Rosser Writes

Alternative apps for creating paperback novels

A review of four alternative apps for creating paperbacks for print-on-demand services. I look at Apple Pages, Vellum, Affinity Publisher and PrinceXML.

As I get closer to releasing my first paperback, I’ve been experimenting with several apps to create a well-laid-out book. The aim is to create a PDF that's ready for popular print-on-demand (POD) services, such as Amazon's KDP.

While I have Adobe Indesign, and used it professionally for nearly 10 years, I no longer want to use it. The version I have is old, doesn’t run on my Mac, and I have no wish to subscribe to the Creative Cloud.

So, my chosen alternatives to play with are Apple Pages, Affinity Publisher, Vellum and PrinceXML.



Apple Pages

Pages is a rather interesting app. Ostensibly, it is Apple’s free word processor for the Mac and iOS. However, like the famous line of robotic toys, there’s more than meets the eye.

Apple Pages - more than meets the eye
Apple Pages - more than meets the eye

Pages is built with Apple’s ecosystem in mind, not just its devices but also its retail empire. Pages can produce attractive ePub3 books ready for sale on Apple Books. You can even publish directly from Pages itself providing you have an iTunes connect publisher account. But, we’re talking about paperbacks, so I’ll temper my enthusiasm.

Pages is built from the ground up to support Apple’s Advanced Typography libraries, provided by Core Text. Pages supports a bunch of typography controls like ligatures, kerning, base-line shifts, and more.

Finally, can switch from a word processor to a layout mode, giving you fine-grained control over page elements (including master pages) like you’d find in Indesign. The icing on the cake is macOS’s first-class support for standards-compliant PDFs, critical for acceptance by the POD services.

Enough of the waffle, here’s the output showing three pages for the title page, chapter heading page, and regular page.

Book laid out in Apple Pages
Book laid out in Apple Pages

I was more impressed with Pages than I had any right to be. I was able to create an attractive design quickly and with a surprising amount of control. It’s effortless to use, though a little quirky in places like creating sections. The app has almost all the features I need to design a novel — both a paperback and ePub.

If you have a Mac or iPad, and you need to create a book, I would seriously start with Pages.

Note, if you’d like to see a full tutorial about how I created the book in Pages, please let me know in the comments.



Vellum

If you know nothing about design and desktop publishing, but you still want to create your books, Vellum is the product for you. In terms of its ease of use, it is without peer. Simply import your manuscript and Vellum will create a beautiful ePub and paperback with just a few clicks.

However, power and simplicity come at a cost. 1. it’s Mac only, and that won’t change. 2. The designs are template-driven with little scope for customisation. 3. It’s $250 American, or an eye-watering $410 Australian.

Fortunately, there’s an unlimited trial version that allows you to evaluate the app, but you can’t export anything. It’s enough though to learn the product and get a good sense of what it can do.

Since you can’t customise the designs, I couldn’t make the book look the same as the one I created in Pages and Affinity Designer. However, I did like what it was able to do, and I appreciated how well it handled things like widows and orphans, and balanced page spreads. That’s not easy to do, and the developer and typographer in me know that a lot of meticulous and complicated programming went into the creation of this app by people who give a damn about aesthetic book design.

Anyway, here’s what I was able to create in Vellum, in less than three minutes (I timed myself).

Vellum book and chapter titles
Vellum book and chapter titles
Vellum page spread
Vellum page spread

Vellum impressed me with its design, ease of use and output. The app does one thing, and one thing very, very well. Beyond the basics, you can add elements such as the front matter, with a click. Vellum can also produce multi-volume box-sets with ease — something authors publishing via Kindle Unlimited will enjoy.

And yet…

Vellum is a hard sell, given its price for me as the Australian dollar declines against the US. If you’re a Windows user, you have the added financial woes of buying a Mac too — and yes, this software is so revered in the indie publishing world that many authors do just that. There’s an undeniable appeal to being able to crank out good lucking books at record speed. Those who churn out serial fiction in high volumes (I’m looking at you, romance and erotica writers) will gain the most value from Vellum. If you only produce one book a year, it’s just not worth the price unless you can subsidise it by selling formatting services to other writers.

I don’t think I’ll create a full tutorial for Vellum — even if asked. It’s straightforward to learn, and you’ll get the idea after a few minutes of experimentation. Download the trial and see if it works for you, but gird your loins for the inevitable disquiet you’ll feel about wanting the app.



Affinity Publisher

Affinity Publisher is a new, traditional desktop publishing app made by Serif, the company that created Affinity Photo and Designer — rivals to Photoshop and Illustrator, respectively. Publisher is Affinity’s answer to InDesign. Serif's Affinity suite is making a serious challenge to Adobe’s mind-share among designers looking to escape ruinous subscription pricing.

Affinity Publisher is also available for macOS, Microsoft Windows, with an iPad version coming out at some point.

As an experienced user of InDesign, it didn’t take me too long to find my way around. The interface is beautiful, and performance is excellent, even on my ageing 2015 MacBook Air.

Affinity Publisher
Affinity Publisher

I imported my text as a DOCX file and set about to recreate the design I created in Pages. Here’s how it turned out.

Title page and chapter page
Title page and chapter page
Chapter spread
Chapter spread

Affinity Publisher excited me as a product. While it’s not as easy to use as Pages or Vellum, it’s the obvious choice if you have a background in InDesign or QuarkXpress and don’t want to pay their exorbitant prices. As of April 2020, Affinity has put all their products on sale at 50% off, meaning you can buy Publisher for less than $40 Australian (USD 25).

Note, if you’d like to see a full tutorial about how I created the book in Affinity Publisher, please let me know in the comments.

PrinceXML

This app is for the nerds — those who like writing in markdown and building publishing workflows. I can’t honestly recommend this path for the average author, but I suspect I’m not the only one on this planet who finds this kind of thing appealing.

For a particular type of writer, once you go down the plain text path, returning to WYSIWYG word processors and page layout apps, is hard. There is an elegance and robustness to plain text that cannot be rivalled by proprietary formats. As a writer and a developer, I enjoy the Zen-like experience one achieves when separating content from presentation.

Converting markdown to a beautiful book isn’t as easy as it should be. Markdown is built for the web, not print — but that’s where an uber-geeky (and expensive) app like Prince can help

PrinceXML is a potent command-line tool for macOS, Linux, Windows and even BSD UNIX. It’s more commonly used on a server to transform HTML and XML into PDF using CSS paged media extensions. There is a desktop licence, however, and I use the version in my professional life to produce product and training manuals.

Since this setup is fiddly and more time consuming, I decided to build a minimum proof of concept, focusing only on the main body of the book. Here’s what I came up with.

Book created with PrinceXML
Book created with PrinceXML

In all, I was rather impressed by what Prince can do. The typography is undoubtedly pleasing to the eye. I did run into an odd font issue and had to change the title font to something Prince could embed. My only real concern with Prince is it doesn’t handle balanced spreads, widows and orphans, or fine-grained spacing. Manual tweaking isn’t possible, and Prince’s typesetting algorithms aren’t made for books.

Still, it was an interesting experiment.

I’m hesitant to offer a written on using PrinceXML to create and format a paperback. Not because it’s a challenge, but because the audience at best is a niche, within a niche. It’s only going to appeal to markdown and CSS aficionados — and only those prepared to fork out for PrinceXML’s USD 495 desktop licence. Still, if that doesn’t put you off, and you ask me nicely in the comments, I’ll write the tutorial, and I might even share project files I used to create the book — just minus my book’s content, of course 😀



Concluding thoughts

Ebooks are easy to create these days, but printed books still present a challenge to indie authors intent on doing it themselves. Design, layout and typography take years to master. Regardless of who you are, there are options for you.

For the (affluent Mac-using) indie author looking to build a career writing and publishing lots of books, Vellum is a no brainer. It produces PDF and ebooks with ease, and the results look fantastic — assuming you like the templates, and don't want to change them. The price is steep, but it's cheaper than a year's subscription to CC, and many of the unscrupulous vanity presses out there who prey on indie authors.

For the not so affluent (Mac or iPad user), seriously give Pages a look. Given its price, ease of use and the good looking PDFs it produces, the app punches above its weight. No, it won’t give you the complete control of Publisher, or the click-button ease of Vellum, but it is an excellent middle ground.

For those who don’t mind learning — or you already have experience with InDesign — you can’t go wrong with Affinity Publisher. It’s every bit as capable as InDesign for a fraction of the price — and it works equally well on macOS and Windows. Download the 90-day trial and see if you can make it work for you.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any thoughts, or there’s an app you prefer, feel free to comment below.

Cover Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral



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