Why I Think Vellum Is Great for E-Books

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March 2014
by Rick Hubbard

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If you are committed as I am—to quickly and easily generating readable e-books for all major device types and e-readers, then you probably have:

● bemoaned wasting hours and hours wrangling a manuscript from MS-Word through a convoluted maze of e-book tools into a form suitable for Kindle, iBooks, and/or Nook by producing EPUB and MOBI (and/or fk8) digital files

● repeatedly undertaken this Herculean task because you feel compelled to ensure readers can actually read your e-book on any of the major devices, and you know that automatic e-book conversion and generation tools can yield poorly formatted—many times, unreadable—files

Difficult and time-consuming until now, e-book publishing became much simpler and easier for me after I heard about a new e-book–specific tool that integrates editing, preview, and generation in a single visually appealing environment.

On December 11, 2013, a post in a LinkedIn forum caught my eye. The post referenced a Digital Book World article: “Vellum Simplifies E-book Conversion So Authors Can Focus on Their Craft.”

DBW’s article presented Vellum as a beautiful, simple, and integrated e-book authoring, preview, and generation tool. Skeptical because of prior disappointments, I visited Vellum’s site (180g.co) to investigate.

Surprise! I liked what I saw. A lot.

After spending a few minutes reading about Vellum and the two former Pixar developers who created it, I downloaded and tested Vellum 1.0. And I found that, indeed, it did simplify three key e-book publishing tasks—editing, preview, and generation—in a single, elegantly designed, and well-integrated environment.

Since then, I have used Vellum 1.0.2, and I continue to be enthusiastic—so enthusiastic that I assure you of two things: I have no financial interest, stake, or equity in Vellum or its publisher (180g); and prior to my research for this article I had no knowledge of or relationship with Vellum’s developers, Brad Andalman and Brad West.

What Vellum Does and Doesn’t Do

Vellum is Mac OS X–based software that lets authors and small publishers easily create beautiful e-book files for iBooks, Kindle, and Nook.

While other e-book tools—by commission or omission—limit e-book generation in various ways and/or formats (for instance, Adobe InDesign omits integrated file generation supporting the largest e-book marketplace, Amazon Kindle), 180g delivers on the promise that “Vellum simultaneously generates specialized e-book files for iBooks, Kindle, and Nook, giving authors exposure to the three largest book platforms.”

Of course, Vellum has its own limitations, in addition to the fact that it is only for Macs, and requires Mac OS X 10.8 or later.

As of release 1.0.2, Vellum does not support:

● images or tables—essential for many nonfiction e-books

● hierarchical content (e.g., indented text)—also essential for nonfiction

● PDF file generation

● advanced text editing (e.g., forcing text to center or right justify)

● eEnabling Page Up/Down keys for scrolling through Preview (to be clear: scrolling is supported by clicking on-screen Forward/Back arrows).

Responding to my e-mail inquiry regarding these limitations, Brad Andalman acknowledged that “authors of nonfiction may not get all of the formatting they need out of Vellum 1.0,” but he also said, “We plan to address those needs and other suggested features as Vellum evolves.”

Ironically (given that Vellum is designed for the Mac) another limitation is that it does not directly import Apple Pages (PAGES) files. Fortunately, because Apple Pages v5 produces DOCX files, this doesn’t limit it much.

How It Works

Each Vellum e-book is a “project,” and projects can be launched in two ways. You can start by importing a DOCX (typically, MS-Word) manuscript file, or you can start by creating a native Vellum file. Then, regardless of how a project is launched, you can edit text directly within Vellum’s editor.

If you choose to import a DOCX file, Vellum’s Intelligent Import function detects style changes in the source manuscript and automatically generates e-book chapters, sections, and other components.

E-book metadata is a click away. Only title, subtitle (if there is one), and author metadata elements are “locked” after Vellum e-books are generated (and Vellum’s fee is incurred). At any time, text (content) can be changed, and an e-book can be regenerated if desired.

Because Vellum’s three primary task views are integrated in a single window, I could immediately see what a change in the text would look like on any major device-type/e-reader (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Polishing and verifying my novel was simplified by Vellum’s integrated navigation, editing, and preview functions. Any change to the text (center pane) was instantly rendered in Preview (right-hand pane). Some of Vellum’s features are subtle and powerful; I found four that merit special mention: Elements, Styles, Real-time Preview, and Generation (including Re-Generation).

To help create an enhanced navigation experience for readers, Vellum provides a number of preprogrammed Elements (or components or parts) of an e-book. These Elements conform to the International Digital Publishing Forum’s standardized Sections (sometimes referred to as canonical Parts of a Book), and include Chapter, Copyright, and Dedication, to name a few.

Any of the dozens of built-in, attractive e-book styles that Vellum provides can be selected on import or changed on the fly. Within each style, individual components (headings, for example) can be changed by simply selecting from a context-specific palette (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Browsing through dozens of Vellum’s built-in, attractive e-book styles let me select the best fit and feel for my novel. Vellum’s Preview is one of its most powerful and most useful features. Unlike other e-book tools, it is real-time. Even better, preview is integrated into the environment.

You no longer have to edit in one tool, then laboriously export and generate a preview in other tools (and many of them, if you’re generating for multiple devices). With Vellum, a real-time Preview—which always shows an authentic-to-a-device preview of the current text—is displayed adjacent to the text, or, if you prefer, it can be tucked out of sight.

Preview by device type is as simple as choosing a target device (e.g., iPad, iPhone, Kindle).

To generate an e-book with Vellum, you simply click the Generate button, then briefly confirm metadata, select a pricing plan, and select the target device types to generate appropriate file types (one note: the first time you generate a file for Kindle, you have to authorize Vellum to download, install, and use KindleGen) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Sheer delight—generating my novel for all major e-book platforms. Then you click the Generate button, and voilà: instant e-book for all major device platforms and readers.

Later—if, say, if a reader catches a typo or you want to polish a published passage or you decide to compress a character’s chatty dialogue—as mentioned above, regeneration is quick and easy.

Costs

Vellum is free to download and use for editing and preview. A fee is incurred only when generating e-books. As of mid-January 2014, 180g’s fee for generating an individual e-book is $49.99. A 10-book package is $149.99; and—for the truly prolific—an Unlimited generation package is available for $299.99.

As a nearly full-time author, I found 180g’s fees more than reasonable in exchange for avoiding the difficulties and limitations in non-Vellum e-book–generating workflows.

Expending hours wrangling an e-book to work on all the major formats and devices, and then more hours double-checking to see whether the generated files are actually readable on each device, is not how we authors and publishers create value.

With Vellum, transformation from MS-Word manuscript to generated e-books for all leading device-types is easy at last (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A manuscript page in MS-Word appears on the left. A screenshot of the same page in Vellum’s text editor and integrated real-time Preview appears in the center. The image on the right is a screenshot of the final product in the Kindle Reader on my iPad Mini.

Rick Hubbard, formerly a Silicon Valley executive, is a software developer, an IBPA member, and the author of POP—Plan On a Page: Successful, Practical Planning Made Simple & Easy. He also describes himself as a nascent novelist, and he is working on Wunderwaffe, a technothriller slated for publication this year. To reach him: rick.hubbard.author@gmail.com.

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