My first book, on attracting women, was created using the OpenOffice.org 3.1 Office Productivity Suite. I like OpenOffice because it's free, is community-supported, and has most of the features that I really need to get my job done. Here's my experience using it on seriously sized projects of over 200 pages.
I recently finished the 3rd draft of a 450 page book, so I know what it's like to use OpenOffice.org Writer to create and edit a significant work with over 30 chapters, a two-level table of contents, and several pictures. I also used OpenOffice.org Draw for the cover design, and PDF export to generate files to send to Lulu for printing. I was pleased to find that OpenOffice.org was up to the task, but there were a few quirks I had to navigate and some missing features which made the task more painful than I would have liked.
I partitioned my book as one sub-document per chapter with a master document containing the top-level table of contents and separating pages for the various sections. This approach worked really well because the text is huge; over 120,000 words. By avoiding applying formatting directly to paragraphs and using styles consistently, I could make global style changes just by editing the styles in the master document. I could also set the page size in the master document to what I needed for publishing, while leaving the page sizes in the sub-documents more appropriate for easy editing on-screen.
If you want to write a book using OpenOffice.org, here are my tips:
- Put each chapter in a separate file and use a master document to tie them together.
- Avoid applying formatting directly; always use styles.
- Use the standard paragraph styles like Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. and Text Body.
- Don't use Default as your text style, use Text Body.
- Set the page styles in your master document to the printed page size, but leave each chapter with the default page size so it's easier to edit them on-screen.
- Note that the styles in your master document override those in your chapters.
- Worry about appearance later; it's easy to change if you've used styles consistently and this lets you focus on what you want to say.
- Use Tools -> Outline Numbering to give your document structure; but beware it has limitations.
- Ask for help when you get stuck, on the OpenOffice.org Community Forum.
- Use a screen-reader or text-to-speech program to help you spot typos during editing.
I struggled somewhat to get OpenOffice.org to do everything I wanted; partly because I'd never written such a large document before and needed to use features I had never used before, and partly because I ran into a number of bugs and missing or brain-dead features. Some of these may be due to OpenOffice.org's compatibility with Microsoft Word, but in other areas OpenOffice.org appears to lag behind Word slightly. Most of these issues were already reported in the OpenOffice.org project issue tracking database. OpenOffice.org keeps improving, and some issues that used to get in my way, like that document outlining was half-baked in 2.4 have now been improved in 3.1.
The main issues that got in my way were:
- The layout engine can hang on complex documents.
- You can't load styles from a master document into a sub-document directly.
- Putting the page numbers in the header margin was tricky.
- Captions added to frames appear within the frame rather than above/below it.
- Scaling objects in Draw doesn't scale contained text.
- Objects don't remain centred when generating HTML for the web.
- No text-to-speech/screen-reader integration.
I sometimes had paragraphs in sub-documents inadvertently acquire formatting information which the styles in my master document didn't override. I never quite worked out why, and it was often hard to detect this since the difference was not visually obvious and there is no way to identify when formatting has been applied manually vs coming from a style. Removing the manual formatting information from these paragraphs with Format -> Default Formatting fixed the problem; but this also removed formatting like italicisation unless I was paying close attention.
Time spent struggling with these sort of problems was time not spent on writing. Nevertheless, they say you get what you pay for, and in this case I got far more than that. OpenOffice.org is free, and I've used expensive old Microsoft Word in the past and had problems with it, too. The other cool thing is that, being an open source project, I could get information about these problems in the issue-tracking database, vote for getting them fixed, and even fix them myself if I really wanted to. And I almost did, but my aim was to write rather than fix bugs, so my motivation ran out. I made this laundry-list of complaints not because I want to be critical or bite the hand that feeds me, but in the hope that they will be prioritised to make OpenOffice.org even better.
I used OpenOffice.org Draw for my one-piece cover design, and found that it worked well. Start by setting your dimensions to inches in Tools->Options->OpenOffice.org Draw->General->Unit of Measurement, since all the dimensions Lulu gives you are in inches. Then draw your front and back cover of the exact size according to the paper size you plan to use. Once you are happy with the designs, extend the objects on the appropriate borders into the bleed area. Then the trick is to group the front and back cover objects as separate groups, and then right-click on the front cover group and use the Position and Size object inspector to position the edge of the front cover group precisely according to the final width of your spine. Note that you won't know the spine width until you have the final PDF of your content completed.
If you want to manipulate images for use in your book using OpenOffice.org Draw, you may have trouble because you can't easily set the image resolution when exporting from Draw. To work around this problem, install this extension.
Chances are that you just want a word processor for simple documents; you're probably not writing a full-length novel. And even if you are, OpenOffice.org is up to the task. Despite my complaints, I highly recommend OpenOffice.org; and the more users it has, the better it gets.