Laying out a short story collection - might use LaTEX
June 23, 2018 12:40 PM   Subscribe

I have to layout and prepare a short story collection for printing and binding. Any general suggestions for style guides, or top tips would be much appreciated. I am also thinking this would be a good opportunity to learn to use LaTEX, so any specific suggestions on where to start with that would be really useful in terms of resources, templates, and which programmes/editors to look at.

On PC btw
posted by coupedloups to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm actually learning LaTeX right now. I started last week in order to typeset my dissertation into a specific format (for which there are no templates, unfortunately). If you're wanting to try it out first without committing to a specific program (MikTex or Tex Live, for instance) or editor, I recommend trying out web LaTeX services such as or ShareLaTeX (though it looks like both are merging soon!), where you can get a feel for the syntax and the different possibilities available to you, and try out compiling and building pdf's on the website itself.

My biggest problems with LaTeX so far have been faulty installations of MikTex and Tex Live (with overlapping things going on, between those two and between them and the corresponding editors) on my PC, and all kinds of conflicts I didn't anticipate preventing the compilers and packages from working properly. It took me days of trying everything to figure it out, so I recommend knowing what you're doing OR asking someone who knows what they're doing, as apparently you can do a lot of things wrong without realizing it if you're not very techy to begin with.

Also: don't believe everything you read. This has been a thing. A lot of outdated documentation, bad advice in forums... If someone else here could suggest some good resources I'd be really interested in those too!

I'm probably very biased by my frustration with LaTeX right now, so my main recommendation is to try the above mentioned programs. Also, ShareLaTeX has a nice wiki that explains a lot of things in beginnerese. Beyond that, I've read that a lot of writers prefer the document class memoir to book, because it seems to be more flexible. I'm doing ok with book so far, but you might want to look into both before committing.
posted by ipsative at 12:59 PM on June 23, 2018

Best answer: The cognoscenti at Tex StackExchange have an exhaustive list of the various pieces of software available for various platforms. The very top rated ones are probably more appropriate for power users, but you can scroll down the list and see what the advantages & disadvantages of each one are. (Not being a PC user, I can't recommend a specific one for you myself.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:47 PM on June 23, 2018

Check to see if your printer can handle LaTEX files. It might just balk and tell you to use InDesign or something similar.
posted by sardonyx at 2:13 PM on June 23, 2018

Any reasonable modern latex installation can produce publication-ready pdf files, and to my knowledge no reasonable modern printer will decline to print a pdf.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:31 PM on June 23, 2018 [6 favorites]

If you're trying to figure out ordering, especially if you're working with many small, potentially moving pieces (like, you've written a book of many small parables or short-shorts), Scrivener is fantastic. I'm a writer, and it's what I used for ordering my last book.

For handling formatting, proofreading, and copyediting, the industry standard for literary publishing is Word. (I don't know how, say, scientific journals operate, but I'd guess they handle all this using LaTeX.) Even though I write in Scrivener about half the time, I export it into Word to print, to figure out complex formatting issues (for example, as a poet I often use multiple layers of indentations, which Scrivener doesn't represent as well as Word does), or to send to my editor. Any comments, changes, or proofreading suggestions my press has will come to me marked up in a new Word doc.

For page layout, book designers almost universally use InDesign. Once I'm done with the final round of edits on a manuscript, the book designer takes over and imports my manuscript into InDesign, I believe page by page though my understanding of how to lay out complex projects in InDesign is foggy.

Since it sounds like you're self-publishing, you could probably get away with using Word, or pretty much anything you'd like for layout, so if this is the excuse you need to learn LaTeX, by all means go ahead -- but for a book that doesn't look glaringly self-published you'll want to stick with InDesign. LaTeX is probably not relevant unless your collection contains formulas and scientific equations throughout the text, and even then, once the editing and proofreading stages are complete, the author and editors would export the finished manuscript into InDesign to lay it out for publication.
posted by tapir-whorf at 2:39 PM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I work at a publish company that publishes research journals using LaTeX. I would sound a note of caution here. LaTeX is an extremely powerful and flexible system for typesetting, but it is not simple. If you're starting 100% from scratch, it will not be a trivial task to get a professional-looking document.

The goal of LaTeX (well, really TeX, upon which LaTeX is build) is to separate the content of the document from the formatting. Since you say you're publishing short stories, it's most likely that the content of the document will be simple. However, even if you're familiar with typesetting conventions, defining the formatting in LaTeX is not a simple matter. (For example, the class files that our journals use run to thousands of lines of code. These are likely much more complicated than what you will need, but I'm just emphasizing that the devil is in the details.)

Most likely you will want to use a class file (a sort of template that defines the style) that somebody else has prepared. Look on Overleaf for some examples of book templates and see if any catch your eye. Or you could ask the publisher if they have any templates that you could use, or at least that you could start from.
posted by number9dream at 2:42 PM on June 23, 2018

I'm a big fan of LaTeX, have plenty of experience with Scrivener, and some familiarity with InDesign although I haven't used it that much. I want to echo the cautionary note towards using LaTeX for this purpose, because it's pretty much designed towards taking decisions about appearance and formatting out of the user's hands, which seems to be the opposite of what you what in this case. You *can* control all of those things specifically but it's guaranteed to be a frustrating experience.
posted by quaking fajita at 2:55 PM on June 23, 2018

I use TeXStudio on a Mac (supports Windows too I think) and the TeX Live distribution for technical publications via pdflatex. I have spent an agonizing number of hours customizing my setup, which is based on the memoir package. And I spent a lot of time on
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:34 PM on June 23, 2018

Admittedly my LaTeX usage mostly veered in the mathy direction but I love the LyX editor. It's mostly WYSIWYG but the way you (can) input a lot of stuff is by typing in the LaTeX commands. It will render most of them on the fly and help you verify that you've done things right. The nice thing is that if you're unfamiliar with how to do something via TeX, you can also do it using a menu command and then learn the direct way of doing so.

Again, I found this most useful over raw TeX when typesetting equations, tables, bibliographies, etc. I'm not sure how useful this is for just short stories as the need for preview is less there. I also seem to remember that the installer on the website is pretty good for containing all you need, so that can help you avoid some of the packaging woes people above complain about.
posted by bsdfish at 6:36 PM on June 23, 2018

Bah, LaTeX is no harder to learn than the BS byzantine and unintuitive crap that passes for ‘normal’ in MS Word. People just think it’s hard because they don’t already know it.

A skilled user can get a collection of short stories, together with professional quality ToC, index, bibliography and footnotes, all within a day or two.

It’s true there is some overhead, but that’s true of everything.

For me, LaTeX is the only sane option for computer assisted publishing of text-based documents.

You can perhaps get better feedback if you tell us a bit more about what your goals, your timeframe, what else you may want to do, etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:48 PM on June 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you asking whether to get started use LaTeX or how to get started using LaTeX?

If it's the fomer: as someone who writes almost all his professional scientific work in LaTeX, and has, outside of professional scientific work, also written books with words and pictures but very few equations or bibliographic references, I would advise you not to use LaTeX to put together a book of short stories. It's one of my favorite pieces of software and it has incredible strengths, but I don't see those strengths as particularly relevant to the task at hand for you.
posted by escabeche at 8:15 PM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I also am someone who does almost all his professional writing in LaTeX, whether papers or slideshows, and I would also not recommend using LaTeX for a book of short stories **unless** you are looking for an excuse to start learning LaTeX. In which case it's a nice excuse.

I would agree with SaltySalicid, though, that acquiring a normal end user's working knowledge of latex is not difficult and that, assuming you have all the stories ready, you could have it completed inside a week. I just don't think it's particularly worth doing unless you just want to mess with tex, or unless your stories are doing weird stuff so you need to be able to put a section in Klingon, printed on a chessboard, backwards. What you're going to end up with is something marginally nicer-looking than if you'd spent the same amount of time finding the right Word-world tools for doing this.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:57 PM on June 23, 2018

I just snuck back in here to agree wholeheartedly with SaltySalticid's comparison of working with LaTeX and MS Word. It's been a rough week but it has been a thousand times more gratifying than trying to do the same in MS Word (the previous version of my document). If you want to learn LaTeX to free yourself from text processing software with weird ideas about what it thinks you should be wanting to do (and implementing them without asking you) it will get you there! It's a steep curve but totally worth it. (And this afternoon my pdf was built with no errors! Yay!)
posted by ipsative at 10:20 PM on June 23, 2018

Something like a short story collection doesn’t require a lot of fancy formatting, so figuring out the LaTeX shouldn’t be too difficult. But I went down this route 15 years ago with a novel, and spent a lot of time in the weeds before I got the formatting down. There weren’t the resources we have now for figuring this stuff out.

Just a word on an alternative. Creating a plain text document in Markdown or a similar lightweight markup language and running it through John McFarlane’s excellent Pandoc. It will output TeX as well as other formats, and perhaps you can use that output as a lararningmtool if nothing else.
posted by lhauser at 10:44 PM on June 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rather than weigh on the question of whether you should use LaTeX, here's some tips for how to make using it as a beginner as easy as possible.

1. Use overleaf. It's a free online version of LaTex that will solve all of your library-and-installation issues for you. Plus it saves in the cloud. Make an account.

2. From there, click on "Templates" and "Books". Pick one that has a look that you like. Most of them will let you export to PDF.

3. This will open up your document. The left is the .tex file where you type your story and do your formatting. The right is what it looks like. It's WYSIWYG so you can just experiment around and gradually customise as you would like. When you're stuck, google. If you click on "Project" in the upper left it will show you all the files associated with your document. That is where you can do things like upload graphics, add chapters, etc.

I know this is only starting you off, but this starting step is always where I have the most trouble. Assuming you're happy to just experiment around and google things, as well as reasonably comfortable with fiddling, it should be enough to get you started.
posted by forza at 1:05 AM on June 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Many thanks for all the answers - they are all massively useful. Apologies for the delay in reading them - have been rather ill this week.

Just for information I am not technically self publishing. I am making a one off hardback volume of copyright free fan fiction as a gift (for the subject of the fan fiction). I have about 3 months, and I thought it would be a good project to learn Tex/LaTex, and it certainly sounds like I should have a go. I am now up and around, so any other questions feel free to ask me.
posted by coupedloups at 8:52 AM on June 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older Really really really really really hard minerals   |   Driving cross-country - should I take the 10 or... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.