Thursday, 26 October 2017

Scribus for print edition covers

Here’s the long-delayed article on using Scribus to make the cover for your print edition. It’s not a full tutorial on using Scribus — I’m sure there are Youtube videos covering that, and anyway, its manual and the tutorials that come with it are very good. It’s surprisingly easy to use, amazingly powerful and well-designed, and… I just love it! It’s also free, and works on Mac, Windows, and Linux. And it works so well!

(I wrote it today because someone - hi, Eustacia! - was interested.)

Why new covers, Luke?

Several reasons. I have a small sci-fi/fantasy convention coming up (the Sydney Freecon, Nov 3,4,5), but I have zero printed copies on hand. I also wanted to make some subtle changes to the covers, along with reformatting the internals of the first two. I was also finally ready to make the 4.25"x7" A-format ‘mass market’ style paperback editions. (Simply because I prefer that size for paperbacks.)

A brief digression, before I get to the topic at hand: the internal changes were switching the dialogue quotation style for the first two books to match that of the 3rd. I’d held off for years, hoping the bug in LibreOffice preventing me from doing that would be fixed. In the end I gave up and used WPS to change them all. Of course, pasting the novel back into LibreOffice left the odd block of text in weird point sizes (some side effect of using ‘direct formatting’ instead of styles, I gather), but they weren’t too hard to fix. And having received help from some of the LibreOffice developers to understand page setup, I had created a good and safe couple of templates for 4.25"x7" and 5"x8" before transferring all the text into them.

One other thing, too: dreaming about offering some printed copies to my local library, I realised there was no way for a potential reader to know the story is quite dark, so I came up with the idea of including some quotes from reviews, since a lot of reviewers did comment on that. That meant I also wanted to insert one page in the very front, as you often see in traditionally-published books. For me though it was less for advertising than to warn readers what to expect.

And let’s start with a picture of the sort of errors that can occur if you don’t pay close attention to the trim and guide marks provided by your publisher. Here’s a picture provided by a very helpful person at Ingram Spark (waves to Erica), pointing out several serious placement errors in what I thought was a nicely-crafted cover for the A-format paperback edition of Harsh Lessons. How wrong I was!

What do you need for a cover?

I had the excellent cover files generated for my guesstimated size (page lengths) from Mirella de Santana, including the CMYK-profile Photoshop .psd files. You need a template from your publisher that lays out the exact dimensions for your cover: where the front, back, spine artwork goes, and what are the safe areas to stay inside. (The cover can shift a mm or few in the printing.) So I logged in to Ingram Spark and used their cover creator tool to generate and send me a PDF file for each of my books, and sat down with Scribus to make the new covers.

Here’s what the template for Harsh Lesson A-format looked like:

Now, because I had given Mirella only a guess of the no. of pages, and I was wrong in the end, I had to fiddle things to make them fit the template exactly.

Even if you have the right sized cover artwork, though, Scribus is great to let you prepare the right file for your publisher/printer/distributor. Although some people say you should be able to work in RGB images (the colour space you see on your computer screen, with its red, green and blue pixel elements), because printing presses cost millions of dollars and have a lifetime of decades, we’re still a long way away from being able to send most publishers anything other than the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK colour space files they need. Which is where PDF/X (which is also called PDF/X-1a or PDF/X-3) comes in. PDF/X is a file that lets you specify what’s called a ‘colour profile’ for the images in your artwork. Ingram Spark require/prefer ‘U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2’. You can download the free ICC CMYK colour profiles for a wide range of needs; as with everything Scribus, there are good pages about downloading, installing and using the ICC profiles, such as this one.

Setting the colour space in Scribus

I remember when I first started using Scribus I had trouble enabling the colour management. After some Googling, I found the answer at (Scribus 1.4.2: "PDF/X-3" option still grayed out, how make it work?) Manfred Moser posted with a problem similar to mine. Some time later he made a follow-up post (emphasis mine) —

"Okay, so I figured it out myself. It is important to turn on color management for the current document. This is done in File - Document Setup - Color Management. Changing it in File - Preferences - Color Management like described everywhere I found only affects new documents and not already existing ones."

If you’ve done that properly, when you open a new file in Scribus and go to File->Document Setup->Color Management, you can easily set things up so it will look like this (it’s showing ASUS for the RGB because that’s the display I use on my computer):

Note in particular the ‘Simulate colours on screen’ and the ‘Show colours out of gamut’. If, when you load in an image, it shows large patches of horrible lime green, that means it won’t print properly: unless you click on the image and choose the correct colour profile for it! As soon as you do that, all that nasty green should vanish. And you do that by right-clicking on the image and choosing Properties, clicking on the Image tab in that dialogue box, and choosing the correct ‘Input Profile’ (which in my case is ‘Embedded U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2’). That’s all you need to do.

How to use your cover’s template PDF

One of the many great features of Scribus is that it can read and work with PDF files, and understands some of the internal structure, so the PDF ‘image’ is not just one big image blob. So, just open the template file PDF for your cover with Scribus. E.g. in my template file (which I named HL-4x7-284pp-9781925430073-Perfect-template.pdf) here’s some of what that structure looks like in Scribus:

You can select each object and the corresponding picture element will move into view and be highlighted in the main drawing area.

At this stage, I recommend doing a few things that will make life easier:

1) Click about in the Outline dialogue until you find the three parts of the barcode for your book — the white background rectangle, the barcode itself, and the ISBN — and rename those objects to be something sensible. Then copy each item to the top of the page. With the object selected, the Properties dialogue easily lets you move it up and down in the drawing order. (You click on the green Up and Down arrows in the ‘X, Y, Z’ tab.) Don’t change the size of scaling at all: you want the barcode to scan properly!

It’s a good idea to Group these three parts together for convenience. And maybe name the group something sensible — like Barcode!

2) Now click about in the Outline dialogue until you find the parts of the template that show the inner, middle, and outer edges of the front, spine, and back of your cover, and rename them to something sensible.

3) Open the Windows→Layers dialogue and click on the ‘+’ button to create a new layer. That will make it trivial to flick all your artwork to be visible or not, so you can see whether all the important stuff fits entirely within the safe areas. It’s also a great idea to click on the Lock icon for the Background layer to make sure you don’t accidentally move or change anything in your publisher’s template!

Adding your Cover Image(s)

Next, insert the excellent cover artwork for your cover itself. For simple cases you can just create a single ‘frame’ to hold the whole cover image. Or you might need to create a separate frame for the back, the spine, and the front if you messed up and need to move or stretch or clip parts of the image.

You must create an image frame to hold an image: you do that by choosing ‘Insert Image frame’ from the Insert menu. Next, drag a rectangle that roughly sizes the rectangle. You can easily size and place it exactly, by either zooming in insanely far, or by going to the ‘X, Y, Z’ tab in the Properties dialogue and adjusting the Geometry by directly typing the measurement you want (and hitting Enter when you’re ready), or by using the up and down arrows beside each number. There’s also a small ‘Chain/lock’ icon you can click to tie the Width and Height together. Incidentally, the Name field in this tab is where you can type a new name for the object (Using just numbers, letters, spaces, parentheses, dash, or underscore: again, hit Enter when you’re ready).

Anyway, after you’ve placed and sized the image frame exactly right (or before: it’s up to you), you add the image to fill that frame by right clicking in the frame (or on the object) and choosing ‘Get Image...’ and then browsing to the location where your image is. Another insanely great feature of Scribus is that it understands Photoshop .psd files, including the CMYK colour space (unlike the Gimp), so you can directly use your cover designer’s Photoshop file if you thought to ask them to prepare a CMYK version for your print edition.

When editing the image (resizing, scaling, repositioning, etc.), just keep in mind: the ‘X, Y, Z’ tab in the Properties dialogue lets you adjust the image’s frame (the ‘window’ or ‘viewing port’ onto whatever part of the image you choose to make visible), and the ‘Image’ tab in the Properties dialogue lets you adjust the image itself. Again, you can (and should!) use the lock icon on the X-Scale and Y-Scale so you can’t accidentally squash or squeeze the image so it’s out of proportion.

And a super handy feature of Scribus is the ‘Scale To Frame Size’ radio button on the Image tab, which will quickly scale and position the image to good starting value that you can then later changing by choosing the ‘Free Scaling’ radio button instead.

One last thing: check! Use the Outline dialogue to click on those boundary objects for the front and back cover, and the spine. In the main view, you’ll see fine red selection rectangles appear, and you can use those lines to check that all the important parts of your cover are within the safe margins your publisher has recommended.

It was only after receiving the image at the start of this post, today, that I realised this was a really important step which I had failed to do.

Barcode (and QR code?)

You’re almost done! Just use the Outline dialogue to bring the barcode (that you copied and then Grouped together and named sensibly earlier, remember?) to the top of the drawing order so it’s visible, not hidden underneath the image you added for the cover. Make sure it’s still one inch (25.4mm) high. Don’t change its size!

I personally think it’s a good idea for self-published authors to also add a QR code alongside the barcode, containing a useful search string or URL as the encoded text. For this, I use the free software ‘qrencode’. Here’s the command line I used for Harsh Lessons:
qrencode -o QR-code-HarshLessonsBuyGoogleSearch.png -s 20 -d 300 \


which is just a way of encoding a Google search for: "L.J. Kendall" "Harsh Lessons" buy

There are also similar QR code tools with graphical interfaces, like qtqr.

Creating the PDF/X file for the printer

Your printer/publisher, who supplied you with your book’s cover template, will also have told you what kind of PDF file you need to create, but typically it will be PDF/X (PDF/X-1a or PDF/X-3), which means it supports CMYK.

In Scribus, simply select File→ Export → Save as…, and then

Choose the right ICC CMYK colour profile. These things are designed so the printer doesn’t try to put more ink onto the cover than the paper can handle, as well as faithfully reproducing the colours.

So… how hard is it?

I think my first cover, using Scribus, took me a day to work out most of the stuff above. Then, coming to it this time, I wanted to make four covers in one day (Wild Thing and Harsh Lessons, A and B formats).  I discovered I had no Scribus cover for Wild Thing — I had used Inkscape, and not provided a PDF/X!  I remember Ingram Spark at the time warning me that the cover was barely within the limits of the 240% maximum ink coverage, and a few parts slightly over. I realise now that it worked only by pure luck: the colours happened to be that way.

So I started from scratch, after having not used Scribus for several months (and that last time, was just one day in the last year). Even so, creating the cover for the B-format edition of Wild Thing took just 45 mins. For the A-format, I decided that process had been so painless and easy I’d do it from scratch for that one, too. This time, it took 20 minutes! So then I moved on to Harsh Lessons: each of those took me just 15 minutes.  That's right: four book covers in under two hours, since I already had the actual cover designs and the template PDF files.

So, yes: Scribus is powerful, flexible, robust, and once you’ve picked up a few key concepts, really easy to use.

Go forth and Cover!


seo a5 said...

The only serious free option for desktop publishing right now is Scribus ( It’s software, not web-based. I’ve used it a few times and it’s pretty decent. Of course, I also have QuarkXPress, which I prefer. Hope that helps!

Luke Kendall said...

Thanks for that, 'seo a5', I've heard lots of good things about QuarkXPress.

On the other hand, as well as being free, Scribus is available for a far greater range of systems (MacOS, Windows versions both new and old, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris...), and it keeps your data in an open format (not proprietary).