Time was running out. I was desperately trying to re-release my first two novels, as well as a brand new short story, as ebooks in time for Christmas. It seemed like an impossible task. Though all the stories were fully edited, the only thing I possessed were basic Word docs. My stories were like super-charged engines in need of race car bodies in order to get out on the track.
I needed help. And then miraculously, the answer came.
On December 12th, a day before my birthday, I spotted an article on DBW about a brand new Mac OSX application called Vellum. According to Vellum’s creators, Brad West and Brad Andalman, the app made the process of formatting an ebook easy.
Formatting easy? That was an oxymoron if I’d ever heard one. But despite my skepticism, I was anxious to try it. Over the past few years, I’d seen the music industry transformed by products that put the power in the hands of creators, and Vellum promised a similar shift for authors.
How much does it cost?
Vellum is free to download. But before you jump up and down with excitement, keep in mind that it’s only free until you “generate” an ebook. (Vellum uses in-app purchasing, a smart move, and something that keeps games like “Candy Crush” on the top-grossing charts.) Once you finish formatting your book, it costs $49.99 to kick out the ready-to-upload files for iBooks, Kindle, and Nook. (The price per book gets lower if you purchase more credits at once, 3 books for $99.99, 5 for $149.99, etc.) If 50 bucks sounds expensive, remember that you’d easily pay that (and much more) to get it professionally formatted by someone else. And if you need to make changes, or switch covers, or fix mistakes, instead of bothering your busy formatting person, you can “regenerate” new files yourself.
But does it work?
In a word, YES. In more than a few words, it works nearly flawlessly, and in a way that can only best be described as “Apple-ish”. There’s a sophisticated slickness to the interface that seemed like a perfect fit with my MacBook Air. I’m sure I should have spent a few more minutes watching and reading the Vellum tutorials, but I’m more of a “get my hands dirty” kind of guy. (Which always gets me in trouble when I try to build anything from IKEA!)
How does it work?
I’ll start by saying that it helps to have a Word doc with some minimal (minimal!!) formatting before importing it into Vellum. You’ll have to consult their website for all the specifics, but the quickest way is to have a page break before every chapter/section, and to center all your chapter/section headings. Then dump it into Vellum and get rocking!
(Vellum has plenty of tutorials and screenshots, but I’m including some of my own since I know exactly how they were created.)
Let’s start with the “Styles” page. The current version of Vellum includes 8 styles. These styles apply an aesthetic, a “feel”, to the entire book. Though I could have used a few more styles - and I have to imagine that future updates will - I appreciated that they’d slimmed down the choices rather than loaded them up. It’s the same reason I like Squarespace, and probably Apple too: fewer choices, but BETTER choices. For my books, I chose “Artisanal”, which looked clean and bold. (I have no doubt that any writer could find a style they like.) Within each style, you’re given some options for different elements within the book, including the style applied to the first paragraph of each new chapter (I wanted the first few words in CAPS) and the type of ornamental break (I chose a simple thin line.) Again, I could have used a few more options, but I was more than pleased with what was provided, and the end results were refined and professional.
Next, let’s check out the “Contents” page. This is where you work on the innards of your book, all the words you hope and pray people read. Look closely at the screenshot, because it displays what I feel like is Vellum’s most attractive feature, the ability to see IN REAL TIME what your book will look like on an iPad, iPhone, Kindle Paperwhite, or Nook Simple Touch. If your mouth isn’t hanging open, read that last part again, because this is the heart of what makes Vellum so great. Remember all those times in the past when you had to check your book on all your devices, and all your family’s devices, and all your friends, and then cry when you discovered yet another mistake, yet another formatting error that throws everything off kilter? Yeah. Thanks to Vellum those days are GONE.
But here’s the craziest part. It does everything I’ve described and more, and - wait for it - it’s totally FUN. I mean it! Fun! And it’s pretty quick, too. I formatted my entire first book (Illuminated, a thriller that runs about 300 pages) at Starbucks in under 3 hours. Confession: I’ve spent plenty of extra minutes finessing the pages and the placement of sections, but it’s actually another bonus that I can do that. Again, instead of having to email my formatting person, and waiting for my new files, then doing this over and over again, I can make changes on a whim and see what it’s going to look like instantly. (For those of you saying “I do my own formatting! I don’t need a program!”, you might be persuaded by the speed and ease of Vellum. It’s at least worth checking out!)
As you can probably tell by now, my initial skepticism has turned to full endorsement. Vellum does exactly what its creators said it would do, which is an amazing accomplishment in itself. Could there be some more style options? Yes. Are there still a few bugs to work out? Yes. But this is only version ONE, and they’ve already made improvements in the first two updates.
But don’t take my word for it! Download Vellum and use it for yourself! If you love it as much as I did, you’ll gladly shell over the cash to generate the necessary ebook files. And if for some reason you don’t like it, then you’ve lost nothing but the time you put into it.
If you’d like to see my final results using Vellum, check out my books. And for those of you who’ve already used Vellum, or plan to in the future, let me know your thoughts!