Review: Vellum Book Formatting Software

Review: Vellum Book Formatting Software

Whenever a fellow writer or client asks me what I use to create ebooks or print editions, my first question is always, “Mac or PC?”

It’s not my intention to raise my elitist, Apple-shaped nose at them. Rather, their response dictates my answer. PC users get the hard answer: “Have you considered switching to a Mac?”

I’m kidding, but only slightly. The comparative ease with which Vellum 2.0, a Mac-only product, creates ebooks and print editions should make all PC authors consider making the switch (or at least befriending one Mac user who’ll let them borrow their computer for an hour).

I may be overselling Vellum, but for my money, which I’ve gladly given them on multiple occasions, they have released an app that marries ease of use with fantastic design — both of the app itself and of the ebooks and print editions it’s capable of creating.

Book formatting options

Those who have yet to experience the joy of using Vellum are relegated to choosing from among a few time-consuming or costly processes:

  • Hire a professional book designer for both your ebook and print edition layouts, which can cost into the thousands of dollars depending on the intricacy or complexity of your layouts. If you have the money, this is the way to go, especially if you’ve vetted the interior designer. Their experience is worth the expense, but not all writers or self-publishers can afford such costs, and particularly if they plan to release multiple titles.
  • Upload a Word document to Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace or the affectionately known “meatgrinder” at Smashwords and hope for the best.
  • Learn the intricacies of Calibre, a powerful piece of ebook software (that’s more usable by programmers than authors).
  • Learn to lay out your own book in Adobe InDesign, a powerful desktop publishing app that gives you the finest of control over your design, but also requires dozens of hours to master and a monthly subscription to an app you may only use intermittently.

I’ve experienced each of these processes, whether with my books or those I’ve helped clients create. Each one has its shortcomings, either in too much time wasted seeking design perfection or too much money spent waiting for a designer to finally finish the book.

Thankfully, there’s a better way to DIY your self-published book.

While I’d used Vellum to create ebooks before, the recent release of Vellum 2.0 introduced a game-changing feature: print formatting. Now, the time and expense I have to invest in creating stellar books are, at the very least, halved.

The Vellum 2.0 experience

The opening screen of Vellum is straightforward.

I can click on an already existing project or import a Word file. For this review, we’ll be looking at Sins of the Five Fathers, a posthumous mystery novel written by my uncle that I’m self-publishing in August.

By clicking on Sins of the Five Fathers, I’m taken to the book creation screen:

Clicking on any item in the left-hand sidebar reveals a new page to edit in the center area. With the book title selected, I can edit the book’s metadata. Clicking on “Ebook Cover” at the top of the center area allows me to drag and drop the ebook’s cover into the book.

When a user incorporates Word’s styles into their manuscript, such as always using the “Title” style in Word for each of the author’s chapter titles, Vellum is smart enough to know to import each of those chapters as separate chapters. Even when Vellum isn’t quite smart enough to figure out every section or chapter, reorganizing and renaming each part, section or chapter is a breeze.

For instance, by clicking on the configuration icon next to a chapter header, I can easily convert the chapter into a number of other predefined chapter types, e.g., Prologue, Epilogue, Afterword, About the Author, etc.

The “Styles” panel in the upper left provides multiple templates for the layout of specific aspects of a book, e.g., Heading, First Paragraph, Block Quotation, etc.

In future releases, I’d like to see more granular control of these aspects and the ability to save customized templates. But, I believe the provided templates provide enough variation to satisfy any author seeking to create a traditionally formatted book.

Adding text features is just as easy. Right-clicking within the text brings up a context-aware menu that allows you to add features like Subheads, Ornamental Breaks, Images, Alignment Blocks (for right-justified, left-justified or centered text) and more.

Lastly, the most powerful aspect of Vellum is its exporting capabilities. I learned the intricacies (and sometimes maddening nuances) of exporting my first book via Scrivener. By far, Scrivener is still my preferred word processor — this article was written in Scrivener — but its exporting capabilities are almost too powerful. It can be overwhelming and time-consuming for most authors to attempt.

In my opinion, this is where Vellum shines.

By going to the top menu and selecting “File > Generate Books,” I can choose which file types and trim size I’d like to export to. As you can see below, ebook options include Kindle (.mobi), iBooks, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and Generic EPUB.

For print, trim sizes include the most popular options: 5 x 8, 5.25 x 8, 5.5 x 8.5 and 6 x 9. I imagine those trim sizes might prevent some authors from using Vellum for formatting their print editions, but Vellum 2.0 was just released, and it’s possible that more trim sizes may be added in the future. For a majority of authors, these trim sizes should work just fine.

The proof of any formatting software is in, well, the proof. Here are a few images of the Createspace print edition proof of Sins of the Five Fathers:

Vellum still requires an investment, but it’s worth the cost, especially if you’re planning to write, format and publish multiple books over your writing career.

Vellum costs $199.99 to create unlimited ebooks or $249.99 to create unlimited ebooks and paperbacks.

Of course, more features abound, but what I’ve shared in this brief review are the features I’ve used the most. I’ve been quite pleased with Vellum, and it’s now become an integral part of my publishing process.

What professional, process or program have you used to format your ebooks and print editions? What have been your triumphs and tribulations when it comes to formatting ebooks and print books?

We were not paid by Vellum for this review. 

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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15 comments

  • Blake, that program makes it look so easy, like creating-ebooks-for-dummies easy.

    But I don’t know if I could switch to a Mac. That freaks me out. They are super expensive, and it might take me a year or more to get used to it.

    Vellum could be worth it some day if I start publishing a lot though.

  • Another option to completely switching to Mac (and although I’d never switch back, it was not a painless switch), would be get a cheap used MacBook Air just for running things like Vellum. You can pick them up on Swappa or eBay for a few hundred, not the several thousand a heavier duty Macbook Pro or iMac cost.

    I love Vellum. It is–hands down, no joke — the easiest program to use I’ve ever tried. I spent something like 35 hours fiddling with Scrivener’s compile settings for my novella, and five minutes for the same novella in Vellum.

    The only thing I wish they had in the Print version is templates for the covers.

  • Dave says:

    PC users may be crazy for not switching to a MAC, but vellum is more crazy by not offering a PC version. MAC has the devotees but PCs are in the millions.

    • Wendy says:

      nothing crazy about deciding to to spend big bucks for what amounts to a label. I’ve also heard the analogy that Apple’s like living in the city, where everything’s controlled; Windows is living in the suburbs, where there’s still control but a lot more freedom; and Linux is rural–lots of freedom, but hardly anyone to tell you what to do, even if you want it.

      If I leave Windows, it’s going to be for Linux, not Mac.

      • Wendy says:

        (Somehow the “There’s” that should have started my comment got dumped. And the “not to” turned into a “to to”)

  • LJHova says:

    Why would I pay more for a less flexible, less capable machine that runs less software, crashes just as often, and operates in one of the most locked down operating systems ever? Vellum can be made to work on Windows, Linux, Chrome, etc. That is a developer issue and should not necessitate an OS switch.

  • Megan Sharma says:

    Thanks for this article, Blake! The timing was perfect: only last week I wrote my very first e-book, and I was wondering, ‘How the heck am I going to format this thing and get it out there’? Unfortunately, I don’t own a Mac, but your article did help clarify the options out there. I studied the Smashwords style guide for 2 days but still somehow didn’t make their initial cut for Premium Catalog inclusion, so I need to make some updates. Ugh. Kindle Direct Program will be next.

  • Jason says:

    I’ve used Scrivener for many years. I compile to an ePub file which I then open in Amazon’s (free) Kindle Previewer.

    The cost of Vellum is absolutely insane. I’d never pay that. Maybe if they offered a subscription service it would be (slightly) more palatable.

    Regards

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