Vellum: The Best Thing to Happen to Authors Since Kindle

If you’re an author interested in publishing your work, there are a few key tools you’d do well to invest in, but I think among the best and simplest is software called Vellum. It’s kind of a combination between a word processor, a WYSIWYG book layout designer, and an ebook generator. It’s a simple, elegant way to create a professionally designed ebook without the headaches of proprietary software and trying to run Terminal-level commands like KindleGen and whatever international-but-not-market-standard format ePub demands this month.

Amazon announced the Kindle platform, store, and device in 2007, and while I was intrigued by the concept, my enthusiasm was tempered by the actual experience. The first generation Kindle was like a Fisher Price publishing toy, with a weird shapes throughout, and its second generation wasn’t much better. Their ebook store was nascent. Were ebooks worth ten dollars?

In 2010, however, Amazon released its third-gen Kindle, the Kindle Keyboard, and it was a revelation. Its design was revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. And by then its Kindle publishing platform had gained some legs.

In fact, it had progressed enough that I showed the device to my editrix and told her, I think I can do this. I can make something like this.

And I did. I had Windows, and I downloaded MobiPocket Creator, and I had enough basic HTML experience left over from MySpace that I was able to roll the code for an ebook.

And that’s what I did. For, like, nearly ten years. I would take Word documents, strip out the editing, put them in Adobe DreamWeaver, recode them line by painstaking line, run MobiPocket Creator in a virtual machine on my MacBook Pro (on which I’d designed the cover in Photoshop), and then save the resulting .prc to a common folder I could upload to Kindle. And then used Calibre to convert for Apple and B&N and Kobo.

If you look at the above and scratch your head, or think it sounds complicated, you’re not alone. It sucked.

Around last year, though, I heard that .prcs were going to stop working as well. And truth be told they’d never worked very well, anyway. So I started looking into alternative ways to build ebooks.

And I found Vellum.

I fell in love with it. Mainly because it made my life easier, made my business more efficient, but there were a few key ways it did so.

One Program, All Formats

Lay out one book, entirely, and when it comes to generating ebooks you can get everything from a .mobi for Amazon to a generic .epub for any bookstore, plus files for Apple or Kobo in between. You only need to generate once and you get every format, and you can rest assured they’re all in good shape.

It’s WYSIWYG

That’s “What You See Is What You Get.” Coding sucks. It’s all brackets and weird letters and ASCII and character codes. Not so for Vellum. Import from a Word doc and it pulls literally everything in. In any other program I had to hand code “curly” quotes — those are the ones that look curved, rather than straight like plain text renders. But it goes farther than that; in one of the books I recently worked in, one of the characters was producing music for a band from Greenland or Iceland or Finland. One of the countries that puts slashes through Os, that kind of thing. And it just pulled them in.

Prebuilt Templates, Extended Customization

I’ve never counted, but when you import a book, you can use any one of like, nine or so pre-built ebook styles. But each style offers further customization of things like ornamental breaks and chapter headings and block quotes. And let’s be honest, when you’re dealing with books, unless it’s literally part of the story somehow, the best design is basically invisible. No reader or review I’ve ever seen has ever commented “I mean the story was pretty good, but did you notice those ornate dropcaps? Intense!” — which is not to say ornate drop caps aren’t an option. It’s just to say that Vellum offers exactly as much customization is useful to remain professional. Which I think is good; I’ve seen way too many uses of Comic Sans and that Avatar font. When restricted to simple, elegant choices, the ebooks that are generated remain simple and elegant.

Great User Interface

It’s simple and easy to navigate. You know where to put your cover, where to enter whatever information is useful, and how to create new chapters and sections and parts. What’s more, some quick right-clicking around means you can manipulate them pretty easily. Want a group of chapters to collapse among one part? Done. Want to convert a section of text into a block quote, or insert an ornamental break? Yep. Easily accomplished.

So those are why I love it, and it’s reasonably priced. I don’t remember how much it is per individual book generated or for multiple, mainly because I laid out one book and had such a great experience that I was like, hell, even if I only want to generate the Kindle version that experience was still worth $200 (or more). And as soon as I started laying out that first book I knew I was going to be republishing literally everything from Exciting Press anyway.

I think there’s other software that might do the same. Like Scrivener. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, which I think costs $50 (it’s been a long time since I bought it), but I’ll be honest: the first time I booted up Scrivener I was intimidated by how overly complicated it seemed. I know a lot of writers who swear by it, so it’s definitely worth checking out, but I prefer software that gets out of my way as I’m doing what I want. I don’t want to lay out a book chapter by chapter and have extra notes and images and all those things — I tend to just write chapter after chapter in Pages, sometimes with the rest of a book outlined beyond the scene I’m writing. That’s all I want. Using Vellum, I was able to paste that Pages file in and recreate the same formatting, and the ebooks generated are simple, elegant, and perfect for all the devices I would expect readers to find them on.

Because that’s ultimately what I always want; to create the best reader experience. Vellum has, so far, been the best and simplest way to achieve that I’ve seen, and while $200 might seem pricey, I think achieving that easily is priceless.

2 thoughts on “Vellum: The Best Thing to Happen to Authors Since Kindle

    • Will says:

      Yep. There are ways to set up a Mac Magic input device (the trackpad or mouse) so that a two-finger tap or an alternate click brings up a sub-menu. Should be in the Mac mouse settings in System Preferences.

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