will require taking a class of some sort to be able to get basic stuff done with them.

IMO, you'd be better off kickstarting some funds and paying someone a couple hundred dollars to layout the book once you have drawings.  Print out your pics, hand draw some notes, and let a professional spend their time making them  doing it quiclky and well.  That's my 0.02.  

Spopepro O. · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Sep 2018 · Points: 0

The free (as in both beer and freedom) software mentioned above is plenty powerful for publishing professional documents. All it will cost is your time... how much of it do you have?

As far as LaTeX goes, for something like a guidebook I bet the memoir class has everything you need, and there may even be a template floating out there that you could use. The memoir documentation is second to none and if you’re new to TeX you should reference the not so short introduction to get a feel for it. The big thing about TeX is that it *will* put things in the right place and you *will not* have an opportunity to argue about it without substantial programming.

Honestly, if your time is worth anything you’re probably better off paying for a month or two of Adobe CS products. 

Clint Cummins · · Palo Alto, CA · Joined Jan 2007 · Points: 934

MS Word works fine for simple layout (photos with text around them).  It's not free, but if you already have it, it's zero cost.
Since it can create a PDF, you can just distribute that and you don't have to print and distribute a book.
People can carry a PDF with them on their smartphone or print pages.

I use GIMP for overlaying lines and text on photos (and maps).
It has layers like Photoshop, so you can edit, resize, move text later if you need to squeeze more in.
You also draw the overlay lines on a separate layer, so you can erase and redraw them without disturbing the photo layer underneath.
It's free and there are tutorials on youtube.
Example of photo overlay made with GIMP:

Apron Far Right Side - Lonely Dancer, Son of Sam, Green Dream, Dr. Feel Good, Apron Jam, Green Dragon, Mr. Natural, Bad Acid
(click on text link just above to see full size version)

Jayson Nissen · · Corvallis, OR · Joined Aug 2013 · Points: 321

I made this in Latex. I can provide you all of the code that I used and you can go from there.

If you use overleaf you might even find a kind stranger or two to help you as you learn.

Gus Nava · · Oregon · Joined Mar 2018 · Points: 0

If youre talking real cheap, my vote would be power point, it’s actually much easier to lay stuff out in than word. InDesign is actually pretty easy to do really basic layout in, but can get weird if you try to do much more. For maps, you are probably better off working with topos straight from USGS (I believe it’s their earthexplorer portal where you download them). Those topos are high quality PDFs and I don’t imagine there is any red tape to using them. If you need help feel free to DM me.

verticon · · Europe · Joined Jul 2008 · Points: 25

For drawing the routes on photos of the cliff I use Beta Creator
If you draw sketches, you could try Betaflash
Both programs are free.

Tim Stich · · Colorado Springs, Colorado · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 1,477

If you know next to nothing about any of this software, definitely start learning as it will take a while. I used to work in publishing and InDesign was the last program I used in addition to Photoshop of course. Gimp is what I use now, as I don't feel like dragging my old Mac G4 out of storage to run those. It's free, but it does things differently than Photoshop, so for me it's a PIA. You learning fresh might be less frustrated. You more than likely won't need a vector based drawing program like Illustrator, so skip that. All of your maps and topos will be in pixels. Just make sure they are high enough resolution to print, because low res shit taken from the Internet isn't going to cut it.

From what I have seen with even 2003 versions of MS Word, it could work. You need the ability to float text and images over one another, essentially. If you can find a dedicated publishing program, try to learn that. At one time, however, there was MS Publisher, but I think everyone was just comfortable with Word and ignored it. So Word may suffice. In the end, you will output to PDF to include all of your fonts and images to take to press.

Nate Doyle · · Sierra Foothills · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 39

I'm going to throw out another option and this to confuse you more (I kid, I kid.) This isn't a recommendation over the others options, per se rather, something else to consider.

Affinity is coming out with Publisher in 5 days:

Obviously, I haven't used it, as it's not been release yet, and new software may come with some initial bugs and lack some features but, Affinity has done some amazing things with their Photo (think Photoshop) and Designer (think Illustrator) apps so, I don't expect much less from them.

Apps as complicated as these are no joke to build and they are selling them for under $50 (all 20% off right now too, btw.) That's pretty amazing. You can get the deal now, if you don't mind pre-ordering, that is.

Perhaps check out the beta videos and this to have a taste of what the app is like,  what you'd be getting into with Publisher, in particular and what publishing is like in general. Some of the concepts being presented could be the same across app though, how they are done within each app might be different; only talking concepts, not how an app actually functions to allow one to manifest said concept.

Also note, these video are for the beta app so, there could be slight changes when the launch happens. Just be aware you might have to relearn a few things should they change. Like, they could move a button around or something etc.

J P · · Ashland, OR · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 84
Jayson Nissen wrote: I made this in Latex. I can provide you all of the code that I used and you can go from there.

If you use overleaf you might even find a kind stranger or two to help you as you learn.

That's an impressive job in Latex. Thanks for posting. Could you email me that code?

Nate Doyle · · Sierra Foothills · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 39

Scribus is opensource, similar to Inkscape and runs on just about everything.


LaTex Gui editors for Windows (many listed are cross platform as well.)

For example, Overleaf is an online app that is free to use for one editor:

LyX will run on Ubuntu:

Here's more:

sean o · · Northern, NM · Joined Oct 2012 · Points: 30
Jayson Nissen wrote: I made this in Latex. I can provide you all of the code that I used and you can go from there.

If you use overleaf you might even find a kind stranger or two to help you as you learn.

That's some nice LaTeX work.

I've published two guidebooks using LaTeX (see and for sample chapters), but I only used it because I had already used it to write academic papers and a thesis in a former life.  It's a powerful, complex programmer's tool that takes awhile to learn, and using it becomes painful if you want to do fancy layout like odd-shaped background color swatches or text overlays on photos.  Fortunately I did not need those things.

I tried using it for the covers, but ended up using Apple's, because drag-and-drop layout seemed more appropriate.

Maps are tricky for licensing reasons.  I have used USGS topos (public domain) for route maps, and OpenStreetMap tiles (Creative Commons) for low-resolution overviews.  In both cases, I used CalTopo to generate PDFs of the relevant regions, then added labels by hand, since automatic labeling tends to work poorly.

Bottom line: use what you're familiar with, and hand the printer a PDF.
Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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