The fat lady is warming up just offstage. Barring unforeseen glitches that need fixing, the Leafstone saga (or quartet, or series, or epic — pick your noun) is now complete. Tonight I uploaded the final files for the paperback editions of Books 2, 3, and 4. Within a day or two they should be live on Amazon, at the stunningly low retail price of $11.95 each. The e-books have been available for a few months now, at $3.99 each, so if you’re allergic to paper and ink you can save a few bucks.

This project began in 2004. Not that I worked on it continually; there were multi-year gaps in there. But the story kept growing and changing. If we assume that every change I made was an improvement — and I’m inclined to think so — by now this thing is solid platinum. I don’t expect it to sell like platinum; I’m not that arrogant. But I do think it turned out pretty good.

Here are a few random tips, for those who may be entangled in the serpentine coils of the self-publishing process:

Use Scrivener for writing. It costs $40, and it’s amazing. Never again will you have to worry about organizing your chapters, making major revisions, or backing up your work.

My e-book files (.mobi, for Amazon Kindle) were also done directly in Scrivener. I did a few fiddly things to improve the appearance of the files, but since the Kindle app is free, I was able to view the results and check for problems.

Learn the limitations of the e-book format. No, you can’t control the font. No, you can’t control the pagination, because e-books don’t have pages. Trying to use drop-caps in your chapter starts is probably a bad idea. I went with running the first three words in each chapter or section start in all caps. I think it looks okay, and it doesn’t require that an e-book reader have any special smarts.

Using Microsoft Word to prepare page layouts for paperbacks is probably a bad idea. I’ve never done it, but why would you want to? Nor do you need to hire someone to do the interior design at an exorbitant cost. Adobe InDesign is not that hard to learn, and you can rent it for a modest sum — $25 a month, something like that.

In designing your book interior, take a close look at other similar books. Look at how professional book designers format chapter starts, running heads, font size, leading, margins, and front matter. If you don’t know what widows and orphans are, or what a gutter is, it’s time to learn. I don’t claim that my books are going to look like they came from Knopf or Doubleday, but I do claim that any layout mistakes I made are subtle.

Don’t try to do your own cover art; hire a professional cover designer. (I recommend the amazing Karri Klawiter, but there are lots of good ones.) As somebody once said, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, and that teensy little thumbnail image of your book cover on Amazon is going to be the first impression everybody will get of your work.

When you have a finished manuscript and it’s as good as you know how to make it, hire a developmental editor. Seriously. I don’t recommend anyone in particular, but I can offer a few general suggestions. Find an editor who specializes in your genre and has a few endorsements on their website from authors whose books you can find on Amazon. Contact those authors directly and ask them about what it was like to work with that editor. Dev editors are not always right; they will sometimes make suggestions that you should ignore. But even when you don’t like the suggestion, you may learn something that will stand you in good stead next time.

If you’re not an expert copy-editor, hire a copy-editor too. I’m an expert, so I didn’t bother with that step. I did, however, hire a proof-reader to go through my paperback interiors, and he caught a few things I had missed.

Be prepared for goofy shit during the publishing process. Do your homework, pay attention to detail, and practice patience.

Example 1: I got hung up for several days because Amazon’s automated Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system demanded to know my imprint — and it wouldn’t recognize the imprint name that I had entered on the Bowker data forms. (Bowker is where you buy ISBNs. You do know what an ISBN is, don’t you?) I posted questions on the KDP Community Forum, and eventually someone suggested a method that worked.

Example 2: Your cover designer has to know the number of pages in your paperback in order to make the art layout for the spine the right width. As a final step in the process, I sent my page counts to the cover artist … and she accidentally sent me art at the wrong size (5.2 x 8.25 inches, instead of 6 x 9). KDP lets you preview your paperback in a web-based display, and why were those dotted lines floating up in the air an inch above the top of the cover? This is the kind of detail you have to be alert to catch.

Example 3: Check how your books are being displayed on Amazon. My paperbacks show up separately from the Kindle editions of the same novels. I’ve emailed KDP customer service to ask them to correct this. They corrected it promptly for Book 1, but the same thing happened with Books 2, 3, and 4. Keeping my fingers crossed here….

Now, about file synchronization. This is not likely to be a huge issue while you’re writing, though even at that point you can find yourself stumbling around in a thicket of filenames like draft_2.1b.odt. When you’ve “finished” writing, though, and have moved on to page layout, synchronization can get squirrely. I had a friend proof-read my page layouts, and sure enough, he found some problems. So in addition to fixing those in the page layouts, I had to backtrack into Scrivener to make the changes there, and then export e-book files from Scrivener containing the fresh changes.

In fact, the problem can get more complex than that. Because I’m both the author and the interior layout guy, I can (and did) make tiny textual changes in the page layouts not for literary purposes but to avoid having a two-word orphan hanging at the top of a page. Those changes were not invariably good for the flow of the dialog or whatever. As a consequence, back-porting them into Scrivener uncritically would have been a mistake. The print and electronic versions are, by design, not quite identical.

What’s worse, I did a sloppy job of back-porting while I was fixing the page layouts. As a result, I had to figure out a way to export the novels’ text from both InDesign and Scrivener so as to compare the versions in a diff program called WinMerge to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. And of course, WinMerge does a generally crappy job of this. It finds lots of things that aren’t problems, while quite possibly obscuring a few things that are problems.

When I actually see the printed paperbacks, I may have to go through another cycle of revisions. I hope not, but the fat lady has not yet marched onto the stage.

Oh, and before I go, one final tip, especially for novelists: Don’t forget to write a great story!

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