Side by side: Kevin Slimp on the Affinity Publisher learning curve

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InDesign it still ain't, but neither does UK developer Serif's US$50 Affinity Publisher demand the monthly subscription fees Adobe customers have become accustomed to paying.

"And that's a pretty big 'pro'," says US newspaper trainer Kevin Slimp in a review this month.

He'd been asked about the layout application a few years back, but after testing a copy, had decided it "just wasn't ready for prime time". Now the latest beta version may be.

"The big issue with Affinity Publisher has always been the integration of PDF files," he says. "By creating a 'pass-through' option in their 2020 beta version, they went a long way toward fixing that problem and I had some good online conversations with Affinity folks about what I thought might be causing the remaining issues.

"In their just-released latest beta, it seems like they just about have the PDF issue handled. I did find some 'quirks', but PDF handling in the latest beta version looks very promising."

Now, he says, "the 'pros' outnumber the 'cons', but it's still important to know what they are."

Pros:

Affinity Publisher works much like InDesign or QuarkXPress. There is a learning curve, but a few weeks of use should work out most issues.

The cost of Affinity Publisher is US$50. No monthly fee afterwards. That's a pretty big pro.

With the help of Markzware's IDMarkZ application, InDesign, QuarkXPress, Acrobat and Illustrator files can quickly be converted to Affinity Publisher files without going to the trouble of converting them to IDML first in InDesign.

Affinity Publisher will open IDML (a special type of InDesign) files.

Importing and Placing text works pretty much the same as InDesign and QuarkXPress.

In the latest beta, PDF files generally seem to work well.

On the left is an InDesign (IDML) file opened in Affinity Publisher. From what I see, they look identical. Notice how similar the workspace in Affinity Publisher is to the workspace in InDesign.

Cons:

"There are strange quirks that the folks at Serif say they will work out by the next beta release, but they are there," says Slimp. "In one PDF I placed, printer's marks (which were part of the PDF) disappeared for no reason. The page was perfect otherwise, but I still haven't figured out what happened to those marks.

"It makes me worry about other things that might disappear. Creating pages is cumbersome, because there's an issue with changing page sizes in the new document dialogue window. I'm sure they'll have it fixed by the next beta, but for now it's an issue that requires a workaround."

Slimp says merging data is still a problem in Affinity Publisher. "They're working on it, but it's something that newspapers and magazines do a lot, and it might (or might not, if you don't use it) be a deal breaker."

Imported Word files "sometimes have character issues - like quotation marks looking funky - which can happen in InDesign, but can be easily fixed with the 'import options' in InDesign."

Adobe CC fonts will no longer be available when you're not subscribed to Creative Cloud: "Most newspapers I visit use the CC version of InDesign and the fonts that come with it. Plan to shell out a few hundred dollars for fonts right off the bat for typefaces that won't be available to you after you cancel your CC subscription," he says.

So after two years of testing Affinity Publisher, Photo, and Designer, Slimp says they're great. "However, I wouldn't get rid of my Adobe applications just yet."

Those who own publishing companies and have employees, have also typically been subscribing to Adobe Creative Cloud and paying monthly fees. "However, I also realise that my biggest expense is paying people; for me, printing comes next; and monthly software fees are pretty far down the list," he says.

"To me, it looks like Affinity is close. Close to being something most publishers can use to get their products designed. However, I'm not quite ready to convert everything to Affinity Publisher quite yet.

"We'd still have to use InDesign for merging data with Microsoft Excel (something we do a lot). We'd still save a lot of time using the InDesign scripts for complex processes, scripts that aren't available yet in Affinity Publisher."

Slimp says there are several other reasons he is not planning wholesale changes to Affinity Publisher just yet. But he advises ordering a copy for the one-time US$50 fee (at https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/publisher) and then going online to download the free beta for registered users.

"I would suggest you begin creating some ads in Affinity Publisher and get a feel for the application," he says. "Place some PDF files yourself and see how Affinity Publisher handles them. Pay close attention to the fonts in PDFs. We don't want any surprises when we begin using it.

"You might decide you want your paper to make the leap from InDesign or QuarkXPress to Affinity Publisher. If you're not using advanced features like scripts, tables and data merge in InDesign, you won't miss them. However, I would suggest you not rush. Get Affinity Publisher, try it out, see what you think, then decide if a move from InDesign or QuarkXPress to Affinity Publisher is a good idea for your paper."

If you're going to use Affinity Publisher, you should have IDMarkz from Markzware, he says. It converts InDesign files to Affinity.

Slimp recalls working on K2 - the name for InDesign before it went to market - with Adobe for two years before it was available to the public. "I worked on Acrobat (PDF files) for a year before printing the first newspaper ad in 1994. I used to work with lots of software companies to make their products work the way we need them to in our business," he says.

"One thing I've learned is that there's no rush. Serif (maker of Affinity Publisher) is going a long way toward working the kinks out of Affinity Publisher. It's already a very good product, but it might not be quite ready for all the work you do at your newspaper.

"My suggestion is that you check it out. What can it hurt? Be sure to write to me and let me know what you learn."

The PDFs created from InDesign (left) and Affinity Publisher look almost identical. The difference? The printer's marks disappeared from the top and bottom of the page. These marks were part of the original PDF. I'm still trying to figure out where they went.

• Kevin Slimp served as director of the University of Tennessee Newspaper Institute from 1997-2017. He still speaks at newspaper conventions internationally and works individually with newspapers throughout the US and Canada. He will hold a one-hour webinar on Affinity, its set-up procedures and remaining issues on December 10. More information and registration here

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