The Print Shop On Your Desk

Self-publishing programs can save you time--and money

When Charlie Hayes, a sports marketer, needs a jazzy brochure for a cash-strapped client, he cuts a corner that few notice. He does it himself, on the cheap. Using a $100 self-publishing program, Hayes, of Action Group in Foothill Ranch, Calif., lays out the document, inserts pictures, selects typefaces, and keeps on tweaking until everyone is satisfied. Then he gives the client--usually a race-car team--digital copies on diskette to revise as needed. "If they need to make any changes, they don't have to come back to me," he says.

Until recently, it wasn't so simple. Desktop publishing was dominated by intimidating programs like QuarkXPress and Adobe PageMaker. But change is coming fast. Last year, 2.4 million small companies did some form of desktop publishing, up 15% from 1997, says Access Media International in New York.

Granted, a graphic artist can still provide a unique look. But if your materials are simple--newsletters, circulars, pamphlets--and if they're revised often, check out some of the recently updated programs for nonprofessionals. You could save money on design--the pros charge up to $1,000 for a four-page newsletter--and you may even be able to print it yourself with new, low-cost, color ink-jet printers. Important, too, is flexibility. "You get control over the message, the quantity, and the timing," says Roger C. Parker, a consultant and author of Desktop Publishing & Design for Dummies. "It allows you to target market segments in a whole new way."

First, though, make sure this is a good use of your time. You shouldn't spend hours learning this stuff just to save $50 on simple business cards. "You can get sucked into too much do-it-yourself when you should be on the phone with customers," says consultant Kellee Harris, owner of MarketSpark Sports Marketing in Portland, Ore. She learned in "a few hours" how to create most of her own materials but still farms out complex work such as slick, four-color brochures. If you're too busy to learn, let a low-level employee take on the task. Or, suggests Kneko Burney of the Cahners In-Stat Group, hire a tech-savvy high-school student.

You may already have the most rudimentary publishing tools, if you own a major word-processing program. Newer versions of Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect include a wide variety of templates--ready-to-use layouts that have pictures and fake text as placeholders that you replace with your own. (In both Word and WordPerfect, look under File and click on New). These can be the basis for newsletters, annual reports, and other business documents.

LOW COST. Not happy with the look? You can move text boxes, pictures, and clip art and substitute different typefaces. The downside: Templates lack some of the onscreen guides and prompts that make real publishing programs easier to follow, and changing things on the page is more awkward and time-consuming.

So if you plan to do a lot of your own publishing, consider specialized software aimed at nonprofessionals: Microsoft's Publisher 98, Corel's Print Office, and Broderbund's PressWriter. (PressWriter is the only choice for Mac owners.) None will set you back more than $100, and you'll get many of the features that pros take for granted. The three differ mainly in template design, clarity of onscreen help, and ease of use, but all offer a much greater variety of templates than word processors.

To get you started, each program offers step-by-step guidance. The Windows programs use the familiar "wizard" approach, which gives you a series of choices to create a document. What do you want to make, a newsletter or a menu? A classic look or art deco? What color scheme works best? Click the last button, and you've got your document. The program will remember your fonts and other design elements if you want to use them on other projects, too.

FAMILIAR FACE. Which works best? Publisher, with its familiar Word-like interface, is fastest to learn and has the most sophisticated designs; it also offers better onscreen guidance. Print Office's wizards can be confusing, and executing some important commands takes more steps.

These programs come with CDs full of clip art and stock photographs--from urban skylines to farm animals in silhouette--but most are too kitschy for a serious business. Plan on using your own originals if you have access to a scanner or a digital camera. Print Office and the newest version of Publisher also include photo-editing software that lets you crop and sharpen images with relative ease, but PressWriter can make only the most basic changes.

Handy as they are, templates won't suit everyone. Jennifer Liu, general manager of the Bertram Inn in Brookline, Mass., complains they look "modern and corporate." She conveys the B&B's Victorian image by choosing her own fonts and importing photos of the inn for flyers and direct-mail pieces.

The last stage of self-publishing is printing--another chance to do it yourself. Color ink-jet printers in the $300-to-$500 range can now produce pages that, to an untrained eye, pass for a printer's job. But if it's a high-volume run or you want glossy paper, you'll have to send the project out. That's assuming, of course, you can find someone to take it. Some local print services are Mac-oriented and may be reluctant to accept a PC file. Others won't handle print jobs produced by anything other than the basic word-processing template or high-end page-layout program. That said, Publisher 98 does allow you to save a file in PostScript, a computer format favored by the graphics industry. Ideally, you'll be handing out the results within days. And if no one asks whether you did it yourself, consider it a compliment.