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Kindle Create and Vellum: a brief comparative review

I’m in the final stages of preparing the first book of my new military science fiction trilogy, Cochrane’s Company, for publication.  “The Stones of Silence” will (hopefully) come out next week;  “An Airless Storm” will follow in June;  and the final volume, “The Pride of the Damned“, will be published in July.

Until now, I’ve simply imported my word processor files to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and let its in-house conversion software prepare them for publication.  It did an adequate job, but nothing special.  Over the past couple of years, publication software has come a long way, making the preparation process easier and more sophisticated.  I decided that, for this trilogy, I’d like to spread my wings a little;  so I’ve been experimenting with two such programs, Amazon’s Kindle Create (free) and 180g’s Vellum (free to download and try, but $199 for the e-book edition only and $249 for e-book and print editions).  I thought you might be interested in my experiences thus far.  My descriptions will necessarily be brief, due to lack of space and time, but I hope you’ll learn enough to be able to assess them for your own needs.

First, let’s look at Kindle Create.  Obviously, this only prepares manuscripts for Amazon.com’s MOBI e-book format.  If you want to “go wide” and publish your work in other formats, through other vendors, you’re going to have some serious issues.  Conversion software such as Calibre claims to automate the conversion process, but I’ve seldom found an Amazon-sourced MOBI file (even without digital rights management code embedded) that converts easily and fully, without problems.

I can’t help but get the impression that Amazon designed Kindle Create with Vellum and similar products in mind.  By offering this free alternative to other, more expensive software, Amazon might be aiming to keep authors within its marketplace and discourage them from “going wide”.  If so, I think the company has succeeded to a large extent.  Kindle Create certainly produces a higher-quality product than mere conversion of files, and allows for a certain amount of “tweaking” (no, I did not say “twerking”!)  For many authors, particularly those who plan to publish in e-book format only, or who will rely on Amazon to convert their e-books to print format, that will probably be enough.

Kindle Create’s interface is, obviously, different from Vellum, but what it tries to do is almost identical.  I find it somewhat restrictive, in that it only offers fonts and previews platforms that Amazon supports, and isn’t easily customizable to achieve the results I want.  For example, in many chapters and sections I’ll indicate location through a sub-heading, as the action jumps from place to place (sometimes several times within a chapter).  I want it to look like this:

Kindle Create image 1

Unfortunately, Kindle Create’s default mode for sub-titles looks like this:

Kindle Create image 2

The sub-title (“Rousay”, in this case) is in a different color, font and text effect from what I want, and (more importantly) doesn’t align precisely with the body text below it.  I can make those adjustments manually, but I haven’t (yet) found a way to successfully automate it every time.  It’s tedious – to put it mildly! – to have to go through three manuscripts, each of about a hundred thousand words, to do that.  Kindle Create’s pre-set parameters appear to be (perhaps deliberately) complicated to change, and to make that change universal.  (However, someone more familiar with the program may have found a way around that.)

Kindle Create does produce better-looking text than the basic file-upload conversion offered by Kindle Direct Publishing.  Here are two side-by-side comparisons, to illustrate.  KDP’s automatic conversion is on the left:  Kindle Create’s spiffed-up output is on the right.  Both screen captures are the same image size.

Kindle Create image 3

Kindle Create has definitely produced a far more readable text layout.  I’d say it’s well worth using by those who are selling their books only on Amazon.  However, as mentioned earlier, it won’t be ideal if you want to publish your work in print, or through other vendors besides Amazon.

An Airless Storm - second draft cover - blog size

Vellum is not restricted to any one book vendor’s format or platform.  Unfortunately, it’s only available for Apple’s iMac computers.  It won’t run on the iPad or other Apple hardware, and not at all under Windows or Linux.  Even so, when I was investigating it, the reviews and recommendations (including from our own Sarah Hoyt, and here on Mad Genius Club by Amanda) were so strong that I decided to “bite the bullet” and purchase an iMac to run it.  So far, I’ve not been disappointed, even though the combined costs of a factory-refurbished Mac Mini computer, its factory extended warranty, and the software came close to a thousand dollars.  I think that’ll prove to be money well spent, once amortized over several books and series.  (If you don’t want to invest in Mac hardware, you can run Vellum through an online service such as MacInCloud, which is a much cheaper approach.  I distrust cloud computing, and prefer to have a local computer so that I’m not dependent on an Internet connection for critical software, but that’s just me.)

I find Vellum easier to use than Kindle Create.  That may be as much personal preference as anything else, of course, but Vellum seems to me to be more intuitive and easier to understand.  I was able to customize its elements much more quickly than Kindle Create’s, and apply them universally as well.

Vellum does the same sort of work as Kindle Create, but previews its effects across a wider range of viewing platforms (including cellphones, tablets and e-book readers from multiple vendors), whereas Amazon’s software is obviously restricted to that company’s own products.  Vellum also offers more customization options, almost inviting one to get creative rather than fit into the pre-packaged templates provided.  I’m no graphic designer, but I’m enjoying learning what I can do as I get more experience with the program.

To give you just one illustration of how things are going, here’s the same chapter excerpt I demonstrated above from KDP’s conversion software and Kindle Create, as produced by Vellum.  At present, it’s using the program’s preset parameters for titles and headings.

Screenshot 2018-05-10 19.24.34

I do find the Vellum output easier to read, and better formatted (for my tastes – YMMV, of course).  I’m still experimenting with different fonts, layout options, etc.  I expect, by the time I submit “The Stones of Silence” for publication, it’ll look somewhat different from the above example – and, hopefully, even better!

As for print publication, Vellum promises a seamless transition from e-book to paper.  I haven’t tried that yet (I’m going to hold off on print editions until all three books are live in e-book format), but I’m looking forward to it.  If the program produces output as good-looking in dead tree format as it does on the screen, I think it’ll have justified its price, and the cost of the hardware to run it, particularly because I regard it as an investment for the long term, to be amortized over multiple books.

Speaking of seamless transitions, writing this article has been fun.  I started it on my Windows laptop, where I ran Kindle Create.  I used the Opera browser to access WordPress and write these words, the Firefox browser to access Amazon.com and the Kindle Create help page to which I linked above, and the Kindle Create software itself.  Having completed my review of the latter, I put the laptop to sleep, pushed a button on a USB switch to transfer my keyboard and mouse to the Mac mini, and brought up Vellum on that computer, using its Safari browser to log into WordPress again and write the rest of this article.  I used Windows’ snipper tool to obtain the screen captures in the first part, and Apple’s screen capture utility to “snap” the Vellum example above.  Everything worked just fine.  Seamless indeed!  For those of you who, like me, were around at the dawn of the personal computer age in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, that’s almost mind-boggling compared to the complexity and lack of interoperability we had to endure back then.

 

39 Comments
  1. Vellum and a Mac mini are on my wish lists as well currently. At the moment I will muddle along with my ancient laptop and get things done for the moment. Will have to check out the fiancee’s computer and see what OS she’s running.

    May 11, 2018
  2. I love using Vellum and have done so for both e-book and print outputs. Right now, I’m using it on my Macbook Air. The latest update to the program has corrected some of the problems but I noticed one issue is still there. When you preview an e-book in the Amazon app on an iPad, not all the bells and whistles show up. They are there on my MacBook Air, on my PC laptop and on my Kindle but not in the iPad app. Shrug. The mss still looks better than what i could do without lots of tweaking using any other program.

    May 11, 2018
  3. I’m tempted by Vellum …. but not by having to go Mac to enable it.

    May 11, 2018
    • Especially with the added cost of the Mac which, with their update cycles and Vellum likely ‘keeping up’ with their OS updates mean buying a new mac on a regular basis. Yeah, not worth it.

      May 11, 2018
      • My MacBook Air is 7(?) years old. I basically use it only for writing and converting — with additional writing and editing often done on the PC laptop. I bought the MBA used off of Ebay from a local college kid. He’d had it about a year but hadn’t used it much. Y

        May 11, 2018
        • I’m looking at Vellum’s system requirements and the ‘supported’ OS’s. Unless Mac’s stopped playing cute tricks with their BIOS and using it to obsolete their own operating systems, if Vellum keeps up with the rate Mac releases there OS the ‘supported’ is likely to drop off the bottom end and the hardware won’t take the newer OS. It was one of our frustrations keeping the things imaged. Anything older than 3 years was… iffy. Anything greater than 5 years old, but newer than the old cathodray tube macs got squirrely depending on which program we were trying to run, so I’ve got reasons to be gunshy when, at a minimum, the Mac doubles the cost of the program.

          May 11, 2018
          • Peter Grant #

            Remember, you can run Vellum on a Mac emulator, as mentioned in the article. That cuts down the cost by a large factor, and removes the obsolescence factor.

            May 11, 2018
            • Fair, I’d missed that part.

              May 11, 2018
            • Will Vellum run on a Hackintosh? or on MacOS in a VM ??

              Not that I’ve had any luck getting a Hackintosh to run either… I loathe MacOS, and detest Mac hardware, but from what I’ve seen Vellum may be the one thing to make it worthwhile. In small doses.

              May 11, 2018
              • danielshumphreys #

                Yes. Running it on a custom Hackintosh Mini I built. System specs are nothing to sneeze at, either, compared to the laughable hardware in the “new” Mac Minis. 3.2GHz dual-core, 16GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, Blu-Ray drive, running High Sierra.

                May 11, 2018
          • This.

            You have every reason to be gun-shy about the Macs. And no, y’all dedicated mac users, I’m not going to have an OS argument with you about it.

            May 11, 2018
            • Apple: It’s Unix with a layer of GUI stuck on to keep people’s fingers out of the gears. A stupid GUI at that.

              I have three OSs running here at Chez Phantom these days. Mostly Windows 10, there’s a Mac and some iPads/iPhones kicking around, and Android. The Apple OS is the biggest problem to do anything with, every time. There is always some hidden button you’re supposed to know about.

              Linux, after all these years, is still unusable as a primary desktop. It works well for things like Screenly, as a router, as a firewall, or running a NAS. But desktop, no.

              I’d like to be able to use Linux, because everything else I own phones home to the factory. Windows, Apple, Android all phone home, all the time. The apps and programs phone home too. But I can’t use it, because I’ve got work to do. I can’t be spending four hours a day figuring out why my email doesn’t work.

              Even the Mac works without needing to be a computer engineer. Its just a pain and they’ve deliberately made it incompatible with everything else in the world. I see no reason why I have to pay money to subject myself to that every day.

              May 11, 2018
              • I’ve been using Linux Mint now (64 bit) for almost two months now. It works and works well for what I need. Have Libre Office, Zim, and a few other programs. Had to switch because the Vista OS wasn’t cutting it anymore and was slower than molasses for everything. Just wish there were more programs and such available for it.

                May 11, 2018
              • Zan Lynx #

                I’ve used Linux as a primary desktop environment for programming since wow, 2000.

                I’ve mostly used the Redhat and Fedora distributions with a couple of side trips through Gentoo and Ubuntu.

                So in my opinion the Linux desktop has worked great for 18 years.

                But then, I’m a software engineer and Linux has always worked intuitively for me. It works just as I’d expect it would. Because people just like me write it. 🙂

                May 13, 2018
  4. I’m a Mac user through-and-through. The sales director at Apple can go home and sleep soundly at night that I’m a customer for life. So, Vellum was a no-brainer for me. I find the interface pretty good, the caveat being you’re talking to a former user of Quark Express and Adobe Page Maker.

    I’ve also learnt, grapple with InDesign; the current page design typesetting program du jour. All I an say is, I much prefer to layout my books in Vellum. The cost-benefit analysis is hands down in favour or Vellum.

    Still have to use InDesign for laying out the covers though.

    May 11, 2018
  5. Has anyone had good results going from Word DOCX straight to MOBI using Caliber? Book 1’s release aproacheth, I conned an artist into doing me a cover. ~:D

    Also, is there any downside to a Baen-ish cover design? Currently that’s what I’m working toward.

    May 11, 2018
    • Peter Grant #

      I think you’ll find the conversion results are pretty poor from a typesetting/layout point of view. I’ve done that conversion myself, for use in proof-reading and editing (i.e. I read the book with my Kindle software, while I edit and make changes in LibreOffice). However, it’s basically just a file conversion, not adding fancy formatting. You’ll need something like Kindle Create or Vellum to spiff it up.

      May 11, 2018
    • From previous discussions here, there seem to be issues if one is using MS Word, and LibreOffice, back and forth, for formatting. If you’re looking at purely ebook though, exporting to PDF first might serve better.

      May 11, 2018
    • The last few times I tried it, the HTML conversion step made hash of the .doc and I had to re-do the .doc file, then reconvert until the HTML form looked right, THEN go through Caliber. Vellum is a lot less irritation and fuss, thus far. Once I remember to use a .docx, not .doc at the first step.

      May 11, 2018
    • I haven’t done it that way in years. Before I went to Vellum, I’d go from DOC or DOCS to ePub, usually using Atlantis or Sigil. Then run it through Calibre. Going to ePub first and being able to easily edit the HTML helped but, I’ll be honest, using Vellum is the easiest, most seamless conversion I’ve done to date.

      May 11, 2018
      • When I was doing that, Caliber would not accept .doc or .docx straight. You had to convert to HTML. Apparently that has changed [yeah!]

        May 11, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      On my to-do list is experimenting with interactions of Calibre with rmarkdown documents exported to Word from RStudio. (RStudio is not layout software. It is a GUI for the R statistics package, so this is an experiment likely to go poorly even if I knew what I was doing.)

      May 11, 2018
  6. Uncle Lar #

    Starting with a clean MS Word manuscript in Times New Roman I first import the file into Calibre. I then edit the metadata, adding author, publisher, and series information. The final edit is to attach the cover jpg graphic.
    I then generate epub and a mobi files from that enhanced Word file.
    Final step, open the mobi either on Kindle for the Mac or crossload to my PaperWhite for inspection. Then I open the epub in iBook reader to review that file.
    Upload the mobi to Amazon through your Kindle publishing account and the epub to Barnes and Noble, sit back and wait for the cash to roll in. Both pay monthly with a 30 day delay. Go through a publisher or POD service and they will take a percentage and hold your money for at least 90 days. I understand that some publishers only pay quarterly and have been known to sit on reimbursements for quite a bit longer than 90 days.

    May 11, 2018
  7. I love Vellum. After buying it I immediately imported all my books into it and generated new MOBI files. I’ve got 13 ebooks produced with it – including one with illustrations – and am very happy with all of them. I’ve also generated print files for four of the books – including the illustrated book – and have been equally pleased with the print results. Not only does Vellum produce great looking books and ebooks, it’s incredibly easy to use.

    I can readily understand why people might be reluctant to spend money on a Mac just to run Vellum. That’s a lot of money to spend just to run a single program. I already owned a Mac before discovering Vellum, but if you release a lot of ebooks and POD books I think it’s worth buying a used or refurbed Mac just for Vellum. Obviously, YMMV, but I readily abandoned my previous ebook and print file generation solution – Scrivener – after five minutes working with Vellum.

    May 11, 2018
  8. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Draft2Digital. You can use their formatting (for epub, mobi, and PDF) without distributing through them. And it’s totally free.

    I’ve been using it for all my ebooks.

    But not for print. I do the PDFs for CreateSpace in Scrivener (2 so far because I’m totally puzzled by the compile options in 3) because I want to use the same font on my title page and headings that I use on the cover and D2D doesn’t accommodate that well. Another writer I know did try the D2D print function, but it has a major flaw in that it hyphenates too many words rather than using kerning to adjust for a right-justified margin.

    I do use a Mac and I keep meaning to try Vellum, but since I’ve been using free options for years, I balk at paying for it. From what I hear, it’s probably worth the price, but somehow I can’t get past that.

    May 11, 2018
    • I like Draft2Digital – much more user-friendly than Smashwords, alas.

      May 11, 2018
  9. Christopher M. Chupik #

    So, what I’m getting here is that Vellum is good.

    May 11, 2018
    • I must say it certainly looks good, the output Peter is getting is very nice. What I’ve been getting from Caliber is marginal, with weird line breaks etc.

      May 11, 2018
    • I did the Familiar and Shikari books on Vellum.

      May 11, 2018
    • Vellum is very good. One thing Peter didn’t mention is if you contact the creators/help desk, they are very responsive to your question.

      May 12, 2018
  10. If it wasn’t for the fact that this is only for the Mac, I’d be enthusiastic about it. Otherwise…my opinion hasn’t changed since college about Macs. (I.e. they’re overpriced PCs with an even more deliberate obsolescence curve attached.)

    May 11, 2018
  11. John Farmer #

    Alternativeto only shows three suggestions for Vellum.

    Like all crowd sourced info, info about less common tools tend to get fewer suggestions.

    https://alternativeto.net/software/vellum/

    May 12, 2018
    • I’ve used Sigil. I like it for editing the html. However, the last time I used it — and it has been awhile since I’ve been using other programs for the last year or more — it still didn’t give the ease of use or the quality of output of Vellum unless you are very good at editing HTML.

      May 12, 2018
  12. 23skidoo

    May 12, 2018
  13. If I missed this in all the comments above, I apologize, but will Vellum run on a MacBook Air? It seems so based on their website (which wasn’t incredibly detailed). Also, do you write directly in Vellum or compose first in a word processor such as Word or LibreOffice and then upload? Thanks.

    May 13, 2018
    • I suppose you could write on Vellum, but it doesn’t have most of the basic features Word or other dedicated word-processors do. You can edit in Vellum, but not cut and paste or move chunks of text, as far as I can tell. I have not really tried writing in it.

      May 13, 2018
      • Thanks. It’ll be a while yet before I’m at that stage in my novel’s development, but it’s good to think ahead.

        May 13, 2018
  14. Jutoh is another program of this type. I’ve been using it for about a year and am very satisfied with the results. It runs on either a Mac or a PC. It outputs a variety of formats, among them epub and mobi.

    May 13, 2018

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