Writing is Expensive: Software

Writing is Expensive is a series of posts about my journey getting into writing RPG supplements and the tools I’m using to do so. The focus is on looking at different options and hopefully saving time for other new writers who are trying to find the right tools for the job. No doubt, over time the tools I use myself will change, and that should be reflected in these posts. I also hope I’ll be learning more about some of the tools from readers.

When getting into writing RPG supplements, I found there were a range of software tools I needed access to just to create simple PDFs to sell online.

  • a word processor
  • a photo editor
  • a graphic design tool
  • a page layout tool

Beyond this, there are various design assets needed, and tools for staying organised, but those will be covered in future posts.

I decided to look at three routes to what I wanted, a full-on professional route, a moderately-priced route, and a totally free route. Below is a table of the costs of each, and then I’ll discuss each briefly.

Software Full Professional Moderately-priced Totally Free
Word Processor Office 365 subscription – $10 a month Scrivener – $40  Google Docs
Photo Editor Adobe CC subscription – $49.99  Affinity Photo – $49.99  GIMP
Graphic Design  Included in CC Suite Affinity Designer – $49.99  Inkscape
Page Layout Included in CC Suite  Microsoft Publisher – $109.99  Scribus
Total  $59.99 / month

$698.88 / year with annual subscription discount


 $249.97 one-off cost  $0. That’s zero dollars.

To evaluate the three options from the point of view of cost, I’ll be considering selling a $10 PDF on DriveThru RPG with it being sold exclusively there meaning you see 70% of the revenue. I’ll also presume you’re able to release a PDF like this once a month. I’ll also be commenting briefly on what is achievable with each of these options, but an in-depth exploration of all of this software is well beyond the scope of this blog.

The Full Professional Option
The full professional option is expensive. Every month, your first ten sales would just be soaked up paying for software. Plus, if you don’t make a release during any given month, you’re still paying for it. This seems simply likely impossible for most freelance and small press RPG publishers. Even best-case scenario it is eating a lot of your revenue, so it needs to create a lot of value and drive a lot of sales for this to be worth it.

Capability wise, this option is clearly fantastic. These are pro levels tools that can and indeed are used to create top quality publications. The flip-side of that is that there is a much longer and steeper learning curve to using all of this software and for most writers, this will either be eating into their writing time enormously, or would be best done by an experienced designer hired for the task. Hiring a designer is obviously an optimal outcome, but isn’t always financially viable.

The Moderate Option
The moderate option would eat up your first 36 sales worth of profit, and that would be it forever. This means once you’ve released a few products and are making some regular sales your software costs would drop to almost zero.

As for capabilities, this option does let you produce and release work that can be printed via services like DriveThru. There isn’t quite the same range of options available as with Adobe. It is certainly true for me, and I think true for a good number of freelance writers, that the limitations are not so much the software, but the user.

Some would also suggest that Scrivener and Word do very different things and having both would be ideal. Word has far greater layout capabilities for instance, whereas Scrivener is more focused on the process of writing.

Note: I included Microsoft Publisher as an option here, but later this year Affinity will be releasing Affinity Publisher, and its likely that will also be  $49.99, so this cost could conceivably come down, and my experience of the Affinity tools has been excellent.

The Free Option
Free is free. This means the very first sale of our hypothetical PDF is $7 straight in your pocket and/or to pay for awesome art. That’s quite a big deal for a small publisher. $250 does buy a lot of art, and $50 a month is a very meaningful amount as well.

The problem here is that achieving a polished look is much more work and the options are much more limited. Even the support for these options can be relatively limited and I did encounter some issues with UI scaling on my display with Scribus and I couldn’t find any way around it.

What I Chose
I chose Google Docs for word processing, for a combination of being cloud-based, integrating with other Google tools I use and being free. I’m considering Scrivener for larger projects in the future, but I don’t believe I’d be getting the most out of it right now.

I’m using Affinity Photo and Designer, and loving them both. I found them easier to use than GIMP or Inkscape and they’ve been capable of doing everything I’ve wanted them to do so far at a fraction of the cost of the Adobe option, and with the ability to work with Adobe files and common file formats. The possibility of the suite expanding in the future makes me feel positive about this choice.

I’m still deciding what to do about layout because I’d like to wait for Affinity Publisher, but I also have needs in the short term that Google Docs isn’t really meeting as both my writing and layout tool. More investigation of other options seems necessary here.

Final Thoughts
Keeping your costs low, especially if you want to commission or purchase art, spend time on playtesting or do anything else that means you make a good job of writing, is clearly important.

Have you got any killer software you use I haven’t mentioned? Arguments for why I’m insane for not going full Adobe? Other stuff to get off your chest? Hit the comments or come join the madness on Twitter.

Image Credit

“This work features art by Daniel F. Walthall, found at: drivethrurpg.com/product/181517, available under a CC BY 4.0 license: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/”

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