Vellum Review: Better Than Scrivener for Book Formatting

Vellum Review: Better Than Scrivener for Book Formatting

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.

Here’s my review of Vellum software for self-publishers.

Book formatting software and other 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 or the affectionately known “meatgrinder” at Smashwords and hope for the best. (And then try not to pull your hair out.)
  • 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. Unfortunately, it also requires dozens of hours to master and a monthly subscription to an app you may only use intermittently.

I’ve tried each of these, 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.

So I’m going to share a better option with you. Yes, there’s a better way to DIY your self-published book!

While I’d used Vellum to create ebooks before, the 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.

What is Vellum software?

Vellum is a book-formatting software. You can use it to create beautiful ebooks and print books that you can sell anywhere, including Amazon.

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 self-published with him.

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, Vellum offers a variety of popular trim sizes:

  • 5 x 8 inches
  • 5.25 x 8 inches
  • 5.5 x 8.5 inches
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • 5.06 x 7.81 inches
  • 5.5 x 8.25 inches 

They offer additional trim sizes for international books, mass market paperbacks and large print.

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

What about Vellum for windows?

Unfortunately, the company only makes Vellum for Mac; there’s no PC version.

If you’re looking for a Vellum equivalent for windows, you might consider Scrivener.

While I prefer the ease of Vellum for book formatting, Scrivener provides a similar service, as well as many more features.

How much does Vellum cost?

Vellum software is an investment.

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

But it’s worth the cost, especially if you’re planning to write, format and publish multiple books over your writing career. Compare this to the options I offered at the start of this post, and you can see why it’s worth considering!

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.

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38 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

  • DeanC says:

    I’m looking for one answer. Does vellum allow me to export print book file in pdf formats?

      • David W. says:

        Blake,

        But can you use a PDF file to import your book into Vellum? Or must it be a MSN Word file? One other thought is that although I am basically a PC user I do have a couple of Ipads (which are Apple products aren’t they?) and couldn’t I use Vellum on them? I actually have a printed book that I would like to do a revision on using the same formatting and since it is in the PDF file format was wondering if I would be able to import it into Vellum. Thanks for your review on this product.

      • David W. says:

        Blake,

        But can you use a PDF file to import your book into Vellum? Or must it be a MSN Word file? One other thought is that although I am basically a PC user I do have a couple of Ipads (which are Apple products aren’t they?) and couldn’t I use Vellum on them? I actually have a printed book that I would like to do a revision on using the same formatting and since it is in the PDF file format was wondering if I would be able to import it into Vellum. Thanks for your review on this product.

        • Blake Atwood says:

          I don’t believe you can *import* a PDF. I haven’t tried it, but I doubt it would work. PDFs are very different than Word files.

          Also, Vellum isn’t available as an iOS app, so it wouldn’t work on an iPad. Vellum is only made for macOS, so it will only work on Mac desktops or laptops.

          As far as I know, your best bet to have a PDF formatted into an ebook is to hire a professional. (I recommend melindamartin.me). Just know that such a process could be time-consuming and thus more expensive than other avenues—but it saves you from a lot of hair-pulling.

  • I’ve written three books and am finishing the writing & prep for five more to be released over the next five months. I’ve used many processes the past 2 1/2 years to self-publish my books, including:

    * Word template then publish to Kindle & Createspace, then review, then go back and fix any issues, then rinse & repeat. Any changes could destroy the formatting, so I figured out this was consuming way to much time.

    * Write in Scrivener, which I love, but as mentioned above the learning curve of setting up a book (Kindle then Createspace) is time-consuming. Not having a previewer means I go through the same upload, review, make changes, upload, review cycle still.

    * Write in Scrivener, then export to Word and import to Vellum. I can adjust the manuscript on the fly, choose a variety of finished looks and publish to ebook and print in minutes. This is really saving me time, as I’ve gone back to my first two books and am reformatting them with the cleaner look and it’s fast & beautiful!

    I am buying the full package, as the time saved now and in the future AND having a beautiful book that I can update quickly and without pulling my hair out or paying a formatter extra money is a life-saver!

    I’m hoping they will come out with additional templates, but for now, it’s been simply awesome!

  • Gail says:

    Hi there I am assuming that Vellum create an ePub 3 version of the book as it’s iPad friendly fortunately I use a Mac and have been doing a lot of my ebook conversion using InDesign followed by changing code to make it look pretty… however all this takes considerable time I haven’t created one yet but before I go the whole hog and purchase I really need to know if it created the latest ePub i.e 3 etc and create perfect code so I don’t keep having to mess with it after validating which takes sometimes hours to do.

  • I don’t see anywhere “Facing Pages.”
    The paper book sample shown does not show the proper
    gutter and outer margins.

    Does Vellum have a proper layout format for this very
    necessary design for paper books?

    • Jonathan says:

      To answer your questions:

      First, you can choose “First chapter begins on the right side” or “Every chapter begins on the right side” I prefer every chapter to start on the right side, so after I generate the Print PDF I open it with either Adobe Acrobat or Nuance PDF converter and I change the blank pages to “Intentionally left blank”

      Second, under “Print settings” you can adjust your inside margin, but not outside.

      After I submitted my print file to Createspace they automatically adjusted the settings to the spine print and sizing. They also adjusted the cover sizing and after I checked the proof everything was perfect.

      I agree that these additional settings should be in Vellum, but they aren’t deal-breakers and in fact I love how easy to create, update and beautiful my books look now.

  • Stella says:

    I’m really glad I found this post and comments. It answers all my questions very clearly. Jonathan’s method to write in Scrivener, then export in Word, and then work in Vellum is the method I was thinking about using. Now I know that it’s an effective one 🙂
    Jason, it’s true that you can import your epub file in Createspace at no cost, but here the big difference is that you have beautiful books with various formatting options, a big difference for the readers. Costly, maybe a bit upfront, but with time, and if you plan on publishing many books, great tool not expensive at all. But to each their own method 😉

  • Michelle says:

    Hi Blake
    I’m a long time InDesign mac user who is new to epub work. I’ve been using indesign but would like to know if you feel Vellum makes the entire process a lot more user friendly for conversion to epub and it appears now I can also do Print with limited templates. For some clients this might be just what I need to speed up the workflow instead of creating almost two separate books from stripped back text files. Would like your personal opinion.

  • Blake Atwood says:

    I absolutely think so. You give up granular control over every element and Vellum only has so many templates, but you gain time, and Vellum’s styling looks great to me.

  • Alyssa Hunt says:

    I purchased the $250 version and I’ve never looked back. I love Vellum. It’s made creating ebooks and the few paperbacks I’ve worked easier than any free program I’ve ever used.

  • Sarah Bernier says:

    I’ve heard that in Vellum, generating the PDF for print will convert all color images to black and white. Is this true???? My books are non-fiction, so high quality color images are important (which is why Scrivener was such a let down).

  • Blake Atwood says:

    I don’t know for sure. They may have changed that recently as they provide updates fairly often. You might consider contacting them directly to ask that question: https://help.vellum.pub/contact

    It’s likely that you’re right—that any created PDF will be black and white. But I would also caution you that, if you’re self-publishing through a print-on-demand solution, having full-color interiors can skyrocket your production cost and require you to sell the book at a higher price just to cover the cost of production.

  • Have you ever reviewed MS Publisher? It’s compatible with MS Word and much easier on your budget and your brain than Adobe InDesign. I’ve been using it for more than 15 years to create magazine-quality newsletters, ebooks, and a tabloid-sized rural lifestyles newspaper. Publisher will take you from importing text from Word to exporting a full-color PDF to your printing company or publishing house.

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