Writing a Book With Free Software

Some of you have emailed to ask what I am using to write the Art Of Community, and some of my Free Software friends out there have been asking if Free Software tools were used when writing the content. Oh yes. :)

I am writing the book on an Ubuntu laptop and using OpenOffice.org version 3.0. Inside OpenOffice.org I am using a special O’Reilly toolbar in a template which helps me format the content in a way that will make typesetting easier later in the process. When I have completed writing content it gets saved to my disk and I then commit my revisions to a Subversion repository at O’Reilly. This allows my editors and I to all have access to the same content.

In terms of editing, it is also performed in OpenOffice.org, making use of its change tracking and notes features. This functionality is more than suitable for working on a book. I am also pleased to see this is being further refined in OpenOffice.org 3.1 with the ability to reply to notes. Interestingly, one of my editors uses Microsoft Word to edit. This means that my original .odt file is converted to a .doc file, edits are made in Word (using change tracking and notes) and then saved back in .odt format. It all works flawlessly, with the exception of having to re-import the O’Reilly toolbar. Pretty nifty, eh?

I am also making extensive use of Tomboy to store notes throughout the book development. I use it to have my book outline (which I regularly add new ideas to as I write), as well as other general notes, TODO items and more. Finally, I use the GIMP for imagery, diagrams and screenshots.

  • http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/2009/01/28/writing-a-book-with-free-software/ Writing a Book With Free Software | Art Of Community Online

    […] This post was originally posted at jonobacon.org. You can read it here […]

  • http://www.red-bean.com/kfogel Karl Fogel

    Sounds like a not-painful process, which is saying something!

    So MS Word is writing out .odt, or is it that OpenOffice is re-importing the .doc every time and writing out .odt?

  • jono

    Hey Karl,

    Yeah, a lot less painful than expected! :)

    OOo is importing and exporting each time.

  • http://murrquan.livejournal.com Jared Spurbeck

    I’m always fascinated by what tools other writers use! I personally prefer AbiWord, because it looks nicer to me and because it’s a lot more lightweight. It doesn’t seem to play well with Compiz, though, and it’s irritating having to choose to save it as .odt every time. Am considering trying out Writer!

    And every writer I see seems to love BasKet for note taking, but I started trying out Tomboy just like a week ago and I have to say, it’s convenient! I can’t take screencaptures anymore, but I love how quickly it loads and how easy it is to just type out those notes really fast. I’m even thinking of keeping my journal in it, an undertaking that would be very cumbersome in BasKet!

  • http://carl-uno.se Carl-Uno Olsson

    Is it possible to download the O’Reilly toolbar and template some where?

  • http://stephengentle.com Stephen Gentle

    Of course, it’s probably going to end up being typeset in Adobe Indesign or QuarkXPress, but it’s still nice to see that it’s so easy to do most of the process with free software…

  • Rasmus Steinke

    Ever thought about trying out Latex?

  • http://wildbill.nulldevice.net Bill Childers

    Wow, a toolbar for Oo.o? That would have been nice when we wrote Ubuntu Hacks — we had to use a web-based ajaxy thing that used a special markup language. It was OK, but doing it in Oo.o would have been SOOO much nicer.

  • elanion

    same as Carl-uno olson … Is it possible to download the O’Reilly toolbar and template somewhere? thank you

  • Thomas

    Great post. What are the reasons for you not to use latex? Also, is that O’Reilly toolbar available somewhere? It looks quite useful.

  • JW

    One of the huge issues I have had with OpenOffice is that is has managed to clutter the styles and formatting in MS Office. Is the process you are using working around that? That would be awesome.

  • Zun

    AFAIK, OO.o 3 isn’t available in any released version of Ubuntu.

    TeX Live, AUCTeX and Emacs, however, are. 😉

  • Jan Schmidt

    I think you want ‘capital… is not the end goal’, rather than end-game. :)

  • http://blog.nixternal.com nixternal

    Groovy, pretty much the same exact setup I used when helping to write the Official Ubuntu Book. OO.o worked well with tracking changes and was a pleasure to work with. Instead of Tomboy, I had used KDE Basket which was a really nice way to collect thoughts.

  • http://blog.kevac.org Marko Kevac

    Why not LaTeX?

  • eeeeeee

    Why don’t you use LaTeX?

    Maybe, then your stuff won’t look like shit, as office-suite-made stuff likes to do.

    (It is because MS Office, OpenOffice and Co. fail at simple tasks like spacing between words.)

    Further stuff: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Widows_and_orphans http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typographic_ligature

  • Fernando Ribeiro
  • http://carl-uno.se Carl-Uno Olsson

    I found the O’Reilly toolbar and template at….

    the O’Reilly website!!!!

    Follow link at http://oreilly.com/oreilly/author/ch02.html#tools

  • jono

    It doesn’t matter what it looks like in OpenOffice.org: my content is professionally typeset later by O’Reilly. I just use OpenOffice.org to write the content.

  • jono

    Wow! Seems there are a lot of LaTeX fans out there! :)

    There are a few reasons I used OpenOffice.org:

    • I only need to be able to mark content up for the layout department at O’Reilly. I don’t need to professionally lay out the content myself.
    • O’Reilly provide a toolbar which makes this marking up simple. I haven’t used LaTeX for years and can’t remember how it works. As such, and with such short timescales for me to get the content written, I (a) don’t have time to learn LaTeX, and (b) don’t need to as OpenOffice.org will do the job for me and someone else will be laying it out professionally anyway.

    Thanks for the comments, folks! :)

  • http://zgp.org/~dmarti/ Don Marti

    I’m at No Starch Press, and one of our options is for authors to use LaTeX (in a git repository, so everyone has a a copy of everything, just in case…). LaTeX is a solid option for a book that’s heavy on the sample code, because if the author has a script to parse out and test the code, that script will still run even after the book has been through initial edit, tech review, copy edit, and final layout.

    When you do the word processor workflow, the final “source” behind the document sent to the printer ends up being the native format of one of the Adobe applications or something like that. As far as I know, you can’t type a single “make” that both builds the PostScript or PDF pages and also tests the code in the book. And of course you’re not running Free Software all the way through the pipe.

  • http://www.jaduncan.com jaduncan

    It’s nice that it’s easy, but I’m curious how the O’Reilly toolbar is implemented. Just a straight OO plugin? If so, I don’t see why you need to import it each time.

    It seems a bit like the usability sucks on that.

  • Bruce D’Arcus

    Why is it seems that anytime anyone anywhere expresses an idea about a writing workflow that involves something other than LaTeX, people nevertheless feel compelled to ask the same tedious question: “why not LaTeX?”

    There are good reasons why many people choose, with full knowledge and good reason, not to use LaTeX. Jono provides a perfectly good example!

  • eeeeeee

    Guess, what’s used at O’Reilly’s 😉

  • James Henstridge

    This looks like a similar process to what was being used at Pearson/New Riders 10 years ago when I did some technical editing for them, although it was using Microsoft Word rather than OpenOffice.

    I was sent Word documents and had to add my comments as annotations and then send the document back to be acted on. There were a bunch of special styles in use in the document, and I’d imagine they had some script to convert the text to something more appropriate for publishing (for O’Reilly, this would probably be DocBook).

    As far as your diagrams go, wouldn’t a vector editor be more appropriate than GIMP? Or is someone else going to redo them later?

  • James Henstridge

    You’re assuming that because the text begins in a word processor document it stays there. O’Reilly (and other publishers) require the author to use special styles in the document so that the semantic content can be extracted.

    From that point on, it would seem that they’d have the same abilities as if the document had been in a text format from the start.

  • jono


    Yep, someone else re-creates the images later. :)

    Thank god, I have the artistic talent of a rubber hammer. :)

  • http://zgp.org/~dmarti/ Don Marti

    You can extract and run the sample code from the word processor document, but the word processor document isn’t the source of the final pages that go to the printer. The files that go to the printer comes from the DTP application, and additional corrections get applied at that stage.

  • http://blog.nixternal.com nixternal

    @James – ya, and Pearson still does it that way. Plus using OO.o makes it much easier to share the workload between a team a people as well since you can track the changes. Also the nice thing about using OO.o is the change tracker works very well between OO.o and MS Office, because some times people feel compelled to use MS Word, typically on the other end in my experiences.

    I will say though, LaTeX FTW! I use it all of the time including my presentations :)

  • http://blog.kevac.org Marko Kevac

    And a little bit of off topic. When I reply, I want to get all other replies on my email. Also, sometimes I want replies to my email even if I don’t reply. Seams that your blog can’t do that :-(

  • http://www.codeistry.com/ Duncan Lock

    So, having read your previous posts on the community book along with this one, it seems you’re writing this book on your own? You have said that you’re taking comments from the community and may incorporate (some) of them but that is still basically writing a book about community, on your own.

    How about using a community process to write a book? A real, fully collaborative process, to write a ‘proper’ book, which gets published and the ‘profits’ shared amongst the authors. Software tools for fully collaborative writing abound, running from a cornucopia of Wiki’s all the way to checking the text into Github and letting anyone branch & merge. This ‘feels’ like the right thing for a community book; even if it didn’t work, that alone would be instructive, I think.

    Is there a good reason why you choose not to do this?

    Maybe the answers to this are ‘money issues’, ‘legal/copyright issues’, ‘publishers don’t do that’, or something equally prosaic, but I’d be interested to hear what you think.

    Thanks! Dunc

  • jono

    Heya Duncan,

    Nice idea, but there are many reasons why this is difficult.

    First of all, writing a completely collaborative book in itself is impossibly difficult. I have worked before on similar projects and they never really work out. Its a lot harder than you would imagine to do and is not just a case of setting up a wiki. Style guidelines, consistency of tone, deciding on an outline, sticking to that outline, avoid biased opinion, avoiding conflicting opinion: all of these are challenges. I am not saying it impossible, but it is bloody hard, and as I allude to later, I just don’t have the time to coordinate this with my other commitments.

    Secondly, and to be frank, I wanted to write my own book. This is for two reasons. First, I want to define the topics and concepts that my experience has taught works well, but to expand and illustrate on these topics with stories from others. Many of the stories that I have received have done this well. Secondly, as I said earlier, I simply don’t have time to coordinate a full collaborative book writing project. Its hard enough to write a full book in three months, let alone coordinating a community to write that book, so I needed to make a decision simply based on time.

    Thirdly, the money is complex. I am not getting paid much of an advance for this book (most books don’t pay well): the reason I am doing it is because I want to write the book. In a full collaborative project this would be a nightmare. How would you split the money? Based on word count? What about sections that don’t need much writing but lots of research? If you paid based on time, how would you count the time? Also, how would you actually pay people? Wire transfers are expensive. How do you deal with tax for all of these contributors, and in different countries? What about tiny contributions: if someone writes a paragraph and they earned $1, how exactly can you wire that? This is a huge burden for a publisher and the project leader to track.

    Not everything needs a community approach. This is a book that distils my experience and illustrates much of that insight with a variety of stories. Its one take on community that people can either buy or download for free. Sounds like a reasonable deal to me. :)


  • http://gos-gos.blogspot.com mr.gos

    that’s nice… i also you use it to do my works. thanks…

  • http://planet.open-fonts.org yosch

    Another promising book writing effort!

    So you’re using FLOSS tools in your writing workflow and you negociated a particular Creative Commons license for the release of book itself…

    The next step is probably investigating how you can convince O’reilly to make use of a non-restricted font in the final typesetting itself (regardless of the internal toolset they choose to use): picking font software under a community-recognized FLOSS license seems right for the content of such a book. I highly recommend an open font coming out of the collaborative community process as described in the book itself. It sends the right message.

    There are quite a few quality open fonts that should fit your needs in the Europe tab of: http://unifont.org/fontguide/

    We’ve worked on packaging them in Debian upstream and/or in Ubuntu.

    How about being the first O’reilly author whose book has a colophon mentioning open fonts being used instead of the usual restricted ones? Wouldn’t that validate the premise of the book and set a great precedent?

    Or maybe you’re OK with the deeply ironic contradiction of advocating a collaborative community model with restricted means of expression…

    Think about it.

    Here’s an example of a colophon mentioning an open font: “The Cultural significance of Free Software” http://twobits.net/cover/

  • http://scottnesbitt.net/ubuntublog/?p=368 It’s not the tool …

    […] (and definitely won’t be the last), Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon is writing a book using free software. Specifically, he’s using OpenOffice.org Writer in conjunction with a template supplied by […]

  • http://www.dvorak.org/blog Rob Enderle

    I am writing the book on an Ubuntu >laptop and using OpenOffice.org version 3.0.

    So basically, youve been doing the same thing my 70 year old mum has been doing for 3-4 years now? How avant garde you are.

    And its not an Ubuntu laptop. You meant to say its a Mac laptop running Ubuntu, you freedom hater ;-0

  • http://www.gnuvox.info/2009/02/scrivere-libri-con-software-libero/ GNUvox » Blog Archive » Scrivere libri con software libero

    […] generici, liste TODO, ecc. Non da ultimo, Bacon utilizza GIMP per immagini, diagrammi e screenshot. Fonte Posted in Approfondimenti […]

  • http://www.jaduncan.com jaduncan

    You can’t be the real Rob Enderle, you haven’t made any outrageously blatant MS shilled comments.

  • http://modrich.com/blog Lucas Modrich

    Nice article Jono.

    I’m in the “very” “very” early stages of trying to write a book about my travels. I blogged a fair bit while I was travelling, and am now trying to expand on that and put together a book about our experience.

    I have zero budget for this project and it essentially a hobby at this point, so I’m also running Ubuntu and want to use Open Office – so was interested to hear your experience.

    I am also a big fan of Leo, and his TWiT podcasts. Have been listening to you guys on FLOSS weekly lately. Great show – keep it up.

  • zahid

    its great

  • Frederick Bernard

    I am a 76yr old pensioner and I want to write my life story. You send me your info and program I promise you a copy

    Thank you


  • http://MRoeDesigns.webs.com MRoeDesigns


    all the software mentioned in the article is free, unless I am mistaken. I use ubuntu as well, and it comes with OpenOffice installed already. You can also manually install it from the site (OpenOffice.org) if you don’t have it. As for the toolbar I’m sure you could find it on google or a similar search engine.

  • Bellakosari

    i need to have this how can i do this i need to write my project im a 7th grader help my teacher said i have to type and print

  • Anonymous

    This is a nice post in an interesting line of content.Thanks for sharing this article.

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  • Satyajay Mandal


  • Zoltán Tóth

    Take a look at https://sites.google.com/site/writeintree/ I was going to write my book. But I have not found a suitable software. So I wrote this. I created my book with it: szabadnep.pe.hu I was very satisfied with my new software. It is free and open source.