It’s not your ancestor’s Vellum

Brad asked me to fill in for him this morning, so I thought I’d continue the formatting and publishing series I started last month. In this post, I mentioned a Mac-only program a friend used that I’d downloaded and would review later. That program, Vellum, isn’t cheap. But, having played with it enough to be comfortable with it and having used it to convert the extended version of Vengeance from Ashes, I have to say, it is well worth the money.

For those of you with a Mac, you can download the entire program as a “trial” and use it. The only limitation on functionality is that you can’t actually export an e-book or print-ready PDF file. However, as I noted in the earlier post, the preview function of the program lets you see what you have without actually doing the export.

So, what is Vellum?

Vellum is a program designed to convert your word processing file into e-books and, in the last version or two, into a print-ready PDF file. There are two pricing levels for the program. As I said, it’s expensive. To get the e-book only version, you’ll pay $199 and for the e-book and print version, you’ll pay $249. Unlike earlier versions of the program where you could buy a license that would allow you to convert a single title or in increments of 10 (if I remember correctly), there is no limit on the number of titles now. And, to be honest, that is the only way I managed to convince myself it was worth the money.

Like many other conversion programs, you can write in Vellum but I wouldn’t recommend it. That’s not where its strength lies. However, that ability to write in it means you can edit in it which is a huge plus. That’s especially true because you don’t have to open a text editor and edit the underlying HTML of an e-book like you do with other conversion programs. It even has a spell-checker which can be nice or annoying, especially if you are writing science fiction and fantasy.

Once you install and open Vellum, you’ll see something like this. You’re given the option of viewing the tutorial or opening the Help Overview. Below that, you have the option of importing a Word file. I recommend you view the tutorial first. The program is really pretty simple but the tutorial will help. Also, there are some pretty good — and short — Youtube videos about the program as well. The one I watched was only about 10 minutes and it gave all the important information I needed to put together a project using the program.

Once you import your Word file, you’ll see something similar to this. As you fill in the blanks in the dialog box in the center of the screen, you will see the changes happening on the right side of the screen. That is your previewer pane and you can set it to show what your book will look like on the Kindle Fire, the Oasis, the iPad, etc. You can also set it to show what your print file will look like. Note the far left panel. That’s your table of contents that’s been generated by your use of Headings in Word (or similar program). You can change those, including their attributes.

While we’re on the TOC, at the bottom of that pane is an *. If you click it, a dialog box will open. One of the options is to add an element. This is a handy tool because it means you no longer have to type out your copyright page, etc. It has one on file and all you do is fill in the blanks. Choose where on your ToC you want it to appear, add the element and it is there, not only in the ToC but in your preview as well.

Once you’ve finished filling in the book details, click on the Ebook Cover tab and upload your cover. That will embed your cover with the book file. If you’re like me, this is great because it means you don’t have to worry about it later.

Now it’s time to move to what I see as the real strength of the program. One of the banes of the indie author has been making the text of our ebooks look like that of traditional publishers. Unless you had access to programs like InDesign, doing things like true drop caps and even something as simple as true small caps was beyond many of us. So we found workarounds that didn’t quite do the trick. With Vellum, you don’t have to do that. It has different options built in and all you have to do is choose which ones you want.

Here is a screenshot of what I did with Vengeance last night. This was one of, if I remember, six or eight options available. There are different elements you can add — if you want — after the chapter heading. Since this is a science fiction novel, I didn’t want anything too fancy. It also has the first letter looking like what we are used to with traditionally published books. I could have opted for a different font or small caps or no fancy effects. But this is what I thought looked best for the book and genre.

It also handles scene breaks if you want it to. By using the standard  asterisk to break your scenes, you indicate to Vellum that there is a scene break and you can then choose what you want to happen. As you can see here, I chose to use the same basic first line layout that I do for the beginning of a chapter. I chose a simple line between scenes, again because of the genre. I didn’t have to do anything except go to the styles tab on the far left contents section and tell Vellum what I wanted it to do. The nice thing is you can preview everything before you make your decision. Better yet, you don’t have to go through and insert these changes at ever scene break or new chapter. You set it once and it is done automatically.

Once you’ve checked your work and are happy with how it looks, you can then generate your ebooks. Before you do this, if you have a section at the back of the book (or at the front) where you want to link to your other titles and you sell them in the different stores, you can actually input those store links into a separate dialog box for each title. What happens is when you tell Vellum to generate your e-books, it will automatically assign the right links to the appropriate store. That’s because you can choose to generate a book per major outlet and Vellum then optimizes the books according to those store’s requirements.

As you can see from the image above, I chose to generate versions for all the major stores but did not generate the generic EPUB file. That took maybe a minute to do. Once the process is complete, you get a new dialog box up that not only recommends you check your files but it will link you to a page that tells you how to check your new files. I sent the Kindle file to my Oasis and, damn, it looks good. None of the issues I’ve had in the past trying to use any of the “fancier” effects showed up. So far, so good. But we still had the print version to look into.

I’ll admit, this is where I held my breath. I’ve gotten to where I can take my basic manuscript and turn it into a decent print ready PDF in an hour or so. But it meant doing things like changing the the page size, figuring out the margins, etc. And then there were the headers and footers — oh, those headers and footers. They can be the bane of any author’s existence. But the headers and footers, as well as all the other special effects, can be set for print just as they can be for e-books. I’m still playing with the final product for the print version but the image below gives you an idea of what can be done.

As for those concerns about converting to print, Vellum surprised me and in a good way. It took my basic manuscript, considered what I had typed into the original dialog box when I got started and then all I had to do was choose which form of header and footer I wanted to use. That’s it. You choose the page size when you get ready to export the file. My only complaint (am I’m sure it is something I can fix but haven’t figured out how yet) is that it has page numbers on the bottom of the first page of the chapter. I want to lose the header and footer on those pages. But, if that is all I dislike about the program, that’s pretty darned good. As with the e-book versions, it took less than a minute to generate the PDF file.

I need to play with the program some more but, to get multiple e-book versions and the print version done in less than an hour with a program I am still learning is pretty darned good. To get one that looks closer to a traditionally published book at minimal effort is a very good thing. The final judgment, for me at least, is that Vellum is well worth the money. While I hesitate to recommend anyone spend that much for a program, I will do this. If you have a Mac (sorry, iPad Pro and iPad users, they don’t have a version for iOS), try the program out. As I noted above, you won’t be able to export the files but you can see what the program is capable of doing.

For me, until I see something better out there that is also easier to use, Vellum is going to be my go-to when it comes to converting and exporting files for both e-book and print publication.



22 responses to “It’s not your ancestor’s Vellum

  1. BobtheRegisterredFool

    I’ve started learning LaTeX, because I have a project that makes it almost necessary. I’ve picked up LyX, which was originally a LaTeX editor, and now just exports to it. LyX has a nicer front end, but it sounds like Vellum is far and away nicer.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Nicer front end than directly editing the LaTeX markup language.

    • On LaTeX, which is most of what I use because most of my publishers require it, look at MikTex and on top of that WinEdt, not to be confused with WinEdit. MikTex has a bunch of tools useful for really large projects.

  2. paladin3001

    Sounds like a great program. I wonder if there’s anything similar for Windows.

    • Well, there’s Jutoh (which is a lot cheaper too). I have no idea how good it is, tho it looks fairly mature, and as a bonus, runs on almost anything.

      • I’ve used Jutoh for every one of my ebooks now available in the Kindle store. It’s got its quirks, but it’s cheap, and comes with a surprisingly big and detailed user guide in PDF form, which you can print to letter-size paper and punch for a 3-ring or duo-tang binder. It doesn’t export to PDF and in fact has no features that serve the cause of generating a print book. This means I have to lay out my books twice: Once in Jutoh for the Kindle store, and again in InDesign CS2 for CreateSpace. This isn’t a huge issue for me, because I have 17 years’ experience using InDesign and by now I can create print books in my sleep. I do wish there were something better for Windows. Scrivener may get there someday. Or something may just pop up out of nowhere. I hope that Vellum’s creators are smart enough to issue a Windows version eventually. That would be the only product I now see on the market that could pull me away from Jutoh and InDesign.

        • Okay, now I’m jealous. 🙂

          On Amazon just now, I just saw a KindleGen plugin for InDesign — still beta (after 4 years??), maybe worth a try, tho some report big problems with it.

          BTW did you know if you own CS2 (I won it at a trade show!), you’re entitled to a free download of a fresh installer without the stupid activation crap? (Tho it’s stupid a different way — it absolutely has to be unpacked to the default location, or it can’t find its own ass. Leave it to Adobe…)

          • Yes. I downloaded the version without activation when it appeared. It’s good enough for what I do, so I’m sticking with CS2, even though it’s probably twelve years old now.

    • And if you want free, there’s Lyx, tho again all I know is that it exists.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        a) It exists. b) I wrote a bunch of vector crud with it, not doing it right, and got it to produce a fairly nice PDF. Exported to LaTeX, loaded LaTeX in something else, couldn’t produce a PDF from the LaTeX because of how badly I mangled it. c) I’m going to schedule myself doing a CV with it fairly soon. I may have a report, depending.

        It took a lot of digging to figure out how to do custom headers, but some of the other stuff looks like it might be less of a pain than Word. But perhaps I use Word poorly.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        I switched to LibreOffice Writer despite having last used OpenOffice Writer many years ago, because I knew the learning requirements would fit my time pressure better than LyX was turning out to need. I may try again at some point.

    • Draven

      Yep, some of us don’t have Macs

  3. I pulled the trigger last month and got Vellum, and used it for “Familiar Tales.” I thought if I loused up a short-story set, it would be easier ans faster to repair than a novel-length work. Going in from 0, once I got Word to convert to .docx and not .doct [What the what, Word?], it took me a whopping half hour to get what I needed, for the e-book. I feel a lot more confident, and am currently kicking myself that I didn’t transfer a copy to my older MacBook so I could be using it while my writing computer is in the shop.* But the program is stone-cold easy to use, and easy to undo oopsies as they appear. And I didn’t have to hand-create a ToC!

    *Back up your computer. Have a secondary back up in case something happens to your backup. Back your data up early and often. Two is one is none when your hard drive starts making noises like a drum-machine or hip-hop DJ scratching records.

    • snelson134

      For some reason, Word is seeing that file as an XML document template rather than a document.Was the doct the file as exported from Vellum, or was Word where the file was built?

    • I know. It surprised me to realize Vellum wanted a DOCX file and not a DOC file. But once I figured that out, you’re right. It was dead easy. BTW, you can have the program on more than one Mac at a time, iirc. So you might try it.

      • The problem is that I forgot to copy Vellum onto the jumpdrive I used to transfer a few files before I shipped the writing computer off to the shop. I have 20/20 hindsight.