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