Interview with the creators of Vellum: Brad Andalman and Brad West by Michelle M. Pillow

Book formatting has improved by leaps and bounds over the last several years for DIY authors. In 2008 I remember staring at html coding to fix book errors, and utilizing multiple book generators to get all the formats I needed for all the vendors who had different requirements. It could be a time consuming nightmare. (Let me just say, zipped html file to make a kindle mobi). Then, I had to hope that the vendor’s grinder took the book and didn’t mess up the tweaks I’d made. And then, I’d have to hope that a vendor didn’t suddenly change a requirement or a device feature that made me have to go re-format backlist all over again. Yes, that nightmare happened on a couple occasions. Nothing like three straight days reformatting 75 gazillion books. (I may be exaggerating a little on the number)

Another thing worth mentioning about this company: The few times I’ve had questions or concerns, their customer service has been great about getting back to me with an answer.​Luckily, times they are a changin’. I’ve used darn near every program that’s come on the market over the years, and (if you happen to be a MAC user) Vellum is one of my favorites.  It’s fairly simple to use, has a fast learning curve, and the best part is they continually do updates to the program to keep it up-to-date with vendor standards. So, say Amazon decides they suddenly want all the TOCs (table of contents) to include a picture of a peanut butter sandwich, I’m pretty sure the Vellum guys would make that update happen. Why is that important? Because instead of my having to redo an entire book or mess with html coding, I simply open Vellum and re-generate the book file in a matter of seconds, upload and done!

The two creators of Vellum were nice enough to answer some questions about their software.

Thank you, Brad and Brad, for taking the time to talk to us.

What is 180g, Vellum, and how did the company come about?

BW: 180g is the name of our very small company, which counts the two of us (Brad Andalman and Brad West) as its founders, employees, developers, designers, customer support, marketing team, etc. We are both named Brad. Had we followed the recommendations of our family, the company might have been called “B-squared” or “The Busy B’s.”

BA: Or “Bradical, Inc.”

BW: To their dismay, we took the name in a different direction. We started the company after working together for many years at Pixar. Vellum is our first (and only) product, and is software for the Mac that helps authors create beautiful eBooks.

How did you go from animating films at Pixar Animation Studios to book formatting?

BA: Brad and I both worked at Pixar in a variety of roles, but we spent most of our time working on the software that the artists use. When we formed 180g, we knew we wanted to enter the field of “indie” software, but we weren’t exactly sure what we’d end up working on. We tossed around a lot of ideas until Brad proposed looking into eBook creation. Turns out, the process was a lot more complicated than we even imagined.

We thought that this was a perfect match for us: we could use our Pixar experience writing professional software, fuse it with our love of design, and make this process a lot easier for the independent author. Plus, we both really love books and book design, so we knew that writing Vellum would be fun, too.

BW: We’ve heard some people call it a big jump, but there’s actually a lot in common between building software for animators and building software for authors. Probably the biggest difference is that, with Vellum, we really wanted to focus on simplicity. Our goal was to build software that still had that same quality bar that Pixar is known for, but be easy-to-use, especially for an author who manages everything involved with indie publishing.

BA: Currently, Vellum can generate eBooks that are tailored for Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Google Play. For other, smaller vendors, we also introduced a “Generic” option. Though not specifically designed for any particular vendor, this version is suitable for uploading to sites like Direct 2 Digital or All Romance eBooks.What vendors does Vellum currently support? Any others coming in the future?

BW: Kobo, Google Play, and Generic are all recent additions, and round out the list of what we’ve heard are the top stores for authors. But we will continue to keep an eye out for others that may become important.

BA: I was in Berlin earlier this year and I picked up a Tolino…so, who knows, maybe that will show up for our German users one day!

What are some of Vellum’s most overlooked features for book creation?

BW: A feature that many of our users appreciate and that isn’t emphasized on our website is Store Links. Store Links can be used to link to other books you’ve published, but unlike a typical web link, actually has information for each store. That way, the Kindle version that Vellum generates will contain links to Amazon, the iBooks version will contain links to iTunes, etc. It’s a huge benefit for authors who go wide.

BA: Store Links are really useful, but they can also take some time to set up. So we occasionally hear from authors who want to know whether it’s possible to re-use their “Also By” pages or, in fact, any of their front- or back-matter. And the answer is: yes! Just drag an element from one Vellum document to another, and Vellum will copy it to the new book.

What are some of the most common mistakes authors make when starting with Vellum?

BW: We wanted to make it really quick to import a manuscript from Word into Vellum and generate an eBook. (Some authors have told us they can now do this in a matter of minutes, which we love to hear.) But we’ve realized that some new users get the impression that they have to go through this process every time they want to make a change.

For some, it takes a few books before they realize they can just come back to their Vellum file that they’ve saved and make the change there.

BA: We’ve also heard from some authors that they didn’t realize that they could change certain options within each Book Style. It’s not always obvious to new users, for instance, that even though they have selected the Kindred Book Style, they can click on the “Heading Style” and choose from four Kindred-themed headings. With all of Vellum’s sub-style choices, there are actually hundreds of possible style configurations, not just eight.

Does Vellum have any plans to format for print books, such as for Createspace?

BA: This is perhaps our most-requested feature! With the advent of print-on-demand services like CreateSpace or IngramSpark, print books are obviously an important market for many indie authors. Adding support for these services is something that we’ve been talking about a lot, and is a feature we’d love to add to Vellum eventually. It’s still in the discussion phase for now, though.

BW: Our biggest concern, aside from the amount of work that would be involved, is whether we can maintain the high bar for quality, and still keep Vellum easy-to-use. That’s certainly what we’d shoot for, but there are just a lot of variables involved with print, and they’re completely different than the ones for ebooks. So if we seem non-committal, it’s not due to lack of interest (on either end). It’s just that it’s too early for us to answer definitively.

UPDATE: Vellum now offers print formats.

What other author related products are on the horizon for 180g as a company?

BW: We like to think that Vellum allows authors to spend more time writing, but we know that indie authors have plenty of things to manage beyond just writing and formatting, and have wondered what products or services might also help authors. Right now, though, we think that focusing on Vellum is the right thing for us and for our users.

Will there be a Vellum for PC?

BW: We don’t have any plans at the moment. We do hear from Windows users, so we know there’s interest, but as a very small company, it’s not something we feel we have the expertise or the capacity to tackle right now. Some have suggested contracting out a port, but we don’t think that’s a way to build a great product, especially when we have a long list of improvements we want to make to our Mac version.

BA: (Brad, I promise not to mention

BW: Well yes, we have heard from some users who’ve used Vellum through MacInCloud. We’ve even heard from some who’ve gone out and bought a Mac. To be honest, we’re surprised when we hear this, but between Vellum, the Mac version of Scrivener, and being able to upload directly to iBooks, some authors have decided it’s worth it.

Specific Questions from RAMN Authors:

  • Is there a way to customize the scene break/format graphics, or do you plan to add more?
  • Will there be a way for an author to import their own font? For example, so they can make Chapter Headings match the cover art?
  • Will there be the ability to use thumbnail images that flow depending on the device size?

BA: One of the guiding principles for Vellum is to make eBook creation simple while ensuring a professional result on all platforms. We’re open to adding the ability for more customization, but we want to remain true to that principle. We’ve also received requests for more Book Styles and more style options, which we are excited to get to.

BW: Book Styles allow us to hide a lot of complexity, like the fact that different stores have different preferences for the formats of fonts and images, or that embedding a font in an ebook actually requires a specific kind of license. But we do recognize the value in customization, and we are thinking about ways authors can add their own touches.

As for more control over image layout, we have had actually heard a few requests for this, and we think it’s a great idea. We have it filed in our list of features to consider for the future.

What new features are in development that authors look forward to?

BA: A little bit ago, we released a major upgrade to Vellum (1.3) that made it really easy to create box sets. And our recent updates have introduced a few more features based on the feedback we’ve received since then. We’re currently thinking about what features to tackle next. If you’ve made it this far in this interview, then you’ve got a pretty good guess as to the list we’re choosing from!

BW: The 1.3 upgrade is when we added support for Kobo and Google Play as well. We had (and still have) a lot of possible features to choose from, but these seemed like what would most benefit our users based on what we saw as trends in publishing and what we heard via feedback. We’ll keep those same things in mind as we decide what’s next.

Thank you for joining us, Brad and Brad!

​Interested in learning more about Vellum’s features?
Visit the website

This interview was originally for Romance Authors Marketing Network on December 14, 2015.

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