Affinity Publisher Review: An InDesign Alternative

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Do you use MS Word or Pages to write and lay out your books? Have you found that designing a perfect book interior is a challenge? If so, you’re not alone. While word processing software is great for writing, designing a book means using a specific program.

For most, this means using Adobe InDesign, the industry standard for desktop publishing. Or hire a professional to do the work for you. Today we will look at an alternative—Affinity Publisher from Serif.

What is Affinity Publisher?

Affinity Publisher is desktop publishing software for PC and Mac that works in very nearly the same way as InDesign. The program is from Serif, a company dedicated to building design software with designers in mind. Which means they aim to compete with Adobe.

Affinity Publisher is the third program they’ve created, with Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer released in 2014 and 2015. Publisher focuses on offering a streamlined publishing experience. For users who own all three, they also make it easy to swap between programs. You can layout a page in Publisher, then switch to Photo to touch up an image, then over to Designer to fix a chart. The same file is saved across all three tools!

But that’s possibly more than most authors would use Affinity Publisher for. What really makes this software shine is how closely it matches InDesign’s functionality at a fraction of the cost. For any author who doesn’t want to pay an annual fee for InDesign just so you can lay out one or two books a year, Publisher is a great alternative.

Understanding InDesign Principles

I’m a decidedly novice book designer. So I will not try to provide a deep dive into how to use Affinity Publisher. They’ve got a great series of tutorials and an active Forum with users supporting each other. The software worked great for me while laying out a couple of book interiors (and one truly horrible cover design). And all three Affinity products are actively supported, so updates appear regularly to fix bugs and improve functionality.

If you’re interested in learning how to use desktop publishing software, I encourage you to check out our series on using InDesign to layout your book. The principles are unchanged. You’ll still be using Master Pages, adding text blocks, working with page spreads, and layering content on the page.

So what makes Affinity a different desktop publishing app?

Getting to Know Affinity Publisher

The first thing I did after downloading the software was to watch the 16 tutorial videos, which total about 45 minutes of viewing time. They broadly cover the basics of using the interface, setting up a document, setting up styles, and using basic features.

These videos are exceedingly basic and high-level, so you’ll need to use the forums and possibly just some trial and error to figure out the more complex actions. For example, here are a couple of ways Affinity Publisher is not a one-to-one analog of InDesign.

The most obvious difference is linking text frames so the text flows.

If you’re familiar with InDesign, you know how useful it is to set up a Master Spread for a book’s body copy, then simply paste in text and let the pages—more or less—build themselves. Affinity has the same capability but it doesn’t make it immediately clear how to link one spread to the next:

Unlink Text Frames
Linked Text Frames

As you can see in this example, the first image shows two spreads with unlinked text. The text on the right side page flows outside of the text box. In my master, I linked the left and right pages in the spread, but the text doesn’t automatically link to the next spread. It requires using a ‘shift+click’ (which is displayed lower left in the tooltip) to turn on ‘autoflow’ and allow the text to continue populating more text frames until all the text is visible.

Not complicated, but one of those small differences that have to be learned to make efficient use of Affinity Publisher.

What Makes Affinity Publisher Unique?

Again, if you’re familiar with InDesign, you won’t see a lot of differences. The workflow is not exactly the same, but the variety of controls and options are essentially the same.

But, if you’re primarily a book creator, you may find Affinity more intuitive. I say this as someone who has some experience laying out text-heavy books, but much less experience with graphic-heavy books like a course book or magazine. For a simple book layout, Affinity was faster and easier to use than InDesign for me.

The main differences I found are:

  1. Updating the contents, spreads, and master page layout loaded much faster with Affinity
  2. Using Sections to control design and assign master pages is more intuitive
  3. Editing the master layer on an individual page was simple (once I found the option to edit the layer)
  4. Editing styles felt more like working in MS Word and was even easier to control

Using Sections

Assigning ‘Sections’ to the overall document made it much easier to control page numbers and header/footer content in the document. This is often something Word handles poorly. And while InDesign can handle these operations, Affinity does it in such an easy manner that I was able to figure out the intricacies on my own, in a matter of minutes.

Using Sections in Affinity Publisher

Applying and Editing Styles

When I write in Word or Google Docs, I tend to use the minimum amount of styling. Usually just Heading 1 (title), Heading 2 (chapter titles), and body text (everything else). The Styles Panel looks and acts much like you’d expect from Word, but is clear and concise with little to no bloat.

Most significant is how simple it is to select and edit large quantities of text without slowing down the software. In Word (or even InDesign) editing all the body text can result in long waits or the dreaded spinning beach-ball (on Macs). Affinity makes it simple to edit a Style, and to update that Style quickly.

Using the Affinity Publisher Style Bar

A Viable InDesign Replacement?

We have to appreciate that Affinity Publisher is still in the Beta phase. This is great since it means we can test Affinity for laying out book pages without paying anything. But also means we’re not testing a finished product.

Once the product releases to the public, it will cost something. Based on the price point for Affinity Photo and Designer, we can guess Serif will charge something around $40 or $50 to get the complete Publisher software. Which is a steep discount when you consider InDesign is a $19.99 per month subscription.

If the Beta is a clear indication, it’s quite likely the average, DIY book designer will find Affinity to be a potent and affordable replacement. Affinity Publisher can match InDesign’s efficiency for print book and ebook layouts (and even cover design).

Have you tried the Affinity Publisher Beta? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Paul H, Content Marketing Manager

Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.

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Today I’m reading a lot of things about Affinity Publisher.
What does InDesign have that is (still) missing from Affinity Publisher?
Can it be considered a print & digital work replacement?

Hi Paul, thanks for the shout-out. I’ve designed a number of poetry books over the years in InDesign, and find the best way to format them is by setting up paragraph styles for each variation. That’s the approach I used in developing the template, too.

You can use them all stand alone, no problem…BUT, if you do buy all three applications and start to understand the Studio Link feature, you’ll have to slap yourself to prove you’re not dreaming. Imagine moving from In-Design, to Illustrator to Photoshop and back to In-Design, with one click at a time – no exporting, importing, re-exporting and updating links; you just bounce from one to another seamlessly.

Hi, does Affinity Publisher have to be used in conjunction with the other other two Affinitys – Designer and Photo. Sorry, newbie question I suspect. And thanks for the article. I just stumbled on to this blog, but I suspect I’ll be coming around often.

I started using ‘DTP’ with Run Time Windows (on 5 1/4 in disks) and the first version of Aldus Pagemaker in 1985/6 – when I was 23. Then Ventura Publisher, Quark Xpress, PagePlus, then InDesign 1. I’ve spent half a lifetime in publishing and design. In my opinion, Affinity Publisher is the finest, most well thought out page make-up application ever written; full stop. It is simply fantastic. I’m my view, in use, it make’s a mockery of InDesign which is now a bloated legacy application who’s time has come; you’ll use it only if you have to, but not out of choice. The price of Affinity publisher is just a bonus, it is simply a superb application and the team behind it should all get a medal for the thought that’s gone into it. Buy it, learn to use it and best wishes with your career in design; you don’t know how lucky you are to have this application available to you.

It might be alright in a few years, in the meantime use Serif’s own PagePlus. V15 if you want to access older publications, (all the way back to V3 of 1995,) or the latest and alas last, V19.

I think how you rate Publisher really depends on how you are thinking of using it. I lead a research group, and for us, many of the basic features that we expected to see in a publishing program are missing (no support for footnotes, endnotes, table or figure captions, etc.). Consequently, it’s really only a proof of concept at this point. I really hope these publishing needs will be addressed going forward. I wrote and asked if such features will be supported, and I received a definite maybe–not particularly helpful.

The other thing I’ve struggled with is it doesn’t do a great job of importing PDF files — the spacing is all messed up.

Publisher shows promise but still has a long ways to go for those of use who write papers, journal articles, or books. For magazine stuff, it’s probably fine. I hope my comments help those who do work similar to mine (in its current form, it doesn’t meet the needs of the academic or research communities).

I’m glad I just found this. I’ve done a book or two on Lulu, and will find this and it’s links very helpful.

The way you can jump straight to photo editing or using the designer (assuming you purchased these) is fantastic. It’s so seamless and fast unlike similar editing from Indesign which loads Photoshop etc.
All the power of Indesign at a one off price shouldn’t feel so good but it is, just a sign that the subscription model isn’t all that and needs to die.
I hope Affinity knocks Adobe off its perch, my last subscription to that mob ended up penalising me for opting out early, great show of loyalty, not!

I have been using the beta versions to experiment, but the just launched version (no longer beta) is astonishing: polished, extremely well thought out, and effective. And since I also have the Affinity Designer and Photo apps, Publisher gives me acces to *all* the functionality of them from within Publisher. That is a true timesaver. No piece of software has had me so excited in years!

It reminds me of the old Aldus Pagemaker of the 1990. I loved it for most page layout situations.

How did tables work? The only reason I am not using Scribus is its complete failure in handling tables. Adobe is gouging hobbyists, so if tables work, I am totally trying this. 40 bucks is nothing! Exciting!!!

Hi Matthew,

I only did the most basic work with tables, but I did a couple of Word DOCX imports (using the Affinity ‘Place’ command) and the tables were pulled in cleanly. It was relatively easy to then select the table with Affinity’s table command and make changes.

Note that these are not complex tables, just simple header row with some figures below.

I’d jump in soon if you want to test out Affinity. The open beta is ending later this month.

Hi. Thanks for this review.

I have started to compile a book in Affinity (Beta) 6″ x 9″. I understand the bleed required by Lulu for these dimensions is 0.125″ on each of top and bottom, and 0.25″ on the outer, loose edge. (Are these figures correct?!)

Affinity only allows a fixed figure that applies to all four edges – filling one in makes all the other numbers the same. Is this a problem? I imagine it is not, but would be grateful for any comments.


Hi David,

You can use 0.125 on all four sides for the bleed. We trim all 4 sides when finishing the book so the bleed can be uniform without causing any issues. I would set your margin slightly larger on the side edge (the gutter).

It is possible to unlock the bleed entry fields so they are not all equal. Here’s a screenshot; it’s the icon to the right of the values for bleed (Mac version).

Hi, my book is one of poetry. I feel I am unable to proceed at the moment as I have so many questions about formatting eg about how text boxes work or should be placed in the page, about whether I need to actually use text boxes, about indentation of lines, about line breaks, etc. Can these be answered here? (PS It would be so useful if you had a section in your FAQ about formatting poetry). Thanks!

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