Vellum: Taking the pain out of e-book publishing

As someone who has gone through the fun of self-publishing e-books for use on everything from the Amazon Kindle to Apple's iBooks, I know what a pain in the neck it can be to get everything formatted and set up properly for publishing. Even Apple's iBooks Author has limitations once you've actually created your book, since you need to have a developer account and know how to use iTunes Connect to get everything uploaded. Vellum (free) is a new Mac app released today from 180g that turns book publishing into a pleasure instead of a chore.

The company was founded by a pair of Brads -- Brad Andalman and Brad West -- last year. Before they made the leap to app development and electronic publishing, they worked at Pixar Animation Studios, both on the feature films and the animation software used to create those blockbuster movies. The idea with Vellum is to let people download the app for free, import their manuscript, play with styling and then view a preview that shows how their book will look when loaded onto certain e-readers.

Once authors are happy with the e-book's appearance, they can send the preview to "beta readers" for feedback and last-chance editing. When the e-book is ready to go, the authors make an in-app purchase -- US$49.99 for one book, $99.99 for three books or $149.99 for five books -- to generate a file that's ready to be uploaded to the appropriate e-book store.

That makes life a lot easier for author/publishers. Both Amazon and Apple have eliminated the requirement and expense to purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for each title, at least for domestic publishing. You'll still need to get an account for the publishing portals -- iTunes Connect for iBooks and Amazon Author Central for Kindle books -- and know how to submit the e-books.

Let's take a quick look at Vellum and how it works. To begin with, authors can write their manuscripts and save them in a Microsoft .docx format. Vellum opens the document, analyzes it to find where it thinks chapters are and then converts it to Vellum's native format. You can edit the documents in Vellum, so typos that have made it past previous editing can be corrected without the need to re-import the document. If you're starting from scratch, it's possible to create an entire book in Vellum without resorting to using another product.

Before you go further, you might want to add front- and end-matter to the book, which is a cinch -- you just add an element, whether that's a copyright, dedication, foreword or any other standard publishing item.

Once the contents are set, you get to select the style of the book. At this time, Vellum includes eight "themes" plus a number of choices for heading, first paragraph, block quotation, ornamental break and paragraph after break. They're all very nice and professional-looking styles, and it's possible to preview what the book is going to look like at any time just by clicking the preview button. If you don't like what you see in the preview (for iPhone, iPad, Kindle Paperwhite and Nook Simple Touch), it's easy to change what you're doing.

There's a tool for adding a cover image by dragging and dropping it onto a specific spot, and your entire book can be previewed for white, black or sepia pages if the e-reader supports those. You can also see how the layout will appear if the reader changes the font or font size.

When you're ready to test the book in e-reader software or on a specific device, you click the Generate button. Kindle publishing requires the free download of the "kindlegen" plugin, which Vellum thoughtfully provides an in-app link to. I generated the sample book for both Amazon (.mobi) and iBooks (.epub) formats, and was able to open both of the formatted files immediately in the native Mac apps.

All in all, I found Vellum to be an amazingly robust app for a 1.0 version, and I look forward to giving it a workout in real life. If you're interested in trying it out, I recommend downloading the free app and giving it a try.