“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” wrote Charles Dickens, in a sentence that happens to sum up almost every human experience in my opinion. But for technology, the one thing that brings that quote to mind most is eBooks. See, eBooks are a brilliant idea. With a simple tap, you can download a full book that’d otherwise have taken a trip to a book store or a wait of a few days from Amazon. That downloaded book can be read on your phone, tablet, Mac, or eReader, devices which you already cary around and most of which weigh less than the average hardback — and which can also hold hundreds and thousands of books. It’s a bookworm’s dream come true.
And yet, eBooks are far from perfect. For every beautifully detailed eBook, like those made for iBooks with iBooks Author, there’s a horribly formatted Kindle book that doesn’t do justice to any text. Or, there’s the low-quality scanned PDFs of books that you’ll find online from questionable sources, that’ll quickly convince you eBooks are a terrible idea.
But eBooks shouldn’t be a bad idea, and you shouldn’t need an interactive, multimedia eBook to make it nice. Enter Vellum.
Vellum’s a brand-new app designed to let anyone create beautifully laid out eBooks for every eBook platform at once. Built by former Pixar team members, Vellum is surprisingly the antithesis to the fancy, animated works you’d expect a team of that legacy to create. Instead, it’s an app to restore beauty to text, and make it simple to craft a beautifully typeset text eBook.
At its core, Vellum looks suspiciously like a modernized and streamlined version of Scrivener or perhaps a mix of it and Ulysses III. There’s a list of chapters on the left, and a simple rich text writing pane in the center. You’ll find standard bold, italics, and underline tools, typography options like drop caps and superscripts, along with options to enter a subhead, ornamental break, block quotation, or verse. That, along with a word count, is all you’ll find in your writing tools. There’s no options for adding photos or illustrations — it’s just focused on text. You can write in the app, or import your own text or Word documents, which it’ll automatically turn into the chapters and sections you need.
And then, it’s focused on making it simple to make that text look as nice as it possibly can on every eBook reading platform around. You’ll find a preview pane on the far right that shows what your book will look like on a Kindle Paperwhite, Nook Simple Touch, iPhone or iPad, complete with the standard font options on each of those platforms. You’ll also find 8 styles under the Styles sidebar tab that let you tweak how your book looks in general. You can’t actually change the themes themselves — there’s no options, say, to design your own header or footnote style, or bundle a new font with your book. Instead, you’ll find a set of pre made themes that you can combine bits and pieces of — the block quote style from one theme with the header style of another theme, say — to make your book look like you want.
Once you’re done, all that’s left to do is publish, since for once you won’t need to go test your book on a number of devices to see what it’ll look like. That’s where Vellum’s business model comes in — it costs $49 to generate eBook files for the iBooks store, Kindle store, Nook store, and in DRM-free ePub formats, and then you can buy bundles of multiple books for less together ($99 for 3 books, and so on). You’ll still need to submit the books yourself, but you won’t need to convert or tweak anything else since Vellum’s done the hard work for you already.
Vellum’s an interesting shot at making it just as easy to publish a non-interactive eBook as it is to publish a detailed iBooks book with iBooks Author, but its lack of tweakable options makes it slightly less exciting. It’s still a great way to simplify creating eBook formats for every eBook store, and preview how your book will look on each device, but I have to hope they’ll add more ways to make your own book stand out on every platform. But for now, anything that makes it simpler to create clean text eBooks that look great everywhere is a great step forward.