Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

Writer’s Insights: Vellum

Writer’s Insights: Vellum

There are many different tech tools on the market for authors. You can get any number of writing programs, which are supposed to help you keep track of your projects, develop character sketches, engage in distraction free writing, and so on and so forth.

A lot of these tools are ultimately unnecessary—you can make do with Word or pen and paper. Some of the features are nice or helpful, but not every program is truly “better” than the old standbys.

Ultimately, as a writer, you need to do about two things: Write and edit. If the program lets you do that, you’re golden. You could make an argument some programs are better than others (for example, Notepad lets you write and edit, but some would argue for the superiority of Word, and others would put a program like Ulysses and Scrivener above both of those options), but it’s a little neither here nor there at the end of the day, provided you have a manuscript.

You technically need to do a third thing: format. Formatting is important when you’re sending manuscripts in to editors and agents alike, but most publisher requirements are very, very basic. (In fact, some of Word’s defaults are preferred.) If you’re self-publishing, then things get a little more complex; you need to be able to format to create the print and ePub versions of your book.

There are also tools that help you do that. Vellum is one of them.

My Perspective

I’m a production editor by trade. I worked in-house for an academic publisher for seven years (and in the production departments of a couple of trade houses and other textbook publishers before that). My supervisor was a typesetter by trade, so she taught me a lot about page proofs, book design, and production editing.

It’s fairly safe to say I know my way around book design, and although I’m still a novice with InDesign, I can typeset a book. Now, InDesign is considered industry standard (for the moment). It’s a fussy program, and I have to say I’m not nearly impressed with the way it exports ePub. Exporting ePub from InDesign usually requires quite a bit of manual fixing up, at least in my experience. Luckily, I know my way around HTML as well.

However, I’m looking for ways to make my life easier. I had Scrivener recommended to me as a good way to export ePub (mmm, nope; still required lots of manual clean-up, although I’ll fuss with it and give it another chance). When I heard about Vellum, I thought I’d give it a go. I don’t have much to lose; if it makes making eBooks easier, then it’s a win for me.

What Is Vellum?

You can download Vellum for free and import any Word document you want to make your print or ePub file. Cool! It’s pretty easy: You hit the button, pick your file, and voila. The program imports it and styles it.

Vellum offers you eight styles or designs to choose from. I flipped through them. Most of them are very clean and simple. Chroma tosses in a splash of color, and a few of them have ornaments. They make lots of use of small/all caps and drop-caps. Most of the styles come with prebuilt settings for things like pictures and captions, block quotes, and paragraphs with ornaments. The typography is fairly solid; nothing overly fancy, but again, Vellum is focused primarily on making eBooks.

I wouldn’t use it to set a complex book for print, but if your book is fiction with minimal styles needs, then Vellum’s design choices are pretty solid. You can import something more complex, such as a self-help book with many different levels of headings and pictures. For most people, this will be enough.

If you want to dump your book into a program and be done with it, Vellum’s pretty good.

Limited Design Choice

I had some issues right off the bat—Vellum doesn’t seem to understand front matter and decided the “Notes” heading from my ToC needed to become a full-blown chapter in and of itself. It also placed this at the front of the book, rather than at the back, as indicated by the table of contents.

I have two more major complaints with the program. The first is customization. Yes, there are eight styles. But I think Chroma, for example, is ugly. It’s the only color option. I hate how the chapter number and chapter title are stacked on top of each other, off-centered, using two different shades. That’s largely personal preference, but here was my reaction as someone who critiqued the work of professional book designers for a living: Ugh. Bleh. Ick.

The interior of one of the Slapshot! novels.

Pictured: Custom interior design for a book, not a Vellum template.

I wouldn’t approve that design for one of my books.

Unfortunately, Vellum doesn’t offer you much in the way of customization for the templates. I can’t do much about Chroma’s use of two different shades and styling except take out either the chapter or number.

I can replicate these chapter openers and the typography relatively quickly and easily in InDesign. The nail in the coffin is I can customize far more in InDesign. It took me about ten minutes to replicate one of the designs in Vellum, and another five to make it look different. I have far more freedom to choose a font. Even if I stick with things that are supported by most eReaders, Vellum simply doesn’t offer the breadth InDesign does.

Part of the reason I have so many issues exporting from InDesign to ePub is because I have a lot of print-style flair in my design template. Exporting a Vellum-like design is going to net me fewer problems.

It’s All about the Money

Here’s the biggest problem I have: the price. You can download it and start using it for free. However, the second you want to use your design, you have to fork over.

Vellum costs $249 USD. You can buy a yearly subscription to InDesign for about $10 a month, or $120 per year. It takes two years’ worth of ID subscription to pay for Vellum. And Vellum doesn’t offer you the freedom to design. If you’re publishing enough books, you’re going to run through those eight designs pretty quickly. They’re solid designs, but you might want to mix it up if, say, you have different series. And so help you if you don’t like one of the designs.

Template design has its place. But not for double the price of freedom to design my own templates. Essentially, you’re buying eight templates for $250. That’s not a bad price, but it’s certainly bad economics when you can buy design freedom for $120.

The economic prognosis becomes even more dismal when you realize it takes fifteen minutes to replicate and redesign what Vellum’s offering you. I can redesign all of Vellum’s designs in two hours. Give me four hours and I’ll have twenty-four different interior designs for my books.

Do you need twenty-four different designs? You might. I personally like to create custom interior designs for my books, because I feel design should reflect, to a certain extent, the content of my book. This is especially true when you’re designing for print. Should you pay $5 or $10 or $15 for a book that looks like everyone else’s books? Since part of buying print in this day and age is literally the joy of the physical object, there’s a strong argument for custom design here.

Using Design to Enhance Reader Experience

For the most part, eBook readers aren’t designed to handle more complex interior design. You have limited fonts. Color display is limited to a few models. Readers set their own preferences (to make reading easier for them), and the machine will override any design rules the designer inputs. Design in eBooks is something of a moot point.

An eReader on top of a stack of books.

I almost guarantee that eReader formatting is not what the book interior looks like in the print versions.

If you’re publishing eBooks only, eight eReader-friendly designs are probably all you need. If you’re looking at print, you must consider design as a way to differentiate your book. Good design enhances content.

Trust me on this. We had a design at the academic publisher we called “friendly.” It used lots of sans serif fonts, lots of white space, different gradations of gray to denote different types of content. It was meant to feel friendly, welcoming, and even a little bit childish.

One time, somebody used that template to set a book about genocide. It was totally wrong. The design did not give enough weight to the subject matter; it felt flippant. Obviously, we went back and changed the design, because a serious subject probably shouldn’t feel “friendly” and “welcoming” and “childish.”

Design has serious ramifications. Design communicates to the reader, even in fiction. A sci-fi novel that uses a Regency handwriting script style for its chapter headings isn’t going to convey the right sense. Someone is going to get the completely wrong impression about this book.

I think this will eventually be brought to bear again in eBook design, so it will be important to remember design and its effects on reader experience.

For that reason, I think Vellum and programs like it offer an easy solution, but one with some serious limitations. In an era when it’s tough to sell print, you need to give people a compelling reason to buy.

The Time and Learning Conundrum

I’m standing here recommending InDesign, partially because it’s the industry standard, even though I know it has its issues. It’s not exactly the easiest program to learn, and it doesn’t export nice ePub in most cases..

If you don’t want the hassle of learning InDesign or you want a really quick, simple solution, buying a book template or something like Vellum isn’t a bad idea. If you’re seriously going to be publishing a bunch of books, take the money you save from not bothering with Vellum and purchase something like a Lynda.com course on becoming an ID pro.

Vellum says you can create beautiful books. Guess what? You can create even more beautiful books with InDesign.

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