I have an older book (it isn't copyrighted), and as a certain tribute and preservation, I'd like to transcribe this book to a digital form.

I was wondering what application to use to do this. I don't want to write it to a certain exact (paper) size, but rather something "variable", meaning that it can be either opened on a mobile device, or printed on any paper size.

I don't need any OCR apps. I will take time and care to transcribe it myself perfectly, I just don't know what application to use. Microsoft Word seems like an obvious answer, but it also seems like a lame one.

So, what would you recommend to achieve a professional, long-lasting result?

  • There are services out there that can key the book for you and proof for errors. Mar 29, 2011 at 14:21
  • Are you asking for advice on what word processor to use? If so, this should be over on superuser, not graphicdesign.
    – DA01
    Mar 29, 2011 at 15:46
  • 3
    I think the confusion is caused by the word 'transcribe' which usually means to make a copy of the content, moving it from one form to another. So you could transcribe a book with a typewriter, a pencil or any literally any application which allows text input. But what I think you're actually asking is how to encode and store formatting information along with the text itself, in a way that is independent of output medium?
    – e100
    Mar 29, 2011 at 17:28
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    @RiMMER: What makes you think a designer would know how to do this as well. Typically designers are handed filler or finished copy with which to create a design. In all my time spent designing, I never had to rekey an entire book. But, I think you are still right to post the question here since you're liable not to get any answers anywhere else. Mar 29, 2011 at 18:02
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    @RIMMER "transcribe" to me, means you want to retype the content. That's word processing. You also state you want the content to be 'variable' and printable on different sizes of paper. Again, that sounds like a form of text file, to me. If that is not what you are asking, please clarify.
    – DA01
    Mar 29, 2011 at 18:35

4 Answers 4


I'm not entirely sure what you are asking, but it sounds like you want to be able to retain the text of the book in a format that is flexible, and have some (relative) longevity to it.

Based on that, you're going to want to try and find the most basic and universal file format you can that will give you the features you need.

.doc/x is a fine format, albeit a proprietary one. You may instead want to go the .rtf route or, some form of SGML (HTML or XML perhaps). (Note that while .docx is claimed by MicroSoft to be XML, it's not really a useful XML format for universal sharing).

This is different than actually typesetting and designing your document, however. For that, you'd use a separate piece of software, importing your raw content to then manipulate it. That may be Word again. Or InDesign. Or LaTeX. Or Scribus. Or...

This way you have the raw data that will likely outlive any specific page layout/typesetting application and is flexible enough that other future applications can import and use it.

In summary, you want a nice text editor/word processor to do the transcribing part. The design part is a separate step.

  • 1
    +1: some form of word processor is the right answer, and as flexible and generic a format as possible.
    – horatio
    Mar 29, 2011 at 19:33

If it's mostly text, MS Word is probably best for a couple of reasons:

1) You're probably much more familiar with that than InDesign (my preference) or other similar pieces of software.
2) MS Word will let you output to the various mobile devices (Kindle and their ilk use a specific set of .pdf settings)
3) You can also output to .pdf for self-publishing services such as Lulu or print the dang thing out on your home printer.

My only reservation with this is that if you have any images in the document you may find it more of a pain than it's worth to try and lay images out in Word. Also, it may be difficult to get high-res images to output to your liking if they're embedded in the text flow (MS Word is, first and foremost, a word processor).

If you're willing to spend the time to learn InDesign (I am assuming you don't work with it regularly; if you do than ignore the above and go straight for InDesign) the time investment is more than worth it. Not only will you have better tools for handling image placement and output but it'll be easier to change the output size and keep everything looking nice.

There's unfortunately no panacea that will let you change document size at will; you're always going to run into issues of text flow around images and just scaling everything isn't going to work since not all of the output solutions you mentioned have the same aspect ratio.

  • I have a years-long experience with Photoshop, but no InDesign, but, there are absolutely no images in the book, only plain text.
    – Frantisek
    Mar 29, 2011 at 13:06
  • MS Word is going to be your best bet, then. You can get the various settings for exporting .pdf files for Kindle, etc. Mar 29, 2011 at 18:20

Since you're asking on Graphic Design, I assume you are more interested in typesetting / layout than "which program is the best for typing into". In that case, I recommend using LaTeX. You basically use any text editor; it's a "language" that allows you to specify the text layout easily, and there are converters to portable formats such as PDF and the like.

  • 1
    -1. LaTeX is complicated for the uninitiated, much more so than any page layout application, and I think needlessly complicates the task at hand. If there was heavy math mentioned maybe, but plain text? Not so much. Mar 29, 2011 at 18:00
  • I agree. There really shouldn't be a reason for LaTeX if you're not writing calculus textbooks. Mar 29, 2011 at 20:15
  • It's powerful, sure, but if you're doing something simple then you only need to learn a tiny uncomplicated portion of it. Probably equivalent to learning the HTML for font size, paragraphs, etc. but easier to be exact. Mar 31, 2011 at 15:34

Looking at the popularity of the gutenberg-project and their approach, I'd suggest to use a simple, plain old text editor -- shipped with every Windows, Mac and Linux-system. In doing so, you

  • don't mess up the content with any design
  • keep it simple for re-use in whatever software you like to design it with later
  • have a pretty small file size
  • are absolutely exchangable with other systems
  • you are not distracted by design-options while transcribing the book (!)
  • Or, because the plain text editors shipped with Windows and MacOS are lacking in features, one of the many free or inexpensive text editors that would offer more convenience features and still preserve the original in plain text. Notepad++ for Windows, for example. Sep 5, 2016 at 16:13
  • Very true. There are some really nice ones out there right now.
    – Sebastian
    Sep 5, 2016 at 20:07

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