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July 10th, 2002
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  An Open Source business opportunity: Software for writers  
Tuesday July 09, 2002 - [ 05:25 PM GMT ]   Print this Article
Topic - Business
- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
There are millions of people who either write for a living or would like to, and these millions represent a potentially lucrative market for developers who want to look at writers' software needs and fill them at a reasonable price. Best of all, there is no need for a developer who wants to tap this market to write much code from scratch. OpenOffice is a fine base for writers' software, especially for a developer who realizes that professional writers need software that will help them do more than just pound out words.

Different writers need different tools

I've attended more than a few writers' group meetings in my time, and mentally I break writers into three categories:

  • Pure artists. They write poetry, short stories, or relationship-based movie scripts, and have little or no chance of making a living selling their work (although they may not realize this). Artist-writers tend to spend a lot of time trying to figure out where to submit work for publication or production, and just as much time wondering what they can do to get editors' or producers' attention.

  • Aspiring writers. These are the ones who try to write non-fiction articles, "commercial" fiction, and scripts for movies or TV shows that fall into genre categories easily understood by mainstream producers. They obsess over rejections, but exhort each other to keep trying in face-to-face groups, online forums, and in the pages of magazines like Writer's Digest. The reality is that most of the people in this category can't write very well, but they buy lots of books, magazines and software they hope will help them improve or find better markets for their work. Enough in this category gut it out and succeed to give others hope. Great market here!

  • Working writers. Go to a meeting of working writers (or get on one of the many writers' email lists) and you hear discussions about which publishers or producers are buying what from whom, and who pays how much and how promptly. Suddenly the majority of talk is about the business of writing, not about writing, because everyone in these groups has already learned how to write.

Obviously all three categories of writers need basic word processing, spell checking, and other text-production utilities to function. Screenwriters need specific formats -- really just templates that could be made rather easily for OpenOffice and inserted into the menus so that they would be easy to find and open. Writers who specialize in other media may also want specialized templates. For instance, many book and article writers would rather have a "galley" format that puts all text into an endless file rather than breaking it up page by page as OpenOffice does by default.

Another thing both professional and aspiring writers need is a flexible word count utility, one that displays a running total, can leave certain words or blocks of words (like title and other "header" information) out of that count, and can rapidly count highlighted blocks of text. Many writers get paid by the word, and even newspaper and magazine staff writers who get salaries must often write articles that are as close as possible to 700, 1,000, 1,500 or some other arbitrary number of words in length.

An alternative length determination option that would be a real sales feature for many writers and editors would be a "column inches" or "column centimeters" count that could be set to match a given publication's style. Quite often, especially near deadline, publications are juggling space tightly. A staff writer or editor may need to fit four articles into a given amount of space quickly, and might be juggling lengths of all four articles while a layout person is screaming at them to hurry up. A word processing program that could be set to match that publication's column width, and used a font with the same character sizes and spacing the publication used and display a running "column inches" total, would be an invaluable tool for rushed editorial people. (This feature would certainly help spur mass sales to newspaper and magazine publishing companies.)

There are other features I'm sure other writers and editors might need, and a programmer who wanted to make a living selling software to writers ought to poll writers to see what those features might be. There are plenty of writer's Web sites and online discussion groups around. Doing this bit of market research would cost nothing except time.

The business side of writing

Writing is a business. A professional freelance writer sends out article queries and expects to get responses from editors about them within a reasonable period of time. "Reasonable" can vary from publication to publication. Because many writers do not like to submit the same story idea to more than one editor at a time, tracking submissions is essential. The OpenOffice spreadsheet utility could easily be modified to do submission tracking.

The next phase of the writing business is turning out work on time. A professional writer -- either staff or freelance -- is often juggling many deadlines. Freelancers, especially, need to keep close track of what is due when, and to schedule their time appropriately. The more work a freelancer can turn out, the more money he or she earns. But deadline-blowing is a sure way to irritate editors and get them to stop giving you assignments. It's a juggling act for the freelancer, and software that could make it easier is good, especially if that software is part of a single "Writing Software" package that can do many other things too, all for one low price.

One of those other things, of course, must be billing and collection. Some publishers pay quickly, and some don't. Some require invoices in a particular format, others don't really care. Some publications pay "on acceptance" while others don't pay until an article is published, and in the case of many magazines, an article may not run for months after it is accepted, so it is easy for a busy writer to forget who is supposed to pay how much when. A single, easy-to-use application that could handle a writer's submissions, acceptance, billing, and collections tracking would be wonderful, especially if it could generate invoices and print envelopes (which OpenOffice can), and a utility or plugin that could track expenses and assign them to individual articles might also be nice, although it might be wise to ask some of those writers' group denizens if this is truly necessary -- or if there are other business-type features they feel are more important.

Already a proven marketplace

There is no shortage of "writers' software" already available for sale. A glance at the Writers SuperCenter site will show you lots of opportunities I haven't mentioned. Note that all almost all of these programs assume a writer uses something like MS Word as his or her basic word processor, and it really isn't a particularly good one for writers. There has been surprisingly little work done to make a true "Writers' Word Processor," and I believe one would sell rather well, especially if it was a true standalone program based on OpenOffice that could sell for less than MS Word or MS Office, and would sell even better if it was priced at $99 or less, which ought to be an entirely achievable price.

Remember, OpenOffice runs happily on both Linux and Windows, and a Mac OS X version is coming soon, so any writers' program based on it could be truly cross-platform. This is good. Since many writers -- especially aspiring ones -- don't have a lot of money, the idea that they can get a cheap writing and word processing program instead of springing for expensive Microsoft products is a huge advantage, especially if that program is better for a writer's needs than Ms Word or MS Office.

"Better than" is the key. Not "nearly as good as, but cheaper," but better. Price is not everything. For professional writers, especially, the quality of a tool can be more important than its cost, and the smart ones will happily pay for the best tools, just as professional mechanics learn, through sad experience, to buy the best tools, not the cheapest ones -- and also learn that the best tools are not necessarily the ones with the highest price tags.

There is a happy medium in here somewhere. I don't know where it is. This is why I keep saying the thing to do before writing code is to get on writers' email lists and ask questions. One of those questions should be, "How much is this feature worth to you?"

One of many niches

This essay has focused on one little market niche, and one particular piece of Open Source software. How many similar needs waiting to be filled are out there? How many Open Source programs work well but lack features needed to make them commercially viable, features that could become "add on" software that wouldn't violate the base program's Open Source or Free Software license? More people need to be asking this question -- and answering it, and the people who need to be doing the most asking and answering are those who are doing the original Open Source development, because they deserve to reap the fruits of their labors more than anyone else.

More money going to Open Source developers is good. There are also many pieces of software the rest of the world could use that can be developed more rapidly and inexpensively from an Open Source base than from a proprietary software base.

I see this as the next wave in Open Source development. It's really already here. Now it needs to spread, and it will, without a great deal of prompting, because it makes absolute economic sense for both developers and users.


( Post a new comment )

Bugzilla      (#18831)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 13:40

Robin, have you filed this report on OpenOffice's Bugzilla yet or what?  ;-)
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

scriptwriting software      (#18832)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 13:40

He who writes a solid Linux-friendly scriptwriting program (capable of importing from TXT, RTF) will control the universe.

(I'm paraphrasing from Dune)

[ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Try LyX by Anonymous Reader 2002.07.09 22:52

Desireable feature      (#18840)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 14:36

As a professional writer, I am forced to use Microsoft Word even though I would rather use OpenOffice. The main hurdle is the ability to use templates that are different for each publisher. Some of these templates include toolbars that provide quick formatting shortcuts. I have tried importing some of these template-laden documents into OpenOffice, with mixed success -- and of course do not get the appropriate toolbar.

I'm an unsophisticated user, so I lack the knowledge to troubleshoot or modify applications. While I've got the smarts to do it, I lack the time to learn it.

And don't dismiss price as a consideration! Even professional writers need inexpensive solutions. I have to think twice about *every* software purchase, even if I can deduct it on my taxes as a business expense.
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

But...      (#18841)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 14:37

where do NewsForge editors fit into this classification scheme of writers?
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

Okay.      (#18842)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 14:48

Let see here...

To just make it (without profit) one individual must generate about twice his or her salary. Sickness, employee related taxes, having kids (yes, it DO lower the production for a while), vacation, personal crisis from time to time etc etc makes this number the typical case over a longer period, in any business in any country.

So, lets say one programmer earns about 60 000 dollars a year (quite low), this makes the yearly cost about 120 000 dollars. Now, the absolutely vast majority of writers aren't very rich, just a few are, are you really suggesting there will be a market for even ONE programmer to do this? Is it realistic? I can't imagine that it could be.

If the programmer works outside a company on his own doesn't matter much, he will still be sick from time to time, have kids, vacation, pay taxes and so on.

I'm sorry to break it to you but for the vast majority of all software charging for it (and NOT allowing redistribution) is the only way to support yourself. I enjoy open source just as much as anyone else but this is the reality at this point.

That a big companies can sell support doesn't help the software developers one bit. You do realize that people goes to IBM for service and support, right?
[ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re:Okay. by Anonymous Reader 2002.07.09 16:01
    Re:Okay. by Anonymous Reader 2002.07.09 16:08

Need quick help      (#18847)
by Frapazoid on 2002.07.09 15:24   | User Info |

In openoffice.org, when I type a doublequote
it displays a question mark.

So I type " and it displays ?

Anyone ever seen this? I need help with that..
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

What about Technical Communicators?      (#18848)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 15:48

...you know, those people who write software documentation?

Most of the companies that I've worked for end up using FrmaeMaker (for PDF or printed docs), or Robohelp HTML (for online help). Neither one does the job well, and - more often than not - a -LOT- of tweaking needs to be done to get the final product looking the way it should.

These people spend almost as much time working around stupid quirks in these two software packages as they do writing the actual docs.

So far, I've only seen -one- competitor out there for Robohelp HTML (I think HelpBreeze is it's name; can't remember the URL), and I can't recall ever seeing a competitor for FrameMaker that can do the same things (rapid indexing, TOC generation, etc.)

At >$1000 per license, if you were to write a piece of software that does the same thing as either one of these packages, you could sell it for half the price and make a killing... assuming you could incorporate import/export functionality for the program you're replacing, and you can convince people to at least -try- your program out...
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

Maybe LyX?      (#18853)
by mborkowski on 2002.07.09 16:07   | User Info |

Okay. I agree, that msword-sort programs are good for writing SHORT articles. MS Word and OpenOffice are great, if you need a WYSIWYG editor to write a letter or some other kind of one, maybe two, page text. But writing something longer is a nightmare.

I write stories, which are quite longer than newspaper articles. My texts are not 1000 words long. They are 15000 (fifteen thousand) words long.

The first one I started to write under Microsoft Word. When it was about five pages long, it was all right. After that, Word started to ask me for some 'autocorrecting (?) function'. That was annoying. Also, it was slow.

So after a few days I realised, that I had to find a better word processor. I tried OpenOffice, but the polish fonts (I write in polish) were horrible. Later, I imported my text to AbiWord. Okay, everything is fine, all polish letters (there are 8 such letters that don't exist in english) were changed to question marks. Thank you.

Being almost driven to desperation, I found an article in some polish magazine about the LyX word processor. The first thing, which differs it form WYSIWYG's is that it does all the formatting alone. It counts all the chapter, sections, subsections without bothering me for anything. So, I can now concentrate on what I write without wasting my time for document make-up.

Conclusion: LyX is a good choice for story writers.


Mateusz Borkowski

[ Reply to This | Parent ]

Why not LaTeX?      (#18861)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.09 16:57

Why use a word processor when you can use a text processor? I have had far better luck with type-setting documents in LaTeX than digging through word processor menus.
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

Missing the crucial part(s)      (#18890)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.10 1:37

A nice article - but a couple of points.

1) There are more than three types of writers. To add to your list are non-fiction writers, students (esp ones doing Arts degrees etc), academics, researchers etc.
2) Writers do more than just write - they research, they reference etc.

The type of writers software I (as one of the above) would be looking for would consist of a number of parts:
a) project manager - a way of organising documents, timelines etc.
b) a database for keeping track of reference material (possibly contacts)
c) a Lyx style wordprocessor - sorry OpenOffice, word etc don't cut it for developing high quality print.
d) a Spreadsheet with charting capability
e) a diagram/drawing tool.
f) array of templates/word counters as already suggested.

The most important of these requirements (for me anyway) are the project manager, the Lyx like tool and the reference database. Ideally the database reference would include a master database (for all reference material) as well as project specific databases, which are essentially a subset of the master database - it helps to know what references you used for a particular project. Other drawing and spreadsheet componenet would be necessary for those that do financial/statistical/whatever type writing.

Obviously the Lyx-component would insert references from the project database.

I think this set of requirements will encompass a far larger subset of writers than that given in the article - though no doubt there are others out there that would have more to add.
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

Open Office      (#18919)
by Glanz on 2002.07.10 8:43   | User Info | Home Page |

Open Office has served me well... I wrote about a dozen tech articled for ExtremeTech with it.... Everyone there uses MS Word, of course, but we have never had a single glitch in the exchanging of documents or the adding of notes and editorial comment. I do the graphics for my own articles, and have not encountered a problem there either.... I usually save my working drafts in MS Word format, and in spite of the warning about the possibility of losing data, I have never lost any. I do not own one MS product or have one MS OS on any of my machines.... I do not need Word....* * * "I am Chaos. I am alive, and tell you that you are free." - Eris, Goddess of Chaos, Confusion, & Discord
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

One writer's perspective      (#18939)
by Anonymous Reader on 2002.07.10 9:43

I'm a professional writer -- everything from essays and articles to user and technical documentation. And I'm also a Linux user. (Shock, surprise, dismay -- ha ha ha!).
Seriously, though, I haven't found any one tool on any platform that does everything I want it to do, writing-wise. Luckily on Linux, there are enough options that allow me to fill in the blanks, without having to sell bodily fluids or vital organs in order to pay for them.
Here are the applications and technologies I use most in my writing:
* StarOffice 5.2 (I'll get around to switching to OpenOffice.org soon!(
* ApplixWare (hey, I like it!)
* LyX (say what you want about the interface, it rocks)
* Amaya
* LaTeX and DocBook (in conjunction with gvim or XEmacs or, in the case of DocBook, the XMLMind XML editor), as well as something called AurigaDoc (http://aurigadoc.sourceforge.net)
* NEdit and Ted
I've created templates for the types of writing I do, and even a bunch of lame Perl scripts for converting files to various formats like PDF and Postscript. I'm quite productive with the tools I have and haven't had any problems passing files made with these applications to editors or clients.
Sure, dealing with custom templates for apps like Word can be a pain, but there are ways to get around that. You just have to discuss it with the editor/publisher/client you're dealing with.
[ Reply to This | Parent ]

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