5 Free Alternatives to Vellum – The Ebook Conversion Edition

Vellum Alternatives for Ebook Conversion - www.alliepottswrites.com

While downloading ebooks to your reader is simple, getting them up on the cloud in the first place requires some work. I write my books using Word, however, just because you can import your manuscript’s formatted-for-print-ready Word document into Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

For example, you may want to include a table of contents in your ebook for easy navigation, but don’t want one in the print version, or you may want to include links in your ebook pointing readers directly to your other books, making purchasing faster. There are also other distributors besides Amazon that require a specific format for ebooks called epub. This leads me to the next step in the book publishing process – ebook conversion.

Vellum

Vellum offers formatting for print as well as ebook conversion. However, lacking a Mac or a bottomless checkbook, I’ve only been able to appreciate its service as a reader. I can tell it must be awesome to use though based on the number of books I’ve read featuring one of its telltale templates. Don’t get me wrong – it creates highly readable ebooks. I’ve just seen enough of the same decorative flourishes to recognize a Vellum ebook as soon as a chapter opens.

  • Pro: Super easy to use
  • Con: Costly at $199.99, it’s not available for non-Mac users (unless you go through a third-party service like MacinCloud), and your book looks like dozens of others making it more difficult for your author brand to stand out from the crowd.

Smashwords

Smashwords is an ebook conversion service and distribution channel. It is also one of the most difficult ebook conversion tools I’ve ever used. This is because Smashwords distributes your book to channels like Apple books, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble for you, and those channels may have slightly different requirements for an ebook’s file’s layout. Therefore, Smashwords is VERY particular about how your manuscript is formatted prior to releasing it to partner sites and works best with Word files. Fail their checks during the process they call “the Meatgrinder” and your book goes nowhere.

  • Pro: Converts to all major ebook formats including mobi, epub, and pdf for free. It also offers a tool for self-certifying your content does not contain certain taboo subjects, which increases the chance those who publish more risqué material can distribute their books to a larger audience.
  • Con: I am serious when I say this service is NOT recommended for people who don’t know how to use Word styles or are unwilling to read through an entire book of “style guides” prior to attempting to convert their file. There is a reason you can find people to hire on Fiverr to get your file ready for you. Also, once your book passes inspection, it is put up for sale without going through a secondary preview approval step. This means there is a risk your book could be published with typos or with a missing chapter as long as stylistically it fit within the Smashwords Style Guides.

It is worth however noting that Smashwords announced in February of 2022, that it has been acquired by competitor, Draft2Digital in March and that moving forward the company would operate under that brand name. This leads me to the next option:

Draft2Digital

Draft2Digital (affiliate link) is like Smashwords in that it is a distributor that also offers ebook conversion. However, it is much, much simpler to use. Upload your word doc, select a template, and then add in things like your social media links, mailing list link, or author page, and Draft2Digital spits out a book file you can either take and distribute through other channels yourself or distribute through them for a portion of future book sales.

  • Pro: It is fast, simple, and lets you download mobi, epub, and sample length versions of your ebook for free – even if you don’t distribute with them.
  • Con: Draft2Digital does not allow you to edit your file once it has been uploaded. Therefore, if you see a typo or a weird chapter heading, you have to go back to your original document, correct the error on the word doc and upload again.

As mentioned above, Draft2Digital and Smashwords are combining forces. Per their press release, the combined company will allow users to either take advantage of Draft2Digital’s existing, more user-friendly, but less customizable formatting tool for ebook conversion, or allow braver and infinitely more-patient authors the option of creating more unique ebook’s using Smashwords’ tool.

This merger will eventually make all Smashwords users, Draft2Digital (D2D) users, so if you are debating which of the two is best for you, I would recommend going ahead and signing up with D2D.

Kindle Create

Kindle Create is still somewhat limited in what it can do compared to some of the other ebook conversion programs out there. For example, there are only a handful of templates to choose from and it only exports a special non-mobi kindle-ready format. It also requires you to download the software rather than work online. However, it’s another free option that produces nice, clean ebook files, and unlike Draft2Digital, gives you the ability to tweak chapter headings or resize images without leaving the user interface.

  • Pro: It’s even easier to use than Draft2Digital, includes a kindle previewer tool that lets you see how your book will look on multiple device sizes, and free!
  • Con: It doesn’t export to epub or mobi file, which limits your ability to use it to create advance copies of your ebook that can be sent via email or service like ProlificWorks, Bookfunnel, or via email to early reviewers.

Reedsy

When you format a book with Reedsy (affiliate link) you have the option to either have them email you a print-ready file or send you an epub or mobi file you can then take to the ebook distributor of your choice. Like Kindle Create, you can edit your ebook’s appearance in the user interface, which is great, but its editing capability is limited compared to Kindle Create. For example, while you can correct a typo in your text without re-uploading, you can’t resize an image. I also had a very difficult time getting the program to properly format my character point of view sub-headings without messing up drop caps.

  • Pro: The ability to edit your book without leaving the user interface is a big plus over Draft2Digital the fact you can download in both epub and mobi is a great benefit compared to Kindle Create
  • Con: Reedsy does not allow you to select chapter-specific settings. For example, if you say you want to feature drop caps at the beginning of each chapter, the program inserts drop caps in every chapter—even in the glossary at the end, which can be distracting to the reader. Downloads aren’t as instantaneous as the other options either. You have to wait for an email and can only request a download every ten minutes. There are also only three templates to choose from. The service also makes it extremely difficult to delete a book from their service once it has been uploaded. You can archive it, but not delete it. Therefore, it is not recommended for those who aren’t yet sure they want to trust the security of other people’s servers with their manuscript just yet.

Calibre and Sigil

While you can technically use either of these programs by themselves, they really work best together. Calibre has the ability to take a Word Doc (saved as HTML) and turn it into epub or mobi file using the headers, fonts, or other decorative touches you specify. This makes layouts more flexible, and gives your books a more custom look than what you can do with the other programs.

Sigil is more of clean-up tool than a conversion program. You can import an epub file you created with Calibre or with any of the programs above (except Kindle Create as it doesn’t offer epub), then tweak it until it looks the way you want, giving you the ability to customize the files generated by other programs. It makes fixing those pesky typos that somehow managed to sneak past your edit process super fast once you get the hang of it, but until then…

To be clear, neither of these programs are for the technologically challenged, and both require some comfort with programming. Personally, I love Sigil now, but it was a hard-won love.

  • Pro: This combination gives you the greatest range of customization for your ebook’s appearance and both programs are free to us
  • Con: Both programs have a rather steep learning curve and may cause a person to shake their fist in the air, sob into the phone while wondering what they ever did to deserve such agony, or be driven to drink.

I am sure there are other programs out there, but these are the ones I’ve used the most. Now, one step done, one million other little things left to go.


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An Uncertain Confidence: Now available

Print Book Formats and Printing Options

The following is part three in my I Want to Self-Publish: Now What? series

print book formats and printing options

I love my kindle, but there’s nothing like the smell and feel of printed words on the page. That said, it takes a lot more work to transform a manuscript into something that people will be proud to display on their shelves than it takes to get your book into an ereader’s device manager. In addition, once you hit publish, your book is out there for all the world to see—typos and all. So if your publishing plan includes this format, be sure you are giving yourself ample time to get it done right.

Print Book Formats – Paperback vs Hardback or Hardcover

I will admit I take more pride in my collection of hardbacks than I do my paperbacks (shh – don’t tell them). However, the cost to produce a hardback is significantly more than the cost of a paperback, which means if you want to publish a hardback, you will have to charge your readers more to return a profit.

There are also significantly more service companies willing to help you produce paperback versions of your self-published book than there are print houses for hardbacks. As a result, as much as I love my hardbacks, I don’t typically recommend going through all the trouble of this book format unless you have an existing, proven fan base, plan to produce your book in bulk, which will help drive down the printing cost, or are publishing an illustrated board book for children.

Book Printers for Self-Published Authors

Once you have determined what kind of print book you plan to publish, the next step in the process is to find someone who will actually do the printing for you as most of us don’t have a professional-grade printer in our home offices with appropriate binding equipment. The available options will depend greatly on your physical location.

That said, a few of the options in the US include:

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP): Amazon’s print book division used to be CreateSpace, but this separate organization has been dissolved and now print books are produced by the same organization that manages ebook production. The service does not charge any fees for book setup or revision, however, its hardback option is best for children’s books as it does not include a more traditional dust-jacket option, and limits its global distribution feature to only a handful of book sizes.

IngramSpark (IS): great for selling hardbacks on Amazon or paperbacks online everywhere else. This service allows you to print both paperbacks and hardbacks, supports a large variety of book sizes, and will automatically distribute your book to several online retail sites. However, it does charge a setup fee and a revision fee unless you have a promo code.

Blurb: I don’t have personal experience with this service. That said, they do offer paperback, hardback, and photo book print options and have a partnership with Reedsy (affiliate link), which is a company that offers a free print book formatting program, plus hosts a network of editors and cover designers. While there are cheaper options in terms of printing costs, this could make it a great option for authors who want to keep everything related to their book project in one place.

Lulu: This service is very similar to what you can get with Ingram Spark, but does not require a setup fee. It also, in my opinion, has a better print quality than what is offered by Kindle Direct Publishing, but it costs more to actually print your book with this service versus the cost of printing with either KPD or IS. This means that while you might save some upfront investment using Lulu instead of IS, it will actually cost you margin in the long run. Still, it is another option.

BookBaby: I’ve not used this service to date, but BookBaby offers both on demand book printing service as well as wholesale book printing. It, like IS and Lulu, supports both paperback and hardback book formats, and can help you with book editing, design, and distribution in addition to printing your book. It also offers high-quality white paper that is specifically beneficial for photobooks and yearbooks with three binding options.

Local Print Houses: If you plan to stock your own inventory for resale, it is also a good idea to call around to see if there are any local printers in your area offering book printing service. While these smaller, local printers may charge more by the page than IngramSpark, they typically offer more design and formatting assistant services than what you can get from the national printers without paying significantly extra, and offer the benefit of face-to-face consultation.

Print on Demand (POD) vs Wholesale Book Printing

If you prefer not to hold inventory and plan to sell your physical books online then you want to set up an account with a print on demand (POD) organization. All of the printers I mentioned above support POD, with the exception of the local print option.

If you plan on selling books at speaking events or tradeshows then you need to use a print service that supports wholesale book printing. This means that the printer will produce your book in bulk, which benefits you by driving the individual book’s print cost down and allowing you to gain a higher margin on the sale. However, this model does require you to take possession of a carton of books at a time, so you want to make sure you are either comfortable housing that inventory in your home or are extra confident in your ability to sell it at an event.

Wholesale book printing can also benefit you if you intend to sell to brick and mortar bookstores, but unless you are a well-known name in your community, these stores typically will only stock your book on their shelves under a consignment model. This means that you only get paid for your book when it sells, minus their portion of the profit. They also might limit how much of their shelf space they are willing to let you have. As a result, you might be better off printing 3-5 books at a time under a POD model instead of ordering a full carton.

Bookstores aren’t the only option when it comes to brick and mortar sells. If you want to see your book on retail shelves, but wouldn’t mind a little less literary competition, I would encourage you to check out a book called An Author’s Guide to $elling Books to Non-Bookstores by Kristina Stanley.

Which is the Better Strategy?

You may start noting a theme here, but it’s worth noting that nothing I’ve discussed at this point is an either / or situation. You can set up your books with Amazon for online orders and still set the same book up with another printer to take advantage of bulk printing options. This is an especially helpful strategy if you want to sell both online and in brick and mortar stores as many independent book shops will not stock books printed by Amazon, who they see as a competitor.


However, if you would prefer not to navigate through a number of posts, I have also consolidated the entire series into a single downloadable PDF, which you can access by clicking here.

Editing Tools For Writers

Writers, whether they pursue traditional publication under the writer-agent model, publish under their own name, or sign with a smaller imprint, need to edit their work prior to submission. However, while some authors believe their background makes them a grammatical expert, the truth is no one should rely on a single set of eyes.

Unfortunately, professional editing services cost money, and as most reputable editors charge by the word, the cost to help you polish a full-fledged novel quickly adds up. I understand the temptation to do without. That said, I’ve also spent more than I would like to admit on editing services for words that, upon hindsight, never stood a chance of making it to the final proof copy.

Thankfully, while no online editing tool or plug-in is good enough to replace a set of human eyes—for now, there are several programs on the market today that can help you identify more than the occasional typo. Many can now check for tone, misused words, readability, and even provide recommendations to help your pacing. Even better, many of them are offered for free or at a price point that is low enough to pay for itself in short order.

As a result, editing software programs are critical applications for every aspiring author’s toolbox and can help you bridge the gap between rough draft and editor ready. I’ve used dozens over the years, some with more success than others. To save you from making many of the mistakes I have, I’ve compiled this list of those I’ve found to be the best for fiction and non-fiction writing.

editing tools for writers

Grammarly

According to my Grammarly dashboard, the program has been correcting my text since 2015, so it’s a tool that has definitely impacted my writing. In fact, it has caught at least three errors in this paragraph since I started typing. That said, I’ve found the program misses errors occasionally when I’ve used it with Google Docs and I’ve had to disable it altogether on certain websites, like VistaPrint, as it doesn’t play nice with their text box editor.

Occasional bug aside, Grammarly has a free plan that works well as a spellchecker online via its browser extensions or as a Word plugin. However, there is also a premium version of the service, which can help you check tone, sentence variability, and make sure you aren’t inadvertently plagiarising online content.

Grammarly Achievements

  • Pros – It’s hard to beat free and is great for catching things like passive voice, incorrect punctuation, or misused homonyms in your daily writing. Plus, Grammarly sends out weekly progress reports telling you fun things like how unique your vocabulary is or how long you’ve kept your writing streak going which is great for staying motivated.
  • Cons – It’s much better suited for shorter business or online writing than creative long-form writing as it requires you to disable features like track changes in Word to operate.

ProWritingAid

ProWritingAid is another editing tool you can download and run as a plug-in with Word or Scrivener to check your writing or to check your writing online using its browser extension. Like Grammarly, its Chrome extension is free, however, in my opinion, its paid features, like its overused, cliche, echo, and consistency reports are well worth signing up for the premium version if you are a novelist.

prowritingaid reports

  • Pros – I can’t even begin to describe how much time this tool has helped me save looking for things like a missing quotation mark at the end of dialogue and identifying my clutch words and phrases. It is also more stable than Grammarly in certain web forms.
  • Cons – The plug-in for Word doesn’t always load correctly the first time, which has caused me to shut down Word and re-open my file on a semi-regular basis. In addition, the reports it runs can be somewhat overwhelming and do take a while to complete a check for a full manuscript.

Fictionary

Full disclosure, I am somewhat biased as I was invited to help test an early version of Fictionary, but I absolutely love what this program has to offer (they’ve also added a ton of extra features since then). Unlike all the other tools in this list, which I consider more copy-editing software, Fictionary is designed to help you automate a development edit.

To use it, all you have to do is upload your manuscript and tag where your plot points are located. Fictionary will then tell you if your pacing is too fast or too slow with a graphical representation of the story arc. It can also help point out things that can help strengthen your story like are the five senses represented in each scene of your writing, has a character gone missing from the story, or are you varying your openings and closings enough to keep your reader interested.

Fictionary Story Arc
graphical representation of the story arc from Fictionary.com
  • Pros – While I still put more stock in beta reader feedback than I do a computer program, allowed me to perform a proactive developmental edit before I risked my reputation or burdened advance readers with a two-dimensional story.
  • Cons – Fictionary advertises that it can help you evaluate and revise your manuscript against 38 story elements. This sounds like a pro, until you are actually ready to make all those edits. If you are a pantser rather than plotter, you may not have had a goal for each scene in mind related to the overall plot or may have included scenes you loved to write, but don’t serve any purpose. Tagging all these elements in the software can be overwhelming as well as time-consuming. It’s also not free, which is understandable given its value but does offer a free trial.

Hemingway App

The Hemingway App, also known as the Hemingway Editor is offered as either a online editing tool or as a desktop app designed around making your prose more like Ernest Hemingway’s. That is to say, it will help your writing get right to the point, which is clearly something I need more help with. The tool highlights sentences that it deems too long, identifies adverbs that are keeping you from showing rather than telling, and warns you about passive voice, and gives you a readability score which can help you better connect with your target audience.

HemingwayApp

  • Pros – The free online tool loads quickly and features easy to interpret color codes which change in real-time as you edit your copy. The paid desktop version also lets you publish directly to WordPress and Medium, making it a great editing option for serialized stories.
  • Cons – Not everyone is a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s style of writing. Was I forced to read 127 pages about an old man trying to reel in a marlin? Yes, I was. Did I enjoy it? No, I did not. Also, it does not integrate directly into other word processing programs, meaning you can use it to tweak your copy, but then will need to export it to Word, text, or PDF before you can do anything with it.

EditMinion

Before I bit the bullet and purchased the premium version of ProWritingAid, I used EditMinion to help polish up my work before sending it out for a professional edit. EditMinion is a completely free online editing program, that helps identify cliche phrases, passive voice, adverbs, and missing dialogue tags. However, it relies on copy and paste, and can only check a chapter of your text at a time.

EditMinion

  • Pros – It’s simple and you can’t beat the price point. Also, because there is absolutely nothing to download, you don’t risk corrupting your files or crashing other applications.
  • Cons – Copying and pasting each chapter one by one into the program can feel agonizingly slow, especially when you feel like you are so close to the literary finish line you can practically taste it. The tool also does not help your writing outside of the app or let you know if you have accidentally misspelled a character name. As a result, I use it when I need a second opinion but rely on the other products for heavier edits.

I am delighted to report I have reached the end of an editing project yet again and will be releasing my fifth full-length novel, Lies and Legacy: Project Gene Assist Book 3 to the general public in March 2020. You can read more about this series by visiting my Project Gene Assist book page, or by visiting your favorite online retailer to pre-order a copy.

Project Gene Assist Series Banner

The Outdoorsy App: A Non-Review Review

The best part about the kids being in a scouting program is the excuse it gives us to get out into the great outdoors. The worst part about scouting is then sleeping out there.

After a series of shivering through near-freezing nights and huddling under nothing but a thin piece of treated nylon during thunderstorms, I decided that as much as I enjoy hiking, it might be nice to actually stay under a real roof during our next trip to the mountains. Luckily for me, my other half mentioned he was thinking the same thing.

He told me about an app he’d found called Outdoorsy.

Think of it like Lyft/Uber meets Airbnb/HomeAway. Only, instead of it being a ride-sharing program or app to let you rent out an unused room, you can use it to turn that depreciating asset/eyesore you call a recreational vehicle parked out front into a potential profit center. It also gives a person like me, the chance to actually try to see if RVing is the way to travel.

1998 Coleman Mesa – our home away from home for the weekend

It may be the fact that I live in an urban area and am centrally located between the mountains and the sea, but there were more than a few options for us to choose from when planning our trip. In the end, we decided to go with a 1998 Coleman Mesa pop-up trailer, which, thanks to its low profile, would allow us to travel around the sharp turns of the Blue Ridge Parkway and under NC’s historic stone bridges with ease.

It would also mean we would have a regular sized vehicle during the long weekend for taking us from one trailhead to the next. We thought that extra vehicle would be our truck.

Unfortunately, the holiday weekend meant we weren’t the only ones to hit the road for the weekend. Unseasonable highs hadn’t helped either as people, like us, sought higher ground and cooler temperatures.

We’d been stuck in slow-moving traffic for more than a couple of hours when suddenly the check engine light appeared on the dash. The truck began to groan. If that wasn’t bad enough, we were at the base of the mountains by this point, meaning our cell reception had already begun to degrade.

My other half looked none-to-pleased. He’d just gotten the truck, which is still relatively brand new, checked out by a mechanic prior to our departure. We pushed on, but at a slower, more careful rate. What choice did we have?

Her Royal Highness Approves

We finally limped into the campgrounds where my mom and stepdad (who’d had the foresight to drive separately) sat waiting. The sun hung low in the sky–too low to worry about pesky details like how we were going get home. We sprang into action. One crank raised the roof. Another lowered stabilizing blocks. We sweated in the effort, but it made me glad our rental harkened from good old 1998 when vehicle systems were still more mechanical than computer driven.

The most challenging part about the setup was figuring out where the various poles needed to shape the more tent-like portion of the camper, especially as the sun had fully set by this point, but even that didn’t take too terribly long. Soon we were settling in for a much deserved night’s rest.

Did I sleep better than I might in my regular tent? You bet I did. Though the camper shook anytime someone tried to sneak outdoors to … er… commune with nature, I remained thankful for the mattress under my back and the solid walls that could protect us against any unexpected change in weather.

We spent the weekend hiking and enjoying food cooked over the open flames of a campfire. My kids spotted waterfalls and at least pretended to be interested when the park ranger regaled us with the story of how the river running beside us got its name. Spoiler – it was violent.

Then it was time to return home. Cranks were turned in the opposite direction and support bars were safely stowed. The truck even managed to get us back home. Then all we had to do was drop the keys and the camper back with its rightful owner.

Would I use the Outdoorsy app again? Absolutely. I only wish I could give our truck an equally high rating.


Here are some additional pictures from our trip, which I hope you will enjoy:

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I Managed to See a Movie! (My Shazam Review)

A 30-second preview was all it took to convince my ten-year-old son that Shazam was a movie we absolutely, positively, had to see. It didn’t take much to convince me. I love superheroes. My other half… well let’s just say that the heroes he prefers to watch on the big screen typically prefer military fatigues to capes and tights. More importantly, I couldn’t help thinking that soon he’d rather watch movies with his friends than me.

If you aren’t familiar with the film, Shazam about a fourteen-year-old foster child, named Billy, who is given the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury (or S.H.A.Z.A.M), as well as the body of an adult. It’s also set in the same world as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. As a result, the characters are less motivated to find out how to use Billy’s new powers for the greater good (because saving the world is already covered by the more experienced heroes), then how they can use them to get out of school work (and other things).

Billy has no clue about the extent of his powers, and the series of trials by fire (literally, in one case) to test his limits. This caused me to laugh out loud several times throughout the movie. However, there is also a much more serious side to the film centered around the definition of home, family, and the impact a parent can have on their child. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into it, but be warned there are scenes where a couple of the characters learn their parents aren’t without flaws–some more severe than others.

During one of these scenes, I couldn’t help thinking that there was some cosmic irony at play, considering I’d made such the point to see this movie, of all movies, with my son. I snuck a peek at my offspring. How was he handling it? I wanted to reach for his hand and have him nestle his head on my side like he used to do whenever he was confused or afraid, but he didn’t appear to be either of those things. Guess, my son is growing up even faster than I wanted to admit.

I returned my attention to the reason my wallet was thirty dollars lighter than it had been the day before (this is also one of the reasons I don’t write very many first-run movie reviews). Superhero meets Super-villain. Cue the fighting sequences, collateral damage, monologues, and epiphanies one expects at these sort of things.

Shazam, in many ways, is a film mirroring its central character. Like the fourteen-to-fifteen-year-old kid on the screen, the movie doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. It’s not a comedy, but its not an action movie, or completely family-friendly fare either. There’s cursing, monsters, and more than one random death that sort of comes out of nowhere. As a result, there were more than a few times I was glad I’d left my younger son at home.

It may not have the hype of Avengers: Endgame (or the bankroll), but it still has plenty of heart and better executed than some of the other DC movies I’ve seen (*cough* Dawn of Justice *cough* Suicide Squad *cough*). Therefore, I’m glad I took the time to see it in the theater, even if the person I saw it with made it an even better experience than watching what played out on the screen alone.