A crash course on publishing to Lulu for $0

posted by Chris on 4 Aug 2010

The budget for the Sanctuary 17 manual, like pretty much everything we do, was $0. It took some adventuring to get the finished product we did, and I didn’t find many great guides out there with good advice. So here are some lessons I learned, in hopes that it saves someone else some time, too.

Scribus is pretty good, but only if you use the beta. Scribus is basically your main choice for free desktop publishing, unless I guess you happened to get Microsoft Publisher or something similar preinstalled on your computer. (And you shouldn’t want to use MS Publisher if you are a good-hearted person, anyway.) I normally pick stable versions of open-source stuff because I don’t feel like troubleshooting weird and/or known bugs. But in Scribus’s case, you get a better interface out of the beta, and — no joke — the ability to use the same master page for single-digit and double-digit page numbers. Yes, you read that correctly. In the stable version I was using, you had to create a separate master page once you hit page 10. I nearly did a spit take when I learned this.

Apart from quibbles like that, Scribus is a decent tool. The most complicated thing I needed it to do, wrap text around an arbitrary shape, was simple to accomplish once I found the right documentation. I have experience with Quark XPress and InDesign, so the only thing that seemed weird to me was that it assumes there is always a selected page. In Quark and InDesign, you can only select text blocks or images or what-have-you, not a page per se. This had some weird side effects at first, but once I figured out what was going on, it actually seemed a little more reliable in operation. i.e. it’s much clearer when you cut an item and then hit Paste where it will show up.

The main Scribus keys to learn are F2, which brings up the properties inspector which lets you do pretty much everything, and F6, which opens the layers panel. Control-T, oddly enough, opens a story editor on a text block — I was used to inDesign’s Control-Y. Incidentally, Scribus really wants you to use the story editor. It has an edit-in-place mode, but at least for me, it runs very sluggishly.

The main thing I found that Scribus sucks at is hyphenation. You want to hyphenate your text if you justify it. Trust me. Unfortunately Scribus doesn’t know that much about hyphenation, as it would a) hyphenate a single letter, as in “a-postrophe,” and b) hyphenate two lines in a row. Both are typographical no-nos (see: 1, 2) and make reading awkward. I don’t really blame Scribus for its failings here — proper hyphenation is an unsexy black art — but it was a little disappointing to have to adjust my layout to deal with this shortcoming.

Flickr Creative Commons Search is a great tool. Again, no budget for a real cover image. Flickr’s advanced search has an option to find photos whose creators allow to be adapted for commercial purposes. I lucked into this really fantastic photo of a salt mine — the lighting is incredible and the emplacements look almost like a real-life embodiment of our pixelly room layouts.

Likewise Font Squirrel. There are a ton of craptastic free font sites out there, but Font Squirrel is the only one I’ve seen out there that doesn’t have annoying ads or an annoying interface — and, on top of that, seems to avoid the shovelware fonts that plague most sites.

Lulu and CafePress appear to be the main choices for on-demand printing right now. This is the area where I think I still have a lot to learn, but CafePress and Lulu seemed to be the best way to not worry about fulfillment at all (i.e. actually mailing out printed copies, dealing with returns). We went with Lulu because we wanted to do a full-color manual. CafePress only lets you have color on the cover, not on any of the interior pages.

Either way, your choices as far as page size go are fairly limited — their main use case is self-published novels, so the sizes run fairly large. My dreams of having a NES-style pocket manual were totally dashed. We ended up going with a trade paperback size, which was not that freakishly big, actually. Lulu appears to have some small page sizes if you look at their poetry book options, but let’s be honest: whatever it is we are up to on this web site, it’s pretty far from poetry. That, and the only way it appears you’re able to get to that small paper size is to use their poetry book wizard, which not only a somewhat soul-deadening concept, but also doesn’t let you do your own layout.

The rule of four still applies. That is, your publication still needs to have a page count that’s a multiple of four because of how printing works. The gotcha I ran into was that I counted the front and back covers, but they are printed in a totally separate process, so the test run of the manual had two blank pages stuck to its end. (Lulu does not warn you about this, by the way.) So I ended up creating a 14-page Scribus document, saving the covers as PNG at 300 dpi, and outputting the interior pages to PDF. This shift also had the somewhat annoying side effect of having to reset my master page mappings, since my even pages were now on the left side and odd pages on the right.

Overprinting is only for the cover. Our original design for the manual had a subtle texture background for all the interior pages. Unfortunately, Lulu’s printing process is not that exact. Sometimes the background ran all the way to the edge of the page; other times, it stopped short and left an unsightly plain white edge. I ended up having to ax the background texture. On the cover, however, overprinting worked great.

Colors gotta get corrected… somehow. Computer monitors create colors by mixing red, green, and blue bits together in an additive process; the more that a color component is added, the lighter the resulting color becomes. Printing works the opposite way, since it uses chemical inks, not light beams. Professionals deal with the difference by making their monitor imitate print output; however, I couldn’t find a color profile for Lulu. So… guesswork time. In the end, their printing came out pretty close to what I had done onscreen, though the gameplay screenshots were kind of a bitch to work with, since the game is so dark overall. Because the cover is a big mass of black, I also needed to bump up the subtitle’s size, because the black ink was smearing a little.

You’ll need a proof. Well, duh. All kinds of problems became manifest as soon as I held an actual copy in my hand that were not obvious while grappling with a PDF.

It was an interesting little trip back into printland, all in all — regardless of how well it does, I’m looking forward to doing this again with our next project.