Response to comments (Re: word processors and publishing)

This started as a response to comments to an earlier posting, but grew rather too long to be just a comment.

No. I can’t use Pages. It must be MS Word. It’s not about exporting to MS Word format. That’s not sufficient. You have to be able to use all of the MS Word templating and revision tracking stuff in order to work with most of these publishers. Their process is completely embedded in Word, and attempting to use a different word processor makes the process break. I’ve tried everything from Pages to OO.o to LaTeX and vim, and there are always small problems that break the process. (Yes, one kind publisher permitted me to write in LaTeX, and afterwards swore that they would never, ever, ever let another writer use LaTeX.)

Anyways, in defence of APress, I should mention that my frustration and ranting was almost immediately answered by a response from my editor telling me how to get around the problem that I was having, thus showing that I really should have just sent her a note when it started happening, rather than wasting 2 hours on it.

Regarding the Docbook comments — we wrote Apache Cookbook in Docbook, and that went ok until it got to the editing process, and they converted it to Word docs, and then sent us back revisions in Word, making it completely impossible to produce any kind of intelligible diff. Once again, the process lives in Word.

What strikes me as ironic is that all of my books have been about Open Source software, And one of these publishers has made their entire fortune on F/L/OSS.

At OSCon 2004, Tim O’Reilly asked me what part of working with O’Reilly had been the most negative aspect. I unhesitatingly answered that it was being forced to work with MS Word. He chuckled and said that he’d see what he could do about it. But I doubt that there’s much that can be done, because of how closely tied the entire editorial process is to particular features of Word – features that are sufficiently different in other software to make it incompatible with the process.

This is, of course, a topic that comes up with regularity whenever tech authors are complaining about their writing experiences. The tools are there to make the editor’s job easy, not the writer’s. Ideally, I’d like to just write plain text, with minimal markup or comments saying “this is example code” or “put wooga.gif here”, and then have a layout person do the actual page layout. Of course, that introduces more expense into the process, and tech books are already absurdly expensive.