Nature of the Task
In order to see what is needed in book writing applications, you need to look carefully at the desk of someone who is actively writing a book. You will most likely see piles of paper, often cut up and marked with pencil, and if you examine those of the papers that are in piles, you will see that the pagination is all over the place because pages have been reordered. Then, on the computer, you will probably encounter a large number of independent files generated by a word processor of some sort, mostly kept in folders according to the draft they are from. You are looking at someone attempting to manage the passage from one draft to another, and needing to change structure as well as content as it is done. If you look more closely at the electronic files, you will see a variety of formatting, fonts, indentation etc, which has been set up manually as the document was written. Ask the author how he/she likes this way of working, and you will get a shrug. It is just the way its done. However, as you start to think about this, you gradually realise that the traditional word processor is in many ways not the right tool. If it were, all this paper would probably not be needed.
You are likely to feel this even more strongly if you look at how the formatting has been done. Most people cannot at the same time manage to use the various layout features professionally, and compose. So they often have recourse to what may strike you as fairly bizarre ways of making the text look as they want it to. You will find for instance, long sequences of spaces, or multiple tabs, or carriage returns inserted to get pagination done. The manipulation of tables will be especially problematic.
But what is better? Is there anything better?
The motivation behind this article was to find a better way specifically for liberal arts authors. When one looks for software which would do a better job than the traditional word processor, this means that some packages which might have just the right combination of features, if used correctly, are ruled out because of their user interface. It is not reasonable to ask an historian or novelist, for instance, to put in the amount of work it will take to learn Vi or Emacs, or to expect them to learn the theory of regular expressions to do search and replace. It is just not going to happen. I also have not considered in any depth the packages which turned out to be unsuitable on an initial screening. This left the following as more or less serious candidates for the job:
- Open Office
As an aside, to get the most out of any of these tools, your author will need a good, large flat screen, 19 inch minimun, to free up physical desktop space and to be able to use multiple windows, and a decent keyboard. This is where any spare funds should be invested first. It will also be worth spending some time with him/her on how to use multiple desktops, especially if the screen is smaller. More technically oriented people will be surprised to find that this takes a while to get used to, but its worth making the effort.