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Road to Publication – Creation and Conversion Programs

Last week, several of you asked about what programs I use to during the writing and converting process. So today, I’m going to list some of the programs I’ve used (or that writers I know have used). This is by no means an exhaustive list. Nor does it cover programs for cover creation, photo editing, etc.

Let me start out by saying that I mainly write and convert on a MacBook Air. Part of the reason for that is to keep work separate from gaming. When the MacBook Air comes out, it is time for business. It doesn’t matter if I am sitting in my office, in the family room or the local coffee shop. Because of that, I am more familiar with the Mac versions of certain programs.

Writing:

As I’ve said before, I write using Microsoft Word. I know. I know. There are a lot of reasons not to use any MS product. Beyond that, Word is a bloated program with underlying coding that can really screw up how an e-book looks. However, Word has one thing going for it that is invaluable if you have other people beta read or edit your work–its review function. It is, in my opinion, the best of the alternatives out there for this reason alone. Add in the fact it is still the preferred program for traditional publishers and agents (if you’re going that route).

Alternatives to Word include, but are certainly not limited to, Open Office and LibreOffice. I used OO for awhile years back. I didn’t like the interface and, at the time, I was still using Smashwords as a third party distributor for my work. That is where the problem began. Smashwords’ “meat grinder” did not play well with OO and the converted works required major coding corrections. I don’t know if that is still the case but it was enough to get me to delete OO and look for an alternative.

I settled on LibreOffice for awhile. It is sort of the younger sib to OO. Both are open source software. Both are free. Both offer full office suites. And both lack the robust review features you get from Office. There was a time when LibreOffice was being supported and updated much better than OO but I don’t know if that is the case now. However, based on what I’ve heard from friends who use open source word processors, LibreOffice is the better of the two.

If you are looking for a Mac-based alternative to Word, you can check out Pages. I have it. I use it in very limited situations, mainly on my iPad when I need a quick conversation from a .doc or .docx file to e-pub so I can do a final read-through and I’m away from the MacBook Air. If you choose to go this route, please PLEASE read the ToS very closely. Apple had another program that limited the use of files produced from it for e-books to iBooks/iTunes. Make sure Pages doesn’t have a similar limitation before using it as your main product source.

Writing and/or Conversion:

These following programs can be used to either write your novel or to format it and export into e-book formats.

Scrivener. This is probably the most well-known of the three in this section. Scrivener started out as a Mac-only program. If you want something that will allow you to keep basically all your work, your notes, etc., in one place, this may be the program for you. The Mac version is still, imo, better than the Windows version, but both are powerful programs. My issue is that it is easy to get lost in all the things you can do with the program besides just writing. The learning curve is also fairly steep if your brain doesn’t immediately pick up on the ins and outs of it. But, there are some really good tutorials out there and they help. Another plus is there is an iOS version (possibly an Android by now. I’m not sure).

Jutoh. This, like Scrivener, is a cross-platform program. You can get it for Windows, Mac or Linux. Like Scrivener and Vellum, it is a paid program. Depending on which version you choose (vanilla or “Jutoh plus”) you can spend up to $90 or so. I know some authors who write in Jutoh but most of those I know who use it do so after they’ve written in a program like Word or Scrivener. They use it more as the PC alternative to Vellum. It will do much of what Vellum does but there are some bells and whistles, the things that make a book look more like a traditionally published book (drop caps, etc) that aren’t automated on Jutoh. You can do them, maybe, if you know the appropriate html coding.

Vellum. Like the other two, you can write in Vellum but I don’t. The interface isn’t optimized the way I like for writing. But damn, is it optimized for formatting. As with Jutoh, all you need is a document in one of the supported formats (.docx for Vellum works). You import it and you’re ready to start. You choose which of the styles you want, add the front matter and other titles matter (it allows you to link to each support store: Amazon, BN, etc) and choose which output formats you want. It will convert your .docx file to mobi, ePub and pdf files within just a couple of minutes.

There are three things to keep in mind with Vellum. While it is a Mac-based program, you can run it on a Windows machine if you don’t mind jumping through a few hoops. Basically, you have to set up a virtual Mac. I haven’t tried this but I have friends who have and who have had no problem running Vellum that way.

Vellum is also expensive, especially when compared to the other programs I’ve listed. If you only want to create e-books, Vellum runs $199. To use it to create both e-books and print books, you’re going to have to put out $249. To me, it is well worth the money.

Finally, and this is a strong point in the program’s favor, the devs are very responsive to suggestions and will quickly answer your questions if you email them. In fact, I’ve rarely seen a dev team more responsive.

Other programs you should have just in case:

There are two other programs you should have just in case you need to make quick tweaks to your converted files (or you want to convert something). The first is Calibre. This is actually a library management system, but it has a few extras that make it invaluable for writers and readers. The first is that it can convert files from one format to another. However–and this is a big however–its capabilities are limited and to do anything fancy with it, you need to know html coding. Formatting a file is not what Calibre was created for.

Something else to remember is that it is fine to go from a doc file to another format. Going from ePub to mobi is fine too. But do not go from mobi to ePub. You’re likely to find formatting issues cropping up if you do.

If you use Calibre to convert your work, please be sure to carefully check each page for formatting issues, especially if you are going from a Word document. I mentioned above that Word can be filled with junk code. Converting with Calibre doesn’t strip out the junk code and that can cause a number of issues from missing formatting to bloated files.

And this is where the second “just in case” program comes in handy. Sigil is another of those programs you can write in but I don’t know of anyone who does. What they do is import either html files or ePub versions of their novels and edit the underlying html coding. Sigil will then export to a new ePub file (sorry, to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t export to mobi. But that’s no biggie because Amazon will allow you to upload an ePub file or you can convert it using Calibre or a similar program). The beauty and power of Sigil is that it will strip out a lot of the junk coding left by Word and other word processing programs.

Full disclosure here. I haven’t used Calibre or Sigil since moving to Vellum. I don’t need to.

There are any number of other programs out there. These are simply the ones I’ve either used or those whose opinions I trust have used. As with anything, try them out–most have free trial periods–and see what works best for you.

Next week, I’ll talk about some of the programs you can use instead of spellcheck, etc., as well as a few other programs I keep in my virtual hip pocket.

Featured image from Mediamodifier/Pixabay.

21 Comments
  1. Sigil can produce MOBI files with the Kindlegen plug-in. (The MOBI files produced by Calibre should usually not be uploaded to Amazon, but the ones created by Amazon’s own Kindlegen can be.)

    Sigil also has a growing infrastructure of plug-ins that can be useful in the e-book creation process, but it’s not a word processor.

    October 29, 2019
    • Thanks, Joel. I’ll admit, my experience with the KindleGen have not been stellar. So I recommend anyone using it–or any other plug-in on any program–check the output files very carefully.

      October 29, 2019
  2. Laura M #

    Thanks for this. I write in Word on a MacBook Air. You’ve just about got me to shelling out for Vellum. Hmmm.

    October 29, 2019
    • You can try it for a bit of time. Do that and look at some of the YouTube videos before shelling out the money. But, if you do and if you do print books as well as e-books, I recommend buying the full suite.

      October 29, 2019
  3. Margaret Ball #

    Tried Scrivener once. My problem wasn’t (I don’t think) the learning curve so much as the numerous opportunities it offeretd to poke around a book without actually writing. “Oh, I can create these plot index cards… and shuffle them… and fill out these fields… and see where this character actually appears…” But my actual productivity took a nose-dive.

    Sigh. Back to Word. Long documents. Complete sentences. And when I get stuck on a plot problem, I open up another Word document and free-associate until I can see where I’m going. There’s something to be said for boringly conventional software.

    October 29, 2019
    • Margaret, that is my biggest issue with Scrivener. There are so many distractions. I will sometimes use it to get started but I always go back to Word. I’m also finding myself going back to paper and pen when I get stuck.

      October 29, 2019
  4. Uncle Lar #

    Personally I think Word 4 was the peak of their word processors. Everything since has been a downhill slope. That said I insist that my writers provide me copy in MS Word for the same reason Amanda chooses that format for review manuscripts, the track changes feature.
    With that turned on you create a running markup of every addition, subtraction, or change you make to the original manuscript. Of course when I open the file for the first time my first step is to do a save as, renaming it with something to indicate that it’s a working edit. I then turn track changes on and we’re off and running.
    Beta reads on the other hand can come to me in any and all formats. I work either on a Kindle Paperwhite or any of several Macs so I can open or convert just about anything. But with a beta I am reading for overall flow, continuity, subject matter mistakes, and in general whether the work in question is a “good read” which of course is a highly subjective value.
    I did a post on editing for MGC a few years back, keep meaning to update it and resubmit for post with a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way.

    October 29, 2019
  5. Draven #

    orrrrr… you could have someone that already knows and owns these apps do formatting… for a small fee.

    October 29, 2019
    • Yep. Which I have been known to do for certain folks.

      October 29, 2019
    • That’s an option with its own issues. If you don’t plan to change anything ever again, then paying for formatting is a great option.

      …It’s when you pay for initial formatting, then pay for reformatting after you corrected the typos or other mistakes that readers pointed out post-publication, and then pay to update your back matter when you put out another book…

      (because of course your formatter wants paid when they’re doing more work)

      …that buying the tools and learning becomes a fiscally wise decision.

      October 29, 2019
      • Which is what led me initially to learning how to format my own work, back in the days when much of it was done via html coding.

        October 29, 2019
  6. I write in the Linux version of Scrivener at present, because I like having scenes separated out in their own files for easy rearranging at need, but most of the “bells and whistles” are wasted on me. The program I really like is freeware called yWriter, but it’s not stable on Mint.

    LibreOffice has a track changes feature these days, but it takes a bit of poking around to find. That said, it converts okay to docx as long as you’re not using page styles (ask me how I know).

    If anyone’s wondering, Smashwords have updated their processes since 2009. 🤔 I have no idea how they’re still in business.

    October 29, 2019
    • Hasn’t, dang it.

      October 29, 2019
    • I used yWriter years ago and liked it. Went back to Word because of the review function.

      October 29, 2019
  7. LibreOffice does have a mark-up and comment feature now. I do not know if it appears in .doc files created with LO, or only in the .odt. The comments are a bit challenging to read, at least on my screen (small and condensed. That could be me, though.)

    October 29, 2019
    • That’s my issue is the way the comments are displayed. IMO, Word still has the best display where that’s concerned.

      October 29, 2019
  8. I shelled out for Grammarly https://www.grammarly.com/ the Pro edition a couple of years ago and at the beginning it was very helpful. Lately my writing has improved and it doesn’t catch too many mistakes anymore.

    That’s a problem because it doesn’t mean there ARE no mistakes, just that they’re the missing word/wrong word kind.

    I used to write in Open Office, but since being forced to buy MS Word for work, I use that now. And though I don’t like the subscription model, and I HATE the internet-connected, phone-home aspects of it, I have to admit it does a fine job.

    Remains to be seen how easy the final conversion to e-book is. Thus far I’ve had no issues with Caliber converting for my personal Kobo reader, but I plan to try some of the programs listed here.

    This was very helpful, Amanda. Thanks. 🙂

    October 29, 2019
    • Phantom, I’m going to talk some about Grammarly, ProWritingAid and a few of those sorts of programs next week. My issue with Grammarly is the limits on the number of pages/words you can check in a given period of time, even with the pro version. And, yes, everything you said about it not spotting issues is true. But it, like PWA, can be a useful tool if you use is right.

      As for Calibre, I have no problem using it for my own use. I just prefer a few more bells and whistles on work I’m putting up for sale.

      October 29, 2019
      • Oh look, an example! “…can be a useful tool if you use is right….”

        This is the kind of mistake I make constantly that Grammarly doesn’t catch. I keep finding stuff like that every time I re-read a chapter.

        In fairness to Grammarly, there’s no software out there that does catch errors like that. Its one of those human-level issues.

        October 29, 2019
  9. Scrivener noobie here. Still slogging up the learning curve after expending time and effort learning how to do junk like drop caps in KLO.
    My biggest headache, which NONE of these programas will solve. I’ve written almost 100 chapters, to be spread out into an undecided number of books in the series. 5-6? 10 maybe? SCRIVENER lats me arrange and rearrange, which is good, but the problem remains.
    Rzzzl-frzzl.

    October 29, 2019
  10. Mary #

    I use Word because I have to use Microsquishy products at work and keeping the same reflexive key combinations for functions is important.

    October 29, 2019

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