Ebook production tools, part 2: Vook

This post is a follow-up to my earlier review of PressBooks. Like PressBooks, Vook is one of the new breed of online ebook publishing tools that have emerged over the last few months. The third one we’ll look at will be Inkling Habitat. There are several others in this category but these three offer a good overview of the field.

Before these tools came along, there were two main options for most small to mid-sized publishers (and many larger publishers) who wanted to roll their sleeves up and produce ebooks in-house from a manuscript.

  • Online conversion services. Upload manuscript and image assets to an automated service (Smashwords, BookBaby, Kindle Direct Publishing, etc) — low cost, low skill requirement, low volume, and low flexibility. This is basically, a conversion service rather than custom design and production service. The limited design input happens mostly in the source Microsoft Word document.
  • Desktop design and conversion software. Design and/or conversion using fairly technically-challenging tools like Calibre, KindleGen, Sigil, Jutoh, or Adobe InDesign with its EPUB export (or Kindle export using a plug-in).

The three online tools we’re reviewing fit somewhere in between these options — simpler to use than most desktop tools, more flexible and customisable than the online conversion services. Each one of them, with its own features and strengths, offers publishers a great way to move to a more hands-on and customised phase in their ebook strategies.

Of course, with any ebook production system — especially one that gives you plenty of room to customise — there’s an important caveat: Just because you can customise it doesn’t mean you should customise it. The fact is that every deviation from plain vanilla risks messing up on someone’s e-reader. That’s not to say you shouldn’t push a few boundaries, but understand the implications, especially if you’re planning broad distribution through major ebookstores.

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Vook’s roots in enhanced ebooks

Vook logoVook started life as a publisher of enhanced ebooks, incorporating video, audio and interactive features into its works (the name was a play on ‘video books’). In early 2012, Vook released the rich media publishing platform it had developed as a do-it-yourself online service for publishers.

Vook is a paid service but also provides a limited free account which gives you access to the full suite of publishing tools.

Easy-to-use visual editing

Compared to the more basic (but entirely free) PressBooks system, Vook’s publisher tools are slick and offer a more extensive range of features, all wrapped in a friendly user interface. And in keeping with the company’s roots as an enhanced ebook publisher, Vook includes the ability to produce enhanced ebooks with video and audio (but remember the caveat above).

Vook's visual content editor

Vook’s visual content editor (click to enlarge)

Getting content into Vook is done via its file uploader which accepts Word (doc and docx) and EPUB formats for the text, plus images, video, and audio files. If your books are in Adobe InDesign files, you can output them to InDesign’s EPUB format and import this file into Vook. The recommended text format is Microsoft Word and you’ll get better results if major elements such as chapter titles and headings are marked up with Word’s styles. For advanced formatting, you can also upload your own style sheets in CSS (cascading style sheets) format. You can create a custom style sheet for your house style by downloading one of Vook’s four standard styles, modifying it if you’re handy with CSS, and uploading it.

An alternative to this is to use one of Vook’s more advanced features, its very user-friendly Style Editor. This offers fine-grained control of styling, includes a good range of attractive fonts, drop caps, heading and body styles, tip boxes and image formatting, and text wrap on supported devices. The Style Editor provides a code-free way to modify the default style sheets, or one you’ve copied and uploaded. Once you’ve tweaked a style sheet, you can apply it to other ebooks to provide a consistent house style.

Vook's style editor

Vook’s visual style editor gives fine-grained control to layout, modifying the underlying CSS without any coding required. (Click to enlarge)

Vook will output two formats, EPUB and Kindle, and claims to fine-tune multimedia files to match popular devices. You can download preview files (watermarked in free accounts) to review and test on target e-readers.

Distribution service optional

Vook adds a distribution service — currently only to Amazon, Apple and Barnes and Noble with their limited country support, but shortly to also include Vook’s own store — with a real-time sales reporting dashboard. The distribution service is included in the monthly fee if you’re on a monthly plan, or covered by a one-time US$89 per title fee. Publishers then receive 100% of sales receipts. Sales through Vook’s own store are charged on a commission basis with Vook keeping 20%.

Vook’s distribution is optional and you’ll probably want to do some self-distribution anyway to reach beyond Vook’s three ebookstores and limited country markets. As usual, non-US publishers will have to apply for US tax exemption to avoid or reduce the 30% US withholding tax deduction. Vook helps with this process.

Not keen on full D-I-Y?

For those who like the idea of editing control but aren’t keen to be completely hands-on, Vook offers a contract production service called VookMakers which was launched shortly after Vook’s release. You can contact Vook for a customised quote.

Summary

Vook’s platform offers a good taste of things to come. With its emphasis on ease of use in a reasonably powerful editing environment, it’s likely to be a good option for publishers who want more control than a fully-automated service offers, but with a less ‘techie’ approach than first-generation desktop conversion and editing tools like Calibre, Sigil or Amazon’s KindleGen. The fact that it all takes place online is a bonus for team editing which Vook offers, especially if your team includes freelancers working from remote locations.

If you’re keen to be hands-on, but you’re still grappling with the technical stuff, you’ll also appreciate the effort Vook has put into  its clear and useful documentation and video screencasts. Vook’s latest pricing compares favourably with automated self-publishing services like BookBaby (US149-$249 per title plus $19 per title for distribution), and with outsourced ebook conversion services, though the latter is a better option if you need to work from hard copies or print-ready PDFs, neither of which is supported by Vook. Higher volume users can subscribe on monthly plans which Vook quotes separately.

http://vook.com

See also, review of PressBooks.

And subscribe to eReport and we’ll email you the final review in the series, Inkling Habitat, as soon as it’s published.

Comments (8)

  1. Bryan Harnois

    Substantially the article is really the best on this laudable topic. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates.Just saying thank you will not just be enough for the wonderful lucidity in your writing.
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  2. Anne-Marie Concepcion

    Martin, great post. I’m so happy you’re tackling this subject! I was just talking to someone who said his client did an EPUB of a nice trade book using Vook and the fee was about $200. He asked if my epub design/production services were similar and I said, well I need to learn more about Vook apparently. :D Looking forward to your upcoming reviews.

  3. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Thanks, Anne-Marie. There’s a lot happening in the tools area which has been a weak point for the industry — though I suspect there will be a new boom industry in QC’ing the outputs made by enthusiastic users:-)

  4. C.A. Collins

    A million thanks for your Vook review . . . I was poised to go with Smashwords . . . but as I want to incorporate visuals – videos on subsequent releases. Taking your advice (my geeks helping me on the first download echoed similar sentiments) keep it simple or as you noted – vanilla. So I shall wait off choosing e hokie pokie till vanilla download is smooth as silk. Cheers, C.A. Collins

  5. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    @ C A Collins. Thanks for the feedback, good to hear about your experience with Vook.

  6. Dr Jay

    Which would be the best e-conversion service for a 4 color book based upon photography and illustrations? Text is one thing, but color photography is quite another.

    Thanks

  7. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Dr Jay, there are quite a few options but this is still an emerging area.

    One challenge you’ll face if you’re after very high reproduction quality for photographic images is the wide range of screens you need to accommodate, both in terms of resolution (the number of pixels or dots), and proportions (eg 4:3 ratio, or 16:9 ratio of width:height).

    Another issue with very visual works is that you’ll typically have to produce two versions of each page – a portrait and a landscape version which can increase cost and design time. Alternatively, you might just choose to fix it so that, eg, it’s only able to be viewed in landscape mode.

    You’ll also have a choice to make: whether you opt to produce an app or an ebook. For ebooks, you’ll probably want to consider the new “fixed layout ebook” formats which keep the precise layouts.

    There’s no reason that the Vook system couldn’t be used but there are others in this field. Others that have a stronger image rather than just text focus are:

    * Graphicly http://graphicly.com/
    * Papertrell http://papertrell.com/ (brand new service, still in testing mode)
    * Aerbook Maker http://aerbook.com/ (This one is aimed at the kids book market which sounds like it might suit some of your needs).

    If you’d rather use a service rather than do-it-yourself, there are many out there. A couple that might be worth looking at are, both of whom offer fixed layout options:

    * BookBaby http://www.bookbaby.com/
    * eBook Partnership (UK) http://www.ebookpartnership.com/

    I presume you’re only asking about a digital edition, not a printed book too. If the latter, a new service providing high end print is Milk Books. http://www.milkbooks.com/. Another is Blurb which also offers digital options. http://www.blurb.co.uk/

  8. Arun Benty

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for mentioning Papertrell in your comments. We are not in testing mode anymore and are in private beta and are providing limited access to a few select publishers and authors. Let me know if you are interested in evaluating us, will be happy to give you access. You can sign up on http://www.papertrell.com and I’ll get in touch with asap with access details.

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