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feature image formatting software on laptop, tablet, and phone

If you want your book to look professional, it needs to look great inside and out.

The design effort that goes into a book cover is pretty obvious. Book covers look artistic.

But designing the inside of a book takes a lot of work too.

This may not seem obvious, so let me explain. Interior book designers make a LOT of artistic decisions, like:

  • chapter title design
  • heading and text fonts
  • line spacing
  • how bullet points and lists look
  • how to position charts and tables

If any of these decisions aren’t cohesive with the rest of the design, your book won’t look good—and it won’t represent you the way you want it to.

Readers might not know why it looks unprofessional, but their gut instinct will tell them something’s off as soon as they open the book.

That’s a big mistake, and it’s why we recommend hiring a professional to design your book’s interior as well as the cover. This is not something you can easily do yourself, as evidenced by the fact that interior designers charge a lot of money for their work.

That said, there are a few tools on the market that can make it easier for Authors to handle their book’s interior design on their own (assuming you can’t afford a professional, which can be the case for some Authors).

They each have their limitations, but for Mac users, Vellum software is the best option.

This post will walk you through the options for designing your book as an indie Author, as well as the pros and cons of using Vellum.

Book Formatting Options

Once your manuscript has been professionally edited and is ready for publication, you have several options for formatting the book’s interior:

  1. Hire a professional book designer
  2. Buy Vellum and do it yourself
  3. Use other book formatting software to do it automatically

Before I get into the Vellum review, I’m going to briefly go over the pros and cons of each of these, so you’ll see where Vellum falls within your range of options.

1. Hire a professional designer

Professional designers go to school for many years to learn all the skills they need to design your book’s interior. These include:

  • Understanding spacing and design, both artistically and mathematically
  • Using professional design software like Adobe InDesign
  • Understanding the special coding requirements needed for ebooks
  • Understanding the mechanics of book printing and its pdf requirements
hands coming together

When you hire a professional designer, you’re not just hiring an artist. You’re also hiring a software specialist, a coding specialist, and a print specialist, all in one.

You can’t learn those skills in a week or two, and you shouldn’t expect to. So a professional designer will save you a LOT of time and many mistakes (which are inevitable as you learn what you’re doing).

The only downside to hiring a professional is the cost. They are not cheap. Prices can run from $1250 and up. If you can afford it, you should do it.

But if you don’t feel like you can afford it, you can still learn how to design a book interior yourself—and there are tools to make it at least a little easier.

2. Buy software like Vellum

Adobe InDesign is the professional standard software for print book design. But trying to design your book with it is virtually impossible if you’ve never used the software before.

InDesign is extremely powerful but also incredibly complicated. The software was created to let professional print designers do just about anything when it comes to print layout (which is exactly why it’s so complex).

Software like Vellum is designed to make things a little easier.

It’s different from InDesign because it’s designed only for book layout, and it’s intended specifically to help independent Authors with the formatting process. That makes it a lot easier to use.

Of all the DIY book formatting options, Vellum is the best, but it’s only for Mac users. And it’s definitely on the expensive side compared to its competitors.

Why do they charge so much? Because the rest of the competition is still pretty awful.

3. Other book formatting options

For PC users, your options are even more limited.

Some people use Scrivener, but I personally can’t stand it. And I definitely don’t recommend it. You’re welcome to read my Scrivener review to find out why.

There are a few book formatters that take a Microsoft Word file (the industry-standard word processor), convert it automatically, and give you back a pdf print version as well as an ebook—but you get what you pay for.

I haven’t seen any of these that look even remotely professional, and I don’t recommend them.

If you only want to design an ebook without a print book (which I don’t recommend), you can use an ebook conversion tool like Calibre along with an ebook coding tool like Sigil for all your ebook formatting.

But that’s a huge undertaking. You have to be extremely comfortable with coding, and you have to create a slightly different version of the code for each retailer’s unique requirements.

In short, your best option for a single book is to hire a professional. But you can use Vellum instead if you’re a Mac user and you’re willing to make both the time and financial investment.

What Is Vellum Software?

Vellum software is book-layout software for Apple / Mac. It can turn your book’s manuscript from a docx Word document into both:

  • the files you need to distribute your ebook to retailers and
  • the files you need to print your book’s interior

If you’re creating an ebook, you’ll need to have your digital cover ready so you can add it directly to your ebook inside Vellum. Finished epub and mobi files have to include a cover.

Vellum can help you format your ebook and then convert it into the ebook formats you need to upload your ebook to Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and just about any other digital distributor with the generic epub file option.

In the case of a print book, Vellum helps you create the book’s interior file.

An interior file is a pdf file that contains the layout for all the pages of your printed book. It doesn’t include the cover image for the front, back, and spine.

Because Vellum only creates the interior file for print books, not the cover, you can use it to generate either a paperback interior or a hardcover interior. If your paperback and hardcover are the same size, the only difference in the interior file will be the ISBN on the book’s copyright page.

But you’ll need two completely different cover files for each one, designed by a print professional. Vellum can’t create those for you.

How Much Does Vellum Cost?

Vellum costs $249.99 if you want to create both print and ebooks, or $199.99 if you only want to create ebooks.

You pay that price once, and then you can create unlimited ebooks (and print books if you pay the extra $50). But if you only plan to write one book, that’s a relatively high outlay.

Before you spend that much on software, I recommend downloading the free version first. That way, you can see how difficult the layout process will be for your specific manuscript.

I also recommend researching professional interior designers. An experienced, hands-on designer will charge you more than $250. But look over their portfolios and think about the needs of your manuscript before you decide not to pay for professional help.

If you’re writing a memoir or any other book that has a relatively simple layout, the process won’t be as difficult as it will be if you’re including charts, graphs, illustrations, tables, and so on.

But here’s the thing:

book margin lines

A book can look professional or unprofessional over something as trivial as an interior margin.

I’m not exaggerating. A book’s interior margin needs to be wider for a longer book than it does for a shorter book. That’s because the process of gluing the pages to the spine takes up more interior space when a book has more pages.

You could finish your entire layout, send it to the printer, and get a finished book that looks terrible—even if it looked great on your computer screen.

Like anything else in life, you’re not going to do it perfectly the first time. It’s going to take some learning and experimenting until you really get it right.

If you’re only writing one book, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth taking the time to learn a skill that you’re never going to use again.

What Can Vellum Do?

The best way to learn what Vellum does is to learn from an expert. Our head of book production, Ian Claudius, created this video that’s designed to walk first-time Authors through using Vellum.

If you’re thinking about buying Vellum, I strongly recommend that you watch it.

1. Layout design

The first, most obvious thing Vellum does is help you to design your book’s interior.

To do that, it offers several pre-designed book style templates to choose from.

Vellum has better templates than any of its competitors, but they’re still only templates. You’ll need to make some smart decisions to make good use of them, and that’s not any fault of the software.

There are just serious limitations when using any book design software if you’ve never laid out a book before.

You’ll still have to choose things like:

  • margins
  • line spacing
  • drop caps (or not)
  • ornamental breaks (or simple lines)
  • layout rules for tables, charts, and photos
  • how to start the first paragraph after a section break

A ton of decisions go into formatting a book. And you’ll still need to review every page once you’re done making your design choices.

You need to make sure your print layout doesn’t have any weird lines sitting by themselves at the top or bottom of a page—or any mismatched pages where the left-hand and right-hand pages look off.

Vellum usually does a good job with these things, but no software can beat a well-trained human eye. That’s the real problem with doing book layout yourself—you don’t have the professional training to know why something does or doesn’t look professional.

As a result, the process ends up being a lot of hit or miss:

“Did that fix it? No, that’s worse. Wait, is this the problem? Will this fix it?”

If you’ve never laid out a book professionally and you want to use Vellum, I strongly recommend that you pick up a few professionally published non-fiction books and study how they’re designed.

Pay attention to things like line spacing and margins. Look at section headings, chapter headings, chapter breaks, heading styles, the font style that starts each new section, how different callouts are highlighted, page headers, page footers, and so on.

Check out the table of contents, the title page, and the back matter—all the pages and details you don’t usually pay attention to. They can be the difference between a book that looks professional and one that doesn’t.

Do this for both print and ebooks.

We take these things for granted as readers because we’re just reading the book. But there’s an art to interior design that most people aren’t aware of.

If you design your book with any software, even Vellum, you’ll need to learn as much as you can about that art form to make your book look professional.

2. Metadata

Metadata is data about your book that helps people find it in stores like Amazon Kindle or iBooks. It includes things like the title, the Author name, the ISBN, the publisher, and other identifying information.

The metadata also determines how your book is listed in someone’s ebook reader, including the title, the Author name, and sometimes the subject matter.

Vellum has a place to capture this data, but you’ll have to enter the information yourself. This is true in ANY book layout software, not just Vellum.

If you’re using Vellum Press for print as well as ebooks, make sure that you change the ISBN between the two editions. You can’t use the same ISBN for your print and ebook.

3. Previewer

Because ebooks are digital products, they’re much harder to design than print books.

Ebooks use “reflowable text,” meaning the text can change based on user preferences and the device they’re reading on.

A reader can make the print bigger or smaller. They can read on an iPad, a Kindle, a phone, or any size device. All the text and images in the book have to adjust automatically to fit those needs while still looking professional.

What that means for an ebook designer—whether you’re a professional or a DIY self-publishing Author—is that you can’t control where anything falls on a page or even how many pages there will be in your finished ebook.

Even worse, some ebook retailers redesign your files automatically to apply certain header styles or margins that match their own branding as a retailer. And some of them interpret your ebook’s code in unique, non-standard ways.

For first-time designers, it can be a nightmare.

Vellum has a previewer tool to make this at least a little easier. It lets you see ahead of time how your book will look on different devices so you can catch most problems right inside Vellum, saving you a lot of time.

But it’s NOT a substitute for checking those files in each retailer’s own tools.

Why not? Because retailers are quirky. Each system is a little different from the rest, and there’s only so much Vellum (or any other software) can do to predict how your ebook will look on every platform and on every device.

If you watch our video on Vellum, you might notice that the book has some pretty tight margins when viewed through Kindle’s preview system—much tighter than they looked in Vellum.

That’s a perfect example of why you can’t rely on Vellum’s previewer tool exclusively.

Even using Vellum, the process of laying out your ebook and setting your style options is going to take a lot of back and forth—check, then fix, then check again—before it looks great on every device for every retailer you want the book to be on.

4. Ebook generator

When you have an ebook design that looks great on Vellum and you’re ready to test it on different retailers, Vellum will create the ebook files you need for:

  • Kindle
  • iBooks
  • Nook
  • Kobo
  • Google Play
  • Generic epub for other retailers

You can choose the ones you want, and Vellum will package up your book, creating a separate ebook file for each retailer you pick.

This will keep you from wasting time hard-coding an ebook yourself using a tool like Sigil.

Vellum gives you one file where you can make any necessary changes. This prevents you from having to make individual changes across all those different files (Kindle, iBooks, and so on).

But here’s the catch:

Fixing something for one retailer can screw it up for another.

That’s the reality of ebooks. It’s not a limitation of the Vellum software; it’s a problem in the ebook market itself. There are a lot of different best practices for different retailers, and they aren’t all compatible with each other.

Vellum’s templates provide a solid base to work from, but you’ll still have to go back and forth among different retailers to figure out a balance of what works best overall for your book.

Now, if you’re planning on writing a LOT of books, that might be worth your time. Once you figure out the settings that work best, for both print and ebooks, you can apply those settings to future books.

But if you’re NOT planning to write a lot of books (most successful Scribe Authors write just one), formatting your book on Vellum probably isn’t worth it. It’s going to take you hours and hours of work to figure out a system you’re only going to use once.

That said, if you have more time than money on your hands but you can still afford Vellum, it’s the best option for first-time Authors.

Just don’t expect the process to be quick and easy.

5. Pdf generator

Compared to the ebook layout process, the print layout process is a lot more controlled and a lot more predictable. It still requires a trained eye to be done well, but at least you only have to design the book once.

Printed books are literally printed from pdf files—a file format that’s designed to look exactly the same no matter who prints the book for you.

But there are still a few quirks about printed books that you should be aware of:

A. Printing presses aren’t perfectly consistent

Printed books can come out lighter than they look on your screen, especially if you’re offering your book as print-on-demand (which is true for most self-published Authors).

That’s because print-on-demand machines tend to get a bit lighter as they get lower on ink. So keep your text, charts, photos, tables, etc. as dark as possible. Light grays can wash out completely, essentially disappearing from your final book.

B. Interior margins depend on the length of your book

As I mentioned earlier, a book with more pages needs a bigger interior margin to account for the spine. Choose your printer/distributor ahead of time, and look up their specific recommendations for book margins based on the length of the book.

Do NOT go by what looks good on your computer screen.

C. Printed books need extra space along the edges

Printing presses are physical machines, which means they’re not 100% perfect. If they print a page even 1/16 of an inch to the left or right (or to the top or bottom), you’ll end up with a book that looks odd—unless you account for that.

What does this mean to you as a DIY designer? It means you shouldn’t put footers or headers too close to the top or bottom of the page because they won’t end up exactly where you put them every time.

It also means that if your book has art that extends to the edge of any page, the printer needs to print that page bigger and then trim off the edge to make sure it looks right. Printers call that extra space a bleed margin.

If you want to do anything complicated like that, I strongly recommend that you use a professional interior book designer.

Not only will they understand the art of design, they’ll also understand the ins and outs of printing presses, pdfs, and the special settings your printer needs to make your book look fantastic.

D. You’ll still need a cover

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll have to create a completely different cover file for your printed book. I strongly recommend using a professional designer for that, even if you decide to create your interior yourself using Vellum.

To design a great cover, you have to contend with all the art and design considerations that professional graphic artists are trained for—and you also have to know a ton about printing.

Your home printer is NOT the same thing as an industrial printing press. So unless you’re a professional book cover designer with print experience, you need to let someone else design your book cover for you.

Bottom Line

Vellum might be a good tool for your book’s interior design IF:

  1. You use a Mac
  2. You’d rather buy software than pay a professional
  3. Your book’s interior design is relatively uncomplicated
  4. You have a detail-oriented mind
  5. You have an artistic eye
  6. You’re comfortable with computers and software
  7. You have the time and patience you need to do it right
  8. You’re willing to accept the need for trial and error as you learn

If any of those 8 statements isn’t true, don’t use Vellum.

The software is the best in its class, but using it isn’t as simple as making a few decisions, hitting a button, and getting a finished book. No software is.