Scribus Free Desktop Publishing Review

Scribus Publishing Review

Thinking about laying out your next book yourself but not sure you want to invest in InDesign or another paid tool? Try Scribus—it’s an open source alternative for page layout. If you’ve never tried, or even heard of, Scribus then you are in the right place.

Today we will look at creating a simple novel in Scribus and comparing it to other popular options.

What Is Scribus?

It’s a simple page layout tool built for all common operating systems and totally open source. That means it’s free; but with that comes the caveat that those maintaining it are not getting paid. Updates might take a long time to come out, and functionality might not be the best.

While the team that built Scribus strives for a user-friendly interface, it’s not perfect.

So what you have is desktop publishing software that will do everything InDesign can (for a book) without having to pay anything. The downside is that you’re limited to the wiki page for how-to information and the interface is more cumbersome to navigate.

Making A Book

Before you create your book, you’ll want to adjust some settings and get familiar with the layout. Unlike Adobe InDesign or Affinity Publisher, you must open a lot of the toolbars in new windows.

A single, blank page in Scribus with no Tool panels displayed
Scribus with No Windows Open

You’ve got some controls on the top bar, but many of the functions you need live under the Windows menu.

Scribus uses a number of tools panels that can be viewed/hidden as needed.
Scribus with a few windows open

You won’t need all of these all the time. But the Outline, Layers, Styles, and Properties windows are all commonly used for styling your pages.

Once you’ve toured the menus a bit, open a new document and you’ll be able to preset several elements.

A number of options to customize your pages before you begin publishing with Scribus

You’ve got a lot of options here, including using some existing templates. I advice setting up your own pages though. It’s easy and once you’ve got the pages the way you like, you can always save them as a template to use later.

Okay, so main points here are:

  1. Select Double Sided
  2. First Page is…Right Page
  3. Add a larger Inside margin to create a gutter

Scribus includes some preset page sizes, but you can always customize. Be sure to use the finish size here and select the Bleeds tab to include bleeds. You should see 0.125 in as the default.

Last one, and this is possibly the most important; check the box Automatic Text Frames. This will build a text frame into every page. If you don’t select this, importing your contents will be a pain.

Importing Your Work

Just like other desktop publishing apps, you’ll have the option to build Master Pages to assign different profiles to sections in your book. You’ll also be able to create sections in the same way you would in MS Word.

Since you selected Spreads, you’ll have a Normal Right and Normal Left Master to begin with. I like to create a Front Matter Master too. From there I can insert front matter pages and add a bunch of normal pages after.

Add new Master Pages as needed and include any formatting unique to a subset of Master Pages, such as page numbering

There’s one important edit to make to the Normal Masters—adding page numbers. I created a text box on the outside edge, the selected Insert > Characters > Page Numbering and there it is! Works just like InDesign’s page numbering.

Now you can import your contents. I dumped all of my interior contents into the text frames on the Normal pages, creating about 90 pages of text.

Pages showing imported and unstyled content, copied in from a Microsoft Word import to Scribus

Doing it this way means I’ll have to go in and add styles for chapter titles and clean up the text. You can always import each chapter individually, adding styles similar to Microsoft Word and preparing some unique pages by manipulating the text frames, just like you would with InDesign.

So that, very broadly, is how to use Scribus to create a book.

Book Publishing With Scribus

I always use a Gutenberg version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to test page layout software. Using Scribus took longer than it did with InDesign or Affinity Publisher. I think it’s fair to say that Scribus has a steeper learning curve and there are fewer resources to help. When I wanted to learn InDesign, there are entire websites and YouTube channels dedicated to teaching me. Scribus basically just offers their wiki page.

But you absolutely can achieve a wide range of book creation and publishing tasks with Scribus. It took a little more time and frustration for me to learn the tool, but once I did the final PDF looked just about the same as the one I created from InDesign.

So how does it stand up to some of the most popular desktop publishers?

Scribus Vs. InDesign

With InDesign, you’ve got a lot of features, a wealth of resources to help you learn the ins and outs, and the backup of Adobe’s creative cloud; meaning your software is always up to date. Scribus doesn’t offer cloud storage and you’ll be on your own with learning how to use the features.

The biggest difference is the interface. It’s like night and day; InDesign uses a huge variety of tools that frame in your workspace, giving you access to so many options and ways to control your work. Scribus’s basic page is much simpler and accessing tools requires opening various pop out windows. Neither is particularly better than the other; it becomes a matter of personal taste.

Though I have to acknowledge that InDesign is much more powerful–you’ve got powerful image editing and design tools that Scribus doesn’t offer. The goal of Scribus is much more focused on providing you a means to create a book, while InDesign has broad applications for a range of projects.

All of that is balanced against the fact that Scribus is free and Adobe InDesign is about $240 per year.

Scribus Vs. Affinity Publisher

I’m a big fan of Affinity Publisher and it’s my current go-to for page layout. It’s moderately priced (no subscription) and rivals InDesign for features. What Scribus does a little better, and might a selling point beyond the price tag, is focus on book design. Both InDesign and Affinity Publisher are more general page layout tools.

Scribus has general tools too; for making fliers, pamphlets, and magazines. But the software is heavily focused on page layout with an eye toward book design.

So just like my comparison to InDesign, Affinity Publisher is more powerful and more broadly useful. But it comes with a price tag (though only around $50) and has the same density of options and controls InDesign has.

Scribus Vs. Microsoft Word

Word is a fine for simple page layout. Lots of authors still use it too. And it has the added benefit of being a serviceable word processor too. But when you get into more complex layout, Word is a little weak. You can create designs like pages with unique header content and books with multiple sections in Word, but it’s not ideal. And that’s not even getting into some of the challenges of page numbers that differ based on sections or are non-sequential.

Scribus offers many of the tools you won’t find in Word, but are mainstays of InDesign. And if you’re a Word user looking for a more sophisticated page layout tool, Scribus can be a suitable option since it’s free. Best of all, like all good page layout tools, making edits or changes to the design of your pages is easier in Scribus than Word.

Basically, Word is designed for creating text documents, Scribus is designed for creating books.

Final Review

I was able to achieve the layout I wanted with Scribus. It was more work to learn and prepare the pages, and to finalize the layout once I imported my text. The trade off is the price point, which makes Scribus an attractive InDesign alternative.

For complicated page layout, I haven’t found any free or open source tools that rival Scribus. It’s not as powerful or user friendly as InDesign or Affinity Publisher, but it gets the job done.

Bottom line, if you’re in the market for free publisher software, Scribus is the best option I’ve found.

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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Thanks! I have been feeling my way through SCRIBUS. This will help. I have had an easier time with the free version of VivaDesigner. But all it takes is time and experience, and tips from people like you who can point us in the right direction.

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