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.


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.

And Who Are Our Gods Now, America?


That’s the official trailer for Starz’s American Gods. It’s amazing. I went straight to Facebook to share it but realized I had more to say about it.

I remember when American Gods came out. I was there.

Not just in the sense that I remember when it was published. No, in the sense that, while double-checking for accuracy, I found Neil’s post on the publication at his journal, so many years ago, and it was a memory-lane trip.

I first shook Neil’s hand at those Magnetic Fields shows. My best buddy and I had tickets we made sure were front row. The show was divided into two sets, between which the audience was different, as well, so we had to leave our seats and mill about. As did the Magnetic Fields. As did Neil.

And I remember being there at the Bottom Line and passing by Neil and wanting to tell him what a huge fan I was and how much I’d loved Neverwhere (which I’d read because I’d heard it had been optioned by Jim Henson Company) and Stardust, but I went into utter fanboy catatonia. I went into that state where you want to say so much and all that really happens is your mouth moves and you vaguely, detachedly remember to be grateful you’re not actually making any noise, because who knows what it would be.

I told Claudia Gonson how much I’d enjoyed the performance of “Born on a Train,” and she whisked me, along with another fan, over to Neil, and requested that he guess which of us was a fan of Neil’s and which was a fan of the Fields. Neil’s response was a comment on how unfair a question it was, but it gave me the chance to put out my hand and say, “Neil. I’m Will–”

And before I said another word Neil lit up. “Oh, you’re Will! From the Well!” (The Well was an online forum, think a pre-pre-pre-Facebook, back in the day. There were several groups dedicated to Neil and his work, and I posted fairly often.)

It was awesome.

That was over the weekend. That Tuesday, Neil had a signing on the official publication day of American Gods at the Borders World Trade Center. My buddy, my sister, and her then guy all got on a train at like 10 am and arrived at the Borders before noon — and proceeded to sit there for several hours until the actual signing, which started at 6 pm.

I was first in that line. If you read that above post from Neil, he’d already signed myriad books for HarperCollins, but still I like to think that my copy of American Gods, made out to me, was the first one signed on that tour.

(It’s a better story, after all.)

Less than three months after that above post was posted, the Borders World Trade Center was no more. The World Trade Center was no more.

In a very real way, at least for me, the world was no more. Six weeks after the World Trade Center fell, I moved away from Manhattan. I returned, nearly a decade later, but it no longer felt like the Manhattan I’d once known and loved.

And maybe that’s not unusual. Maybe Manhattan is like real love, like a marriage — something you choose, every day, something you can’t help, every day, always, so you grow with it, together. And if that changes, it’s like an ex — somebody you used to know. Someone you once loved, and have fond memories of, but whom you encounter one day and can’t help noticing how different you both are.

Watching that trailer reminded me how big and awesome American Gods was. I remember reading it the first time and thinking it was okay, but being somewhat disappointed. Like I’d wanted something I’d never defined and then hadn’t gotten it.

And then I re-read it, and then, some years later, re-read it again, and each time I do realize how big and awesome I realized it was only in retrospect. That it was bigger and more awesome than I could at first appreciate.

I’m getting a similar sense from that trailer. That it’s going to be huge and weird and in ways not like the book but in the end exactly what it needs to be.

It was a novel about an identity crisis of faith that came just a few months before America’s crisis of faith.

It doesn’t feel like the show is far off, and some days lately it doesn’t feel like America is far off. It feels like we’re right now living in the midst of a war between old gods and new ones —

And I’ll not spoil the novel. But suffice to say I can’t wait to see how the show turns out.