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On a minimal budget

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What’s the least you have to spend on electronics to produce a book?

Many writers who happen not to own the latest and greatest of personal computers ponder the question. Writers on the CreateSpace board days ago asked, “What is the cheapest laptop I can buy that will run everything I need for publishing on CreateSpace?” and “Will a chromebook do everything I need to publish in CreateSpace?”

There are benefits to spending more than the minimum if you can afford it. Faster computers with more memory will help speed the process, and the best software can be a good investment. You may have special software needs if your book is unusual in design, or relies heavily on artwork or special layout. Many people will find a new midrange Windows laptop computer, at about $300 to $700, a practical price. Bear in mind that some of the software you may need, such as Microsoft Word and anti-virus programs, could double that cost.

If this is your first book or if you’re planning complex or artistic design or layout, you’d probably be better off spending the money working with a good professional designer (thereby making use of their equipment).

Most books, including nearly all adult fiction, have simple design needs, and word processing doesn’t require much computing power.

What are the must-haves for your computer?

Get you online. It should come equipped with a web browser (like Internet Explorer or the newer Microsoft Edge, or Safari or Firefox or Chrome) to allow you to visit and interact with websites, and exchange messages including email. You need this for everything from research to most kinds of marketing, as well as transmitting your book files for production.

Produce a file in the .doc or .docx (Microsoft Word) format. Documents in this format are the preferred way to submit files for many types of e-Books (for Kindle, Apple, Nook and others) and some print books. A text saved in .doc format is the first step toward publication.

Microsoft Word will produce documents in these formats, of course. If it isn’t already there, you don’t necessarily have to shell out for a new license. Several other word processing programs will convert documents from their own format to the familiar .doc (or even .docx). If you don’t have word, you can pay a monthly fee to use Office 365, which is the Office suite (including Word) online. There’s also the simpler, and free, Googledocs, which lets you save your documents in several formats including Word. It will work for writing text, but not well enough for design.

Another free and definitely useful option is LibreOffice, which includes a batch of programs similar to Microsoft Office – and for free. For almost a decade I’ve used LibreOffice more than anything else for my writing and book work. It does most of what Microsoft Word does, and it can read Word (.doc) files and create them as well. LibreOffice works in Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.

Produce a PDF file. You need to be able to produce PDF files – portable document files which consist of images that can be read on almost any kind of computer. Making PDF files can be a little more costly, especially if you buy the full Adobe Acrobat program (and not just their widely-used reader). Software for reading the files is available for free in all sorts of systems. For Windows, the reader produced by Adobe Acrobat is the standard. The Mac (pple) version of Microsoft Word does include a PDF converter.

There are free alternatives. LibreOffice is one of several applications that lets you create a PDF with a push of a single button. PDF files are the preferred way to submit many kinds of files, such as the interior and cover files for CreateSpace print books. And there are online PDF converters, which allow you to upload a Word file and get a PDF file in return. PDF Converter, Online2PDF and Docupub are among the more popular conversion services.

Manipulate images. If you’re starting out with your first or second book, you may simply hire a designer to help with your art work. But at some point you probably will need help with manipulating images – cropping or re-sizing them, sharpening them, adding text, or doing other things. If your needs are simple, simpler image programs can help. A downloadable free option available for nearly all computers is the Gimp Image Editor, which does much of what expensive programs like Photoshop can do.

For basic image work, you can use free online image tools. My favorite, a regular stop, is called Pixlr Express, which lets you crop, brighten, sharpen and otherwise adjust photos and other images.

Paper printing might be helpful but often not necessary. If you’ll only be needing a very limited number of copies, consider putting your file on a thumb drive and printing them at an office supply store (like Staples or Office Max) or a copy shop.

You can do all this with a small, inexpensive laptop computer. We’re not quite to the point that a smart phone could do the job, and most tablets would would not support all the software you need – standards are changing, however. Good used or refurbished laptops often can be had for little more than $100 on places like Craigslist. Get a demonstration, especially of their wifi capabilities, before buying.

What about Chromebooks? These are small, mostly inexpensive computers which rely heavily on the Chrome browsers (produced by Google), which are intended to be used mainly in connection with online sites. New Chromebooks with smaller screens often are priced below $200.

Chromebooks are unusual among laptop computers: They are designed to be used almost exclusively online.

On the CreateSpace board, one writer suggested, “you might decide that using a Chromebook to support a publishing venture is a bit like using chopsticks to eat soup. However, if you do go down this path, you will probably end up looking at rollapp.com. The people there have a business model in which they provide cloud versions of free open source software like OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape and Sumatra (to name a relevant few) for a small monthly charge.”

Suppose you have an empty (but functional) computer, and no software, and a very tight budget? You can – for free – load the operating system called Linux onto your computer, and it comes with word processors, browsers and many other kinds of software already loaded in. (LibreOffice, for example, is included as a standard feature in most versions of Linux.) I’ve been using Linux and its software for most of my work for more than a decade.

Getting what you need on the skimpiest of budgets can require more work, but it can certainly be done.