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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

By Drew Ames on January 02, 2008 (4:00:00 PM)

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Whenever people discuss software that they would like to see ported to Linux, they mention desktop publishing (DTP) applications like Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress. But Linux already supports an application aimed at DTP users. Scribus is an open-source page layout program that runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. Is it a viable alternative to proprietary products for professional production work?

For nearly a decade, starting in the mid '90s, my primary responsibility at work was editing and laying out graphics and text in documents. QuarkXpress was the first page layout program I used, followed quickly by various versions of Aldus (and later Adobe) PageMaker. A few years ago, I started to work with Adobe's successor to PageMaker, InDesign.

From my work, I learned that for a page layout program to be efficient and effective, it must facilitate a workflow that includes importing and consistently formatting text, tables, and illustrations (both in vector and raster formats).

Installation

Installation was a little tricky because it was not immediately clear how to get the latest version. The main Web page for Scribus shows version 1.3.3.9 as the latest stable version. However, a news release from May states that version 1.3.4 is the most recent. The release points to a download page for version 1.3.4, and that is where I got the source files with which I compiled a package for installation. RPM files for different architectures are available from the same page.

Had I not seen a Linux.com article on the release of version 1.3.4, I would not have known that it was available. Version 1.3.4 is a development release, but the distinction between stable and development releases is a subtle one for those not familiar with open source development practices.

File importing

Unlike word processors, page layout programs presume that most of a document's content is created in other programs. Document authors create text in word processing programs, illustrations in drawing program such as Illustrator and Inkscape, and edit photos in raster image editing programs such as Photoshop and the GIMP. Therefore, it is vitally important that a page layout program be able to import a wide variety of file formats and precisely place them on a page.

Scribus handles most common file types correctly. I was initially disappointed when I found that Scribus would not import my Microsoft Word files, since Word is extremely common, and in a production environment, the chances are high that most authors will be submitting their text in Word format. After reading a help file, though, I learned that Scribus uses the Antiword utility to convert Word binary files to text during the import process. Scribus checks for the presence of Antiword when it starts; after I installed it, Scribus imported Word files without problems.

Additionally, Scribus easily handles raster and vector image formats such as EPS, TIFF, JPG, SVG, PNG, and (surprisingly) native Photoshop PSD files.

Tables are not handled so elegantly. If you insert a blank table, Scribus simply groups individual text boxes together as cells. You must ungroup them to add text to them. As a result, tables do not import well. The solution is to create tables in another program (such as OpenOffice.org Writer) and save that file as a PDF, which Scribus can import as a graphic.

Document setup and formatting

In Scribus, as in many other page layout programs, users must draw frames on the page to act as containers for text and graphics. For many publications, text comprises the bulk of a document and requires the most time for layout and formatting. Drawing text frames and linking them so that text can flow from one frame to the next would be a tedious task, but Scribus has a feature that automates the process. When setting up a document, users can select an option to have text frames automatically drawn on pages. A further benefit of this option is that the automatically drawn text frames are also automatically linked.

Keep in mind, though, that automatic text frames work best when the text to be inserted is more than a page or so long. I tried using automatic text frames for a project I'm working on that has more than 40 text files, with many of them shorter than a page. The time I spent unlinking text frames so I could place text from a subsequent file negated the time savings from having Scribus place the text frames on the page.

Once text has been imported, you can format it by applying paragraph and character styles. Scribus's styles manager provides a convenient place to create and edit styles, but I found its interface difficult to use. It is not immediately clear that paragraph styles -- which govern justification, spacing, and indentation, among other attributes -- incorporate character styles, which determine font size and color, among other things. More troubling is the fact that changes I made to established styles did not seem to apply consistently to text already formatted with those styles.

Master pages are page templates where you can place elements such as headers, footers, and page numbers. When applied to a regular page, those elements are not editable. Scribus handles master pages well, and allows you to create multiple master pages.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any way to automatically apply formatting consistently to images and other graphics. For example, I like to have each image use the same text wrap settings, and to have those setting be the default for newly placed images. I was unable to get Scribus to set that kind of default. Also, Scribus has only limited support for object effects such as the color of text and graphics boxes. I could find no support for object styles or special effects like drop shadows for text and graphics boxes.

Recommendation

Despite some shortcomings in the software, I can cautiously recommend Scribus as a capable page layout program. I experienced some inexplicable crashes, especially when I tried to copy and paste full text frames. If those crashes had not consistently happened, I would more highly recommend the application.

Scribus suffers, though, when compared to commercial page layout programs. Its interface is harder to use and less intuitive than PageMaker's or InDesign's. I found it more difficult to design master pages, create paragraph styles, and format imported text than it is in those other programs. One could argue that my complaints reflect a bias based on years of familiarity with Adobe's products, but the development road map on the Scribus wiki identifies several improvements and desired features indicating the relative youth of this program compared to the mature state of a program like PageMaker.

One feature that I consider critical but that I could not find in Scribus is a book utility to keep track of multiple Scribus files associated with a publication. A book utility would be most helpful in situations where each chapter of a document gets its own file. It would track those files and automatically ensure that mater pages, styles, and pagination are shared among all the files in the book.

On the other hand, Scribus is an incredible value when comparing cost versus capability -- especially because it is the best page layout program for Linux users. Furthermore, Scribus users have addressed many of the shortcomings by writing Python scripts that extend Scribus's capabilities and interface and posting them on the Scribus wiki. Overall, the development team has done a fantastic job creating a capable DTP program. With time and further development, I have no doubt that Scribus can be as full-featured as other alternatives.

Drew Ames is a transportation planner in Harrisburg, Penn.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.184.135.2] on January 02, 2008 04:18 PM
I have tried to like Scribus many times. But judging from the comments above there are still several show stopping problems that make it unacceptable for use in anything bigger than a brochure. The author did not say but from the description of his crashes I would guess they have still not fixed the ridiculous performance problems that occur when ever you try to manhandle a large book sized document. The style handling thing is a long standing problem as well. The whole interface for styles needs to be rethought in my opinion.
I am still cheering for you Scribus guys, but it looks like I will have to wait a bit longer before I can use it for any serious work.

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Not everyone who uses Scribus wants to publish a book...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 194.81.112.89] on January 02, 2008 05:00 PM
I've just used Scribus to produce the cover/inlays for a CD project. The duplicators required the artwork as a 300dpi PDF for printing from, and Scribus was able to produce this to their satisfaction. (Thankfully they didn't ask for CMYK separations - I get the idea you have to compile Scribus with this option enabled, as the Ubuntu package doesn't seem to have CMYK output included. I stand to be corrected.)

Anyway, Scribus is now capable in certain situations of producing print-ready artwork that can actually be used and look good, even if the app still has some way to go before it can match the features of the 'big boys' (which are usually expensive commercial programs with years of development behind them).

Mind you, if I was planning to produce a book, I'd probably use LaTeX anyway ;-)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 90.184.132.230] on January 02, 2008 06:36 PM
"Had I not seen a Linux.com article on the release of version 1.3.4, I would not have known that it was available. Version 1.3.4 is a development release, but the distinction between stable and development releases is a subtle one for those not familiar with open source development practices. "

WTF? Are you suggesting people install development releases instead of stable releases? No, it is NOT a subtle one, you DO NOT install development releases unless you have a reason to (Mostly development, wanting to help out the project, or a clear need of certain features only in the development release are among the few good reasons).

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 90.184.132.230] on January 02, 2008 06:38 PM
"I experienced some inexplicable crashes, especially when I tried to copy and paste full text frames."

Big surprise when you INSTALLED A DEVELOPMENT VERSION!!!!!

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First newsletter - at the printers

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.174.30.242] on January 02, 2008 06:46 PM
We just finished our first Scribus based newsletter, this is from using PageMaker for the past 4 years and Ready Set Go before that. The transition wasn't too bad, most of the work is settign up the new template and getting fonts Moved Over (Pagemaker was an OS9 version and Scribus is running in OSX).

Without the nice plugins for gridspacing (now added to scribus) it took a little time on the spreadsheet to calculate my spacing. Setting up the paragraph styles was painless but necessary as applying formatting on the fly is a stumbling block for scribus (and in some sense this is good, as it enforces consistency)

File mangement is way different, as images cannot be embedded into the file like they could be with PageMaker, but once the concet was understood it was easy to transition. Spellchecking would be a nice feature which is in the works. PDF creation is top rate as well as the built-in preflight check of the doument (printing or PDF) On an Intel Mac Mini w/Tiger we used the beta version which worked great (sluggish and a bit wobbly in fine positioning, but you get used to it) with sufficient RAM, only crashes were during quit (seems to be after a successful save)

Our motivation for the transition? We could only afford the one License for PageMaker but could install scribus anywhere (and I can also edit on my Linux Laptop, which works fine BTW). From what I saw Scribus was kinda bad two years ago and now quite usable, who knows what improvements will be made by next year.
If you want to compare look at our newsletters at http://www.hrcccr.org/pdfs.php - the January/February 2008 is from Scribus, older ones are from PageMaker- the massive size difference is due to images not scaled down before including (getting used to the new program). As far as color we print in B&W so that is also currently a non-issue for us. (Disclaimer - we don't pretend to be professional DTP people.)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.91.34.61] on January 02, 2008 07:41 PM
Nothing in the news release from May 2007 indicates that Scribus 1.3.4 is a development release (http://www.scribus.net/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=143). Only the download page seems to indicate its status.

So, do you use the stable version, or the newer version with "...innovative features and a completely re-written text layout engine..." among the major new features?

I also experienced the crashing during quitting noted above, but it was also after seemingly successful saves, so they weren't a big problem.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 90.229.251.10] on January 02, 2008 08:30 PM
I used scribus to make a poster for a workshop recently. I found it to be a great application once i learned the workflow. Did not experience any crashes (Scribus 1.3.3.9 on Ubuntu Gutsy 7.10)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.174.150.213] on January 02, 2008 08:38 PM
I use Scribus on a regular basis. 1.3.4 _is_ a development version and I've had plenty of problems with it (such as text style being completely lost after closing a document; it just doesn't save some style information). 1.3.3.9 is the stable version and the only one that should be sued for any serious work.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.174.30.242] on January 02, 2008 09:16 PM
I'm the one that posted about our newsletter. I'm using 1.3.4 on both machines (Mac/Linux) - there was a reason - I think the mac preformed better with 1.3.4. As a previous poster mentioned - I've also experienced some lost (un-resettable) styles on some text blocks but could not pinpoint where it came from; I recreated the blocks as there ware only a couple, and the issue was gone. Another odd occurrence I can think of is 'copy of' styles popping up which are easily removed through the style window.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.248.89.66] on January 02, 2008 09:46 PM
If you want to review possible new features from beta code, then do so, but it's not the recommended stable version of the product. From the first page you see when you go to scribus.net.. in a big bold blue box:

Download the Latest Scribus v1.3.3.9

Download ScribusThis release is purely a bug fix release to 1.3.3. The rationale is that there will be substantial core code changes in the next 1.3.4 and 1.3.5 releases, so the team has branched 1.3.3 to provide a stable usable version.

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Are you kidding me with this?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.171.0.147] on January 02, 2008 11:25 PM
You wrote----Version 1.3.4 is a development release, but the distinction between stable and development releases is a subtle one for those not familiar with open source development practices.------

Where did you get your software engineering degree from? THERE IS A DISTINCT difference between development and stable releases no matter what development practice you are using. That's why they call it development and not stable or production. Development = STILL BUGGY. Duh.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.219.160.161] on January 03, 2008 01:13 AM
That misleading statement referring to stable and development versions kind of kills any credibility.to what could have been a really interesting summary of Scribus. I hate to think about this article being forwarded to someone debating the use of MS Publisher, or Adobe InDesign, or Scribus and then scratching Scribus off their list because they might not be savvy enough to realize unrepeatable crashes can be expected with development versions.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.102.164.126] on January 03, 2008 06:46 AM
I am using Scribus to port over my cookbook from InDesign, a slow process since there is no way to export and import different formats. Basically, I am starting all over again. The one thing I find lacking in the application which is a must for any book is the ability to create and automatically update index pages. Sadly, no feature exists yet. At least you can create a contents page and update that, although not intuitive to do so. Still, for an open source desktop publishing program with no big corporate backing, it is a nice app overall. Looking forward to future updates and additions.

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Was there some folks with Google Summer of Code working on Scribus? Yes or No?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.69.85.120] on January 03, 2008 12:26 PM
Was there some folks with Google Summer of Code working on Scribus? Yes or No?

If so, then what affect would they have had on the final version(s)? If any?

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.73.201.191] on January 03, 2008 12:33 PM
The interface should replace the "punched out" look of deselected or unavailable icons with a grey version.

A filter for MSPublisher files would be great, too.

marytee

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 205.238.250.166] on January 03, 2008 03:33 PM
I had to install 1.3.4 because of needing crop marks and bleeds (1.3.3.9 doesn't have that ability). From reading the Scribus mailing list, I've deduced that 1.3.5 is available and more stable (yes, 1.3.4 stinks in that regard - I save very often!) but as of yet can't figure out where to get it...

There is no set date yet for the next stable release - the developers want to reach all of their version goals before releasing it. Whenever it is though, I look forward to it! It will be a fabulous program next stable release.

An important point to remember here is, DTP is an insanely complex thing. I'm just happy I can do it on Linux now. I generally use it for posters, postcards and brochures. (Newly learned lesson: use Krita for your print photos - NOT Gimp!)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.255.203.94] on January 03, 2008 06:24 PM
Using Scribus in the same sentence as "proffesional page layout" is a LIE.

Come on. I commend the effort of its autor and hope for Scribus to live long and prosper, but don't expect from Adobe's serious customers to make the switch just yet. ;o)


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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.128.249.28] on January 03, 2008 06:30 PM
Having read the article, I am surprised that there was zero mention of another alternative: PageStream (www.pagestream.org)

I use both Scribus and PageStream, but I much prefer PageStream and feel quite at home using it.

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Re: Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 200.125.36.85] on January 03, 2008 08:30 PM
We are talking about an open source development, and you sugest a proprietary one. Scribus=Free as in Freedom .AND. free as in free beer.
Pagestream=Not free as "in jail" .AND. as in $99 a Bottle.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.27.34.140] on January 03, 2008 07:15 PM
The author of this article adds further proof that the way Scribus versions are being presented to potential users is simply NOT clear. I know, the developers are EXTREMELY generous and well intentioned, but this point has been a P.R. nightmare for WAY too long.

Please accept the fact that most new users DON'T search the archives or immerse themselves in version history. They obviously don't understand the distinctions developers are trying to make by having multiple versions available for download. Yes, we realize that YOU think they should know better, but they just don't get it and never will. So it is up to the developers/promoters to do a better job of labeling the versions so new users and reviewers don't give poor reports based on their own iffy results.

Downloaders should see a HUGE warning sign that states in no uncertain terms that:

1. This is a new, unfinished version. Some features won't work consistently or at all.
2. Files created in or imported into this version may not ever be usable in other versions.
3. If you want to use Scribus for real production work, use version 1.3.3.3.9 (?)
4. Scribus version 1.3.4 is not going to get better, as problems found there are only being addressed in 1.3.5
5. Version 1.3.5 should have major improvements, and the current estimate is that it might be available in 3rd quarter 2008 (or whatever)
6. If you have input that can help the cause, please .... (whatever)


But since some users will get Scribus through packages or other channels rather than the 2 main download sources, maybe even have a splash screen on program launch (which can be turned off on demand) or on software install that CLEARLY says something like - Scribus is a work in progress, and exists in several versions at once. Some versions are stable, and other newer versions have more features but have not proven reliable for production work yet. This version you are about to install may not be right for you. Please see the options available at Scribus.net (or wherever) before you install this software. Then, if you want to install, click here now.

Don't know how anyone can keep various packagers from including the bleeding edge versions of Scribus in Linux distros and such when the stable version is almost always a better choice for end users, but that is another matter.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 200.125.36.85] on January 03, 2008 08:37 PM
I've been using Scribus for the last months and didn't found a crash, a freeze or even a barrier when importing/creating anything.
I had use PageMaker since 4.0, the last one was 7.0 (not for my choice) and after start using Scribus i have made it my first choice on DTP. I used 1.3.3.8, 1.3.3.9 and now 1.3.3.10svn without a single issue. I had 1.3.4 installed for about 6 hours and find too many bugs, crashes and general issues, so i downloaded 1.3.3.10svn and back to normal. Scribus has my 100% recomendation, at least 1.3.3.9, because 10svn has only 3 days on my computer.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.27.34.140] on January 03, 2008 09:05 PM
Agreed that 1.3.3.9 is superb for my uses. The real question is how to get NEW users to understand the real-world distinctions between the stable release and the development versions without making them do research. Keep it simple to understand the versions, or Scribus will keep alienating users and reviewers who don't like what they see. Even if their expectations are unrealistic, the word of their negative opinions will spread. So make it easier for them to have VALID expectations by making the various releases more clearly labeled for common users rather than just for developer geeks. (Sexy as they are.)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 127.0.0.1] on January 04, 2008 01:12 AM
You likely won't be putting together any widely-distributed magazines with this, but if you're wanting to work on flyers or the like, Scribus fits the definition of 'desktop publishing' extremely well. Kudos to the developers for making it as good as it is, and we look forward to it continuing to improve.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.0.178.98] on January 04, 2008 01:34 AM
I used Ventura Publisher (first Xerox then take over by Corel who made it more complicated, not better, then it has gone AWOL) in the 286/P3 age to publish long (350 pages) technical books with many tables + graphics (in B+W admitedly). It was a great programme (you could edit the raw markup files when needed) and way better than PageMaker at the time. Does anyone know what happened to it? Scribus has a similar 'feel', though it is crap for tables. If Corel released the code for Ventura and some was incorporated in Scribus, that would be awesome.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 144.137.79.137] on January 05, 2008 12:23 PM
Not everyone likes the standard DTP software interface. I have spent time in DTP companies, and I have yet to have to get near Quark, Pagemaker, or InDesign. This makes me happy, because I hate them all. There is only one program I will use, and only one program that everyone else uses in the part of the world I live. Corel Draw. Two of these DTP companies actually switched from Pagemaker to Corel Draw soon after hearing from other companies how fast Corel Draw is.

Until Scribus or Inkscape start looking at the toolset of Corel Draw, they are only trying to appeal to people who get chubbies off bragging about how much their software costs. These are free, so will not supply said chubbies for these users.

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Re: Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.20.171.182] on January 17, 2008 01:45 PM
Well, there is no Corel for MacOS any more. And even longer no Corel for Linux. Scribus seems to be the only multi-platform DTP program. And the only DTP program, if you won't invest that much money (as hobby-ist I won't buy a program which is more expensive than my best bicycle)

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.134.220.250] on January 05, 2008 07:56 PM
What about Pagestream?

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 165.228.231.90] on January 07, 2008 01:08 AM
I've installed both the development release AND the STABLE release and BOTH have crashed randomly.

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.120.224.89] on January 10, 2008 07:12 PM
Thanks for the full review. It's obvious that you tried most of the features, and that's to be appreciated. I'm new to Scribus, and despite its shortcomings, I find it incredibly easy to use. My daughter is now using it to put together a presentation book for her husband's business. As you say, Scribus will be much better later, but it still is pretty good now, even though it's not up to the standard of a mature program like InDesign (which I've used, and personally find counterintuitive--but that's just me). I like the "free" part, but of course our best "free software" still needs our support.
From the Windows side...

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Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.63.56.29] on January 29, 2008 04:27 AM
I downloaded 1.3.4 today. I've had nothing but headaches for the past six hours. Issues with tables, and layers not functioning correctly. Undo not working right. uggh I wanted this for bleeds, but at this point I am just frustrated. I can't understand how you mess up functions that was working correctly in previous versions. GEEZE. Adobe here I come.

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Not if you work with large production shops

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 98.207.123.222] on February 02, 2008 06:38 PM
I do magazine work for a variety of major publishing companies, and every single one of them uses Adobe InDesign. Since Scribus doesn't support INDD files, I simply can't use it for any of the work I do. I suppose if you're a one-man shop with no real need to work with other production teams, Scribus might be OK. But if you actually do serious publishing work, it's not an option. This makes me sad, of course, because I love Linux and use it on my personal machine. But until I can work with InDesign files on Linux, I'll always need Mac OS or Windows on my work system.

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