Pixar Veterans Launch Vellum, An App To Help Authors Craft Pixel Perfect Ebooks


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Vellum is an app for the Mac developed by a team led by two Pixar software veterans that are trying to make the process of creating ebooks less painful. The app allows authors to publish ebooks on Apple’s iBookstore, Amazon Kindle and Nook devices, but the advances here are in how the app enables live previews and fine-tuning.

Ebook creation is an awful experience. The Kindle process is especially poor, with dozens of interlocking parts that must be juggled in order to convert, format, tweak and publish a book. And even then, authors are largely taking a stab in the dark as to how their books will look when they’re live on the store.

Apple took some steps to make this process easier with iBooks Author, but I’ve spoken to some folks who have published there and even its tools have their quirks. And it’s not even close to being cross-platform friendly. Once you’ve gotten a project to look how you’d like it to there, you have to do it all over again if you want to publish on Kindle or Nook or any other platform.

And, after all of the massaging through the laborious multiple-tool process, authors are often left with a product that looks fairly boring and generic. Well-crafted books with gorgeous fonts, nicely presented chapter and header formatting and a highly customized feel are too often the sole purview of publishers with teams of formatting experts.

Those are the issues that spurred Vellum’s Brad West and Brad Andalman to look into creating a tool to help authors get the same kind of access to great book design as major publishers.

“Authors care about how a book looks,” says West, but he notes, “when a book is self published, you can tell. If they had the tools, [authors] would want to make better looking books…the barrier is the tools. Vellum tries to address that.”

West and Andalman spent over a decade each at Pixar (West started there in ’96) working on building software and animation systems used on films like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2. West helped develop Pixar’s next-gen animation system that was first used on Brave (under ToyTalk’s Oren Jacob). Doubtless their expertise in building software tools for creators informed their decision to move on to…building software tools for creators.

Vellum is a free Mac app that allows you to import your projects from your writing platform of choice like Microsoft Word. It then lets authors tweak and edit their books, taking advantage of the full suite of tools. Once it’s time to publish, a single book export runs $49.99, with unlimited re-export privileges for any platform on that book. You can also buy bundles of 3 books for $99 or 5 books for $149.

The core of Vellum’s experience is based on live previews that will show authors exactly what it will look like on a variety of platforms. The agnostic nature of Vellum means that it doesn’t have any agendas as far as the platform that they will support, like iBooks.

West acknowledges that Apple’s decision to limit iBooks Author is likely strategic but notes that when it’s siloed to a platform it’s simply not as powerful as it ever could be. With one Vellum file, an author can tweak and serve their project to any platform they wish.

The way Vellum handles typesetting is one example of how it improves on the complex process for Kindle publishing. Normally an author must use a series of tools to first convert a Word file, then lay it out, add customized fonts, preview and then export in a file readable by Kindle. If any formatting or type issues are found, the process must start all over again. Vellum allows industry-standard typesetting to be performed dynamically, updating as the content changes and handling spacing and indentation.

Vellum also allows the quick addition of copyright, epigraph and acknowledgement sections, all with an instant preview of the book. An author gets to see the book exactly as a user does without having to export to devices to check and manage them all. In addition to one-click support for iBooks, Kindle and Nook, Vellum also allows exporting to Epub files for distribution to beta readers.

The process of cross-platform ebook creation has remained almost incredibly static for years, all while the ebook market has been exploding and the barriers of entry to new authors has fallen. Amazon makes it easier than ever for independent authors to publish on the platform, but the tools they’ve given them are anemic and frustrating. It seems like there’s a real opportunity from a software team with experience in creating tools for creators to do something good for the industry. Vellum is available directly from 180g’s site here.

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