Meet the Flower Man (End Play Chapter 1)

Hi Peeps!

While I still am on maternity leave, I am finding a little time here and there to write the next book in the Sarah Stone series. This book, titled END PLAY, is much darker than the previous two novels and features a serial killer and more. We also address the cliffhanger at the end of Hot Zone, while also addressing unfinished threads from Soft Target. So far I am really enjoying it. Below is a rough draft of chapter 1. Enjoy!

If you have not yet read the first 2 books, you can get Soft Target for free and Hot Zone for the spare change in your pocket. Links to both books here:

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End Play - Chapter 1 (The Flower Man)

Sarah left the busy London road and descended the muddy embankment bordering it. Even in thick boots, she risked slipping with every step, but Howard put a hand against her back and kept her steady. “Remind me what this tip off claimed again?” she asked.

Howard kept his grasp on her shoulder and spoke to the back of her head as they continued down the hill. “It wasn’t really a tip off,” he said. “Local bus driver broke down here and saw someone skulking around in the ditch. When he asked them if they needed help, they fled. Palu only has us following up because we have zero other leads and two of the victims were found in inner-city ditches like this.”

Sarah reached the bottom of the embankment and glanced back at the main road. Like most London roads, it was chock-a-block. Dirty exhaust fumes billowed into the air. “I hate this city,” she muttered.

Howard stepped into the ditch beside her. “Huh?”

“Nothing. Come on, let’s check things out. It stinks down here.”

Howard pulled his belt up, raising the ankles of his trousers away from the mud, and nodded. “You okay? You look a little pissed off—more than normal.”

“I’m fine. I just don’t…” Her words trailed off. Something about the way Howard looked at her—like he actually cared—made Sarah want to open up. For a moment she almost spilled herself on the ground and said: No, I’m not fine, Howard. Ever since I met you, I’ve been battered and bruised, nearly killed a dozen times by evil men and wicked monsters, and seen my friends die. I don’t sleep anymore and every loud noise makes me curl up beneath the covers. Oh yeah, and my dead ex-husband has just returned and wants to act like nothing happened—like I didn’t lose half of my face and a baby back in that desert. I am not fine, Howard. Help me, please. Instead, she shrugged. “There are better things to do then trudge through the mud, Howard. Let’s just get this over with.”

“Alright,” said Howard. “You wanna take point?”

“Yeah.” She got going, examining the way ahead. The ditch cut alongside the road to collect runoff from a row of culverts. The ground was wet, with a thick scum of iridescent foam where chemical pollution from nearby factories had mixed with rain and sewer water. An animal corpse rotted a few metres away, a scrawny grey thing that could have been a fat squirrel or a skinny badger. Sarah thought pictured the figure skulking around down here and decided it was unusual enough to investigate—but by some local copper, not a pair of MCU agents. What was Palu doing sending them here? The MCU’s Director had been acting desperately during the last two months–ever since the killings started.

Also the same time Thomas appeared out of the ether to join the team.

Thinking about her ex-husband—or husband again now, she thought, as she had not divorced a dead man—forced a rush of anxiety into the pit of her stomach. The feeling was not so much one of butterflies, but a swarm of locusts eating the lining of her guts. Thomas made her nauseas—but for what reasons she had yet to ascertain.

“You think all these pipes lead into the sewers?” asked Howard, pointing to the culverts.

“How should I know? They probably lead underneath the road and out the other side. I remember playing in pipes like that when I was a kid, pretending to be an SAS soldier to impress my dad.” She almost laughed at the memory, but it died before it passed her lips. Howard knew better than to prod her about her childhood or her father, so he remained silent. Major Stone was dead, end of story. Sarah felt no guilt for thinking it was better that way.

Howard stepped over a pile of old bricks and pointed. “There’s a larger pipe ahead. You see it?”

Sarah did see it. “The bus driver said the person in the ditch disappeared. He could have gone in there.”

“What I was thinking. Let’s be ready.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, we don’t know what killed that squirrel back there, so we should be cautious. Could be a stray dog or anything. The fight against crime never ends.”

“Glad to have you on the team,” said Howard. He smirked at her and almost got a smile back in response. After a year of suffering her abrasiveness, Howard seemed to enjoy her bitter humour. He didn’t react to it or hold it against her. She kind of hated him for that.

They trod carefully through the stagnant water towards the large opening. As much as this seemed like a waste of their time, they were both too professional to lower their guard. Sarah had learned in the last year with the MCU that something could try to kill you at any moment. That was what kept her awake at night. Along with the faces of the men she had killed, and the ones who wanted to kill her.

The large, round opening had rusted bolts around its circumference, suggesting a grate had once barred access. The mid-day sun shone inside the first few feet, but shadows took over soon after. Stink and warm air flowed outwards and Sarah sensed moisture settling on her face. She had a subtle desire to gag, the muscles beneath her jaw bulging.

“Smells like arsehole,” she said. “We don’t need to go stomping about in there, do we?”

Howard raised an eyebrow at her and stuck out his comically square chin. “You want to abandon a lead?”

She sighed. “No, but I swear Palu is punishing us for something.”

“You’re paranoid. Come on, you said you want to get this over with. Let’s look inside.”

“Sod it then!” Sarah yanked the LED flashlight from the left epaulette of her black utility vest and clicked it on. The high-powered beam sliced through the darkness and dispelled the gloomy atmosphere. Now the pipe just appeared dirty; like a place no person should step into voluntarily. Nonetheless, she fixed the flashlight back inside her epaulette and allowed it to light her way forward.

Her footsteps echoed. The water in the pipe splashed beneath her boots.

Beyond the shaft of light, the gloomy atmosphere tried its best to close in on them.

Sarah wrinkled her nose as a stench assaulted her. “I really don’t think we will find anyone hiding in here. Least of all the Flower Man.”

Howard apparently agreed. In the glare of his own torch, his expression was glum. “Shame, because I really want to catch that sicko.”

Sicko is an understatement, thought Sarah. The killer the media had named ‘The Flower Man’ had killed twelve victims in just two months—a spree putting London’s previous VIP of serial killers—Jack the Ripper—to shame. This latest sociopath’s MO was the stuff of nightmares. He made gardens from his living victims—cutting out their eyes and stuffing the sockets with seeded soil. Filling every orifice with aggressively growing plant life and insects. The harrowing part was that it worked. The Flower Man’s victims became gardens, sometimes remaining alive for days. The last victim had been a twelve year old girl. She’d been found in a Lambeth ditch with daffodils growing out of her empty eye sockets and a dying Lupin planted inside an incision in her torso. Pain had sent her mind to oblivion long before her body joined it, which took less than twenty four hours after getting her into a hospital.

The details had made Sarah sick.

Like Howard, she would love to get her hands on The Flower Man.

Yet, she also wanted to run away screaming. She was well used to terrors by now, but the hell the MCU faced every day was too much to bare. Sarah had faced demons in the deserts of Afghanistan, but what had truly altered her forever was learning that there were demons at home. Nowhere was safe. The United Kingdom was a glass palace built on sand. The thick scars on the left side of her face were a constant reminder of the wickedness of man.

I just want to stop feeling this way.

As they dove deeper into the stinking tunnel, plinks and plops surrounded them as condensation caused droplet to fall from the ceiling. The darkness ahead grew hot and muggy.

“I’m sweating,” said Howard, sending his torch beam into an excited spiral as he reached up and wiped at his forehead.

Sarah nodded. “Me too. I’ve never been in a sewer before—I know, I know, what have I been doing with my life?–so I’m not sure if the whole tropical climate thing is normal. Is it?”

Howard shrugged. “Beats me. Sewer gases, maybe? I’m trained in underground ops, but I don’t think this counts.”

The further along they got, the more Sarah became sure that the heat was unusual. Maybe it was trapped sewer gases as Howard suggested, but it still seemed odd. Like walking through a greenhouse.

Howard stopped. “You hear that?”

Sarah nodded. “I hear buzzing.”

There was a corner up ahead, and despite herself, Sarah reached for her gun and removed the safety. Without word, Howard did the same. They both felt it—the sense that something was wrong.

I always feel like that, thought Sarah.

The glare of their torches made everything seem over-exposed. It would be hard to see. Sarah took in a breath and moved around the corner with her gun raised in front of her. She immediately batted at her face. “What the fuck?”

Howard was beside her and also taken by surprise. He covered his face with the crook of his arm. “What is this? Flies?”

There were flies everywhere, but that wasn’t what caught her attention. In a wide cavern where the sewer opened into a nexus of channels, a large lighting rig towered. Its warm orange glow, along with a droning buzz, suggested the multiple strips of bulbs were ultraviolet. The thriving weeds and plant life all but confirmed it. “It’s a garden.”

It was bizarre to see thick foliage growing in a dank sewer, like some otherworldly grotto, and it made the whole area creepy. Creepy because it meant The Flower Man had been here.

Or was still there.

Realising the same thing, Howard swept the cavern with his Ruger P95. He spoke urgently. “If this is one of The Flower Man’s gardens, he was here as recently as yesterday. He might still be close by.”

Painfully aware of the fact, Sarah nodded. Once again she was standing in the den of a wicked man. Her entire life had been filled with wicked men—Hesbani, Al-Sharir, Dr Krenshaw… her father. She felt sick to her stomach, like the serial killer had left behind a noxious ooze she was now inhaling. She wobbled and reached out, but there was nothing to hold onto. “Let’s phone it in. I need some goddamn air.”

Howard lowered his gun and moved towards her. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

Sarah righted herself and stood straight. “It’s a bunch of weeds growing in a stinking sewer, grown by a deranged monster who turns people into flowerbeds. Just standing in this place makes me…”

Howard frowned. “What?”

Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know.”


“I just want to get back outside where I’m not breathing in piss and shit.”

Howard reached out and squeezed her arm. “Okay. Let’s move back-”

Hwah Mah!

Howard spun and raised his Ruger. Sarah did the same with her SIG 229.

The strange noise came from a large patch of flowers growing beneath the heat lamp.


Sarah shook her head. “Oh God, no!”

She stumbled over to the centre of the cavern and crouched beside the flowerbed. Howard tried to move beside her, but she pushed him aside so she could get an unobstructed view. The girl was still alive.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” said Howard, his voice thick and anxious. He pulled his mob-sat out and dialled.

Sarah didn’t respond to him, her focus was on the victim in front of her. The girl’s age was indeterminate for she was coated with wet mud and moss. She shook her head from side to side, mumbling in terror. She could not form words because her mouth was packed with dirt. A pair of rubber tubes ran down her nostrils, allowing her to breathe—and preventing her from dying. Her eyes had been dug out and replaced with wilting daffodils. Sarah’s guts started a spin cycle, but she kept her calm. She needed to help this girl.

There is no helping this girl.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. I’ve got you now. My name is Sarah. I’m a police officer.”

The girl’s mumbling became more frantic, suggesting she understood. Victims often were most manic when finally rescued. Sometimes you had to stop them from injuring themselves in a panic. In a panic of her own, Sarah clawed dirt from the girl’s mouth, removing root tendrils with her fingernails and feeling insects climbing up her wrists. Whatever had been planted had not yet sprouted, and with every finger-full of dirt removed, the girl could splutter and moan a little more. Eventually, she was gasping and choking, her throat clear for the first time in… how long?

    Mhwa Har. Mhwa Har.

“Okay, sweetheart. Don’t try to talk. Just stay calm.” Sarah scooped out the last bits of soil from the victim’s mouth, wincing as a worm spilled down her cheek.

“Shit,” said Howard. “I can’t get a call through down here. I need to go outside.”

“Then go!” Sarah shouted at him.

Heev fwear.

Sarah stroked the terrified blind girl’s face. “It’s okay, sweetheart. Help is coming. You’re safe now.”

The girl shook her head. Nooo! H-h-heeeee heeeeere. He’s heeere. 

Chapter 1 of TAR

So to tide you over until I release the full novella in a couple months, here is Chapter 1 of TAR. It takes place after a prologue where an experiment in the Australian Outback goes very wrong. This is where we meet our main character Finn during his sister’s funeral of sorts.

Tar - Chapter 1

The silence was punctuated by stifled coughing. Dust was no longer escapable by moving indoors. The world was shedding its cancerous skin and you took it with you everywhere.

Finn looked down at the bundle of blankets that held his dead sister. No one made coffins anymore so covering her in her old duvet was the best her family could do. He winced when he saw a damp patch where her face was hiding. He’d always thought of a corpse as being a dry thing, but the truth was different. Dead things were moist.

He turned away from his sister’s resting place at the front of the living room where the television had once been and glanced at his ma. The old girl was numb, her face grey and expressionless, and the back of one frail hand against her mouth as she fought off another cough. Maybe in the old world she would have been wailing at a church, but death was too commonplace now to be melodramatic. The end would soon come for them all, a withered old man standing before them, palm outstretched and ready to give them that final handshake. In some way’s Finn’s sister had been lucky to escape humanity’s last, choking breaths.

If you could call being raped and murdered lucky.

Finn clenched his fists, ignoring the pain of knuckles once broken as a younger man. His mother seemed to sense his anger and moved her gaze towards him. She did not smile, but gave a very small nod—the extent of what her numbness would allow her.

Clive put a hand on Finn’s broad back and handed him a tumbler full of whiskey. “Enjoy it, brother, because there’s no more left. I’d pop the shop but it’s not there anymore.”

Finn huffed at the joke. The corner shop nearby had gone up in flames a few days ago when some kids set fire to it for the craic, but it had dropped its shutters long before that. The only way to get anything anymore was to take it, find it, or bargain for it.

Take it, thought Finn. Like someone took my sister.

I should have been here.

He and Marie had not been close since they were kids. She had moved with the family to London in the early nineties, while he had remained behind in Belfast, an eighteen year old with a chip on his shoulder. A perfect recruit for the IRA. Following in his father’s footsteps.

Now Finn realised, more than ever, how much of his life he had given up to fighting. He wondered if Northern Ireland even existed anymore, or had it finally welcomed the joyless oblivion it had been toying with for the last century. Finn’s homeland was probably now blackened and lifeless like the rest of the globe. The killing had finally stopped there. It was over. It was all over.

All that remained in Finn’s world now were the people in this room. His mother, his brother, and him. A killer and the loving family he had turned from. Finn had chosen hate.

He downed the whiskey despite the warning that it would be his last. He would not draw out the agony with tentative sips. His final whiskey would be given a chance to work. Even now he felt the warmness in his legs.

“You never were a patient one, were you?” said Clive, his native accent now all but gone after two decades living in the English capital. He was just nine when he had moved here.

Finn patted his younger brother on the shoulder and smiled. It seemed he was one of the few who could still do so. Maybe it was only the insane who still smiled. “I’m an Irishman with a drink in front of him,” he said. “You having one yourself?”

Clive shook his head. “Knew you would enjoy it more.”

Finn felt a lump in his throat where the whiskey had burned. To get back to emotions he was used to he glanced back at his dead sister. A brief memory of her threading daisy-chains while sitting on his lap flashed through his mind. It hurt like a rusty blade across his ribs. “What happened to her, Clive?”

Clive looked away, hiding his eyes. He rubbed at his left wrist, almost nervously. “No point thinking about it. She’s gone, brother.”

“I know that. Why is she gone though? Which low-life gobshite did this to her?”

“I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. We’ll all be gone ourselves before the week is through. Danny Stanton said he drove down to Ramsgate and the English Channel was gone. Just gone. That grey sludge had taken over it and was crawling up the beach.” He stopped rubbing his wrist for a moment and rubbed the dust and sweat from his brow. “It’s stupid, but even after all the news reports part of me hoped it was all just a load of nonsense. I prayed to the almighty father that it wasn’t really happening. Seeing the fear on poor Danny Stanton’s face was all the proof I needed. He reckons it will be up this way before the week ends. We should move north with ma soon. They say Newcastle will be the last to go. Makes you proud in a way. The last surviving patch of land will be right here in England.”

Finn sneered. “Why would it make you proud? You’re Irish.”

“I’ve lived here for twenty-years, Finn. I might be Irish but England is my home. Do you really look back at that place fondly? It was a battleground. Why did you stay so long?”

Finn stared firmly at his sister’s body beneath the damp blankets. “This place is no different. Monsters dwell everywhere, little brother. One of those monsters did this to Marie. I want to know who.”

Clive sighed. “Like I said, I dunno who.”

Finn’s brother went to turn away but he grabbed him by the wrist, harder than he’d intended, and it made him cry out. “You’re lying to me, Clive. I want to know who did this. Which fucker raped my sister?”

Clive yanked his arm away and rubbed his wrist as though it were on fire. “What the fuck does it matter? We’re all dead anyway.”

“It matters because she suffered alone and afraid.”

“Ha! Don’t act like you give a shit about Marie being alone. She had to get by without you for the last twenty years. I was just a kid when we moved here, but she was almost a teenager. She missed you her whole life.”

Finn recoiled. “I was here. I saw her.”

Clive spat on the carpet—it didn’t matter. “What, you mean on the odd Christmas or Easter when you weren’t too busy fighting pointless wars?”

“I was a soldier, Clive. I had a duty.”

“You had a family, but you decided to follow in dad’s footsteps. The IRA has a lot to answer for…” he trailed off, “but there’s no reason to debate it now. There’s no reason to do anything anymore. Don’t you get it, Finn? Marie is dead. She doesn’t care what happened to her and neither should you. Instead of worrying about it you should be making peace with God. You more than most.”

Finn clenched his fists.

Clive’s lower lip trembled, but he stood his ground. His younger brother thought himself a man. At twenty-years old he should be, but Finn could teach him a few things.

“Finley!” Both brothers turned to face their ma, who had chosen this moment as one of the few times she spoke as of late. “I won’t see you at each other’s throats,” she snapped. “We should all be making peace with God, not just Finn. Let’s count ourselves lucky that we have any time left at all. To be amongst family for our final days is a blessing. Don’t squander what most are not lucky enough to have.”

Clive nodded. He looked at his brother. “I’m sorry.”

Finn shrugged, but said nothing. His anger had risen and the only thing that would bring him back down was taking a few breaths and remaining silent. His brother was right, and that was what was so infuriating. It meant that Finn was wrong—had been wrong most of his life.

Fighting pointless wars against neighbours and children.

“Finn, can I speak with you in the kitchen, please?” his ma said, moving past the mahogany china cabinet that was older than she was. It would outlive her too.

Finn nodded and followed her into the kitchen. The small room was streaked with filth. Earth’s atmosphere was in tatters, and the solidification of the oceans had put an end to climatic winds. England was hot, dusty, and still. Never so much as a breeze gave relief from the muggy heat and dust and grime covered everything. In the last few weeks, the trees had begun to die, choked off from the sun by whatever foulness clung to the air. Some said it was the decayed corpses of animals. Others said it was flecks from the creeping grey tar that was casually devouring the earth. Finn didn’t care what the dust was, he was just tired of choking on it.

His ma stood in front of the empty fridge and stared at him. “You’re still angry, Finley? Even after all these years?”

He went to argue but ended up nodding. Anger wasn’t something he was ashamed of. It was just a part of him—the only thing his father had left him.

“Good,” his ma said, surprising him.

He frowned. “Good?”

She took a step towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders. Her eyes had once been green, but now they were grey and tired, set above sunken cheeks. When she spoke again, she kept her voice low as if she didn’t want Clive to hear in the next room. “Marie had a boyfriend. Real piece of work.”

Finn swallowed, the lump in his throat returning. “Go on, ma.”

“It was a year ago when she first came home with a black eye. She’d been down the Hobby Horse with a new guy. She swore he had nothing to do with it, but it was more regular than her period after that. Your brother, Clive, went down the pub one evening to try and put a stop to it-”

Finn raised an eyebrow. “Clive went and confronted the guy?”

“Aye, he did, bless him. He came back with more than a black eye that night though, I can tell you. Took three months for his wrist to heal. Even now I see that it hurts him. We didn’t see Marie for weeks later. The brute kept her from us.”

“Who is this guy? I’ll wring his bloody neck.”

“I know you will, Finley. That’s why I’m telling you.”

Finley took a moment and tried to think. “Are you saying that he did this to Marie? It was him who killed her?”

His ma shrugged her shoulders and folded her arms. For a moment she was once again the strong, no-nonsense Catholic woman he remembered from his youth. “Don’t have no proof, but if one day you see a cat eyeing up a mouse and then the next day you have a dead mouse, it don’t make much sense to blame the dog.”

Finn nodded. “His name?”

“Dominic Harris.”

Finn leaned in and gave his mother a hug. Then he left her in the kitchen.

“Everything okay?” Clive asked. He was still rubbing his wrist.

“Sorry I hurt you, little brother. I never meant to.”

Clive nodded. He didn’t hold grudges—never have.

Finn pulled his brother in for an awkward hug. Then he turned and knelt down beside his sister. He knew that beneath the blanket her face was a mess, but he placed his hand where he imagined her cheek to be. “I’m sorry I hurt you too, baby sis.”

He stood up and left the house without saying another word.

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Ebook Conversion Tool Reviews

From The Book Designer

Previously, I’ve compared some of the computer apps that you can use to convert your manuscript into an ebook.

This month I’ll talk about online conversion tools — all of the ones I’m going to discuss are attached to the retailers and distributors that you are going to be interested in.

Eye of the Hurricane: Top Ebook Retailers

Let’s start with the most popular retailers and their conversion tools (or lack thereof).

Once again, I’m assuming that you’re in the US — which isn’t a given, I know. (Most of this information is true for non-US publishers as well.) Also, I’m defining “manuscript” as synonymous with “Microsoft Word document” (either .doc or .docx), since that’s the most common file format for authors to work with, and that’s the format I used in comparing the desktop conversion tools.

As before, these are the major retailers you will probably be looking at:

Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
Apple’s iTunes Connect (iBooks Store)
Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press
Google Play
Rakuten’s Writing Life (Kobo)

They are the five largest ebook retailers in the US, and the sites I almost always recommend that clients upload to directly (rather than using a distributor). Three (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Rakuten/Kobo) have online conversion tools; Apple and Google only allow you to upload completed ebooks (ePub files), so they’re not going to be part of this discussion.

To compare the tools, I’m going to use the same chapter from my novel Risuko that I used to test the desktop apps — with one change: I’m adding two images — one centered and one inset on the right-hand side of the second paragraph — to test how the different sites handle pictures, in addition to text.

Here’s how the page looks in Word:

Ebook Conversion Tool Reviews

Note that the larger image is centered, while the smaller image of the woman playing the flute is flush with the right margin, and note the brush fonts that I used for the header and the drop cap. Note too that the body text is fully justified—the line down the right-hand margin is clean (except for where the paragraphs end).

Amazon KDP

KDP is probably the most important retailer site for most self-publishers, and so we’ll start here.

You can upload files in a number of formats to KDP: Kindle’s native mobi format, the universal ePub format, HTML, a PDF[1], and, of course, our friend the Word doc.

Click the Browse button, find your file, hit the Upload button, and within a few minutes, the page will offer you the choice either to preview the converted ebook or to download the mobi file. The best way to test an ebook is to download the file and load it onto a Kindle — preferably several, ideally of different generations (i.e., old-style Kindle, Paperwhite, Kindle Fire) and a couple of different apps (Kindle for Android/iOS/Mac/Windows). The online previewer and Kindle Previewer app will, however, do a pretty good job of showing you how the book will look on various Kindles/Kindle apps.

Here’s our file viewed on the online previewer, emulating a Fire:

The Book Designer

Not bad. The pretty brush fonts went away, but the images are placed and sized properly, the text is correctly justified, and the line-space remains consistent. If I could, I’d play with the size of the drop cap (it’s four lines high instead of three, and it’s set slightly below the level of the top line), but I can’t, so I’d live with it.[2]

I checked the file on a number of other Kindles; quality was acceptable on most (though on several the inset image was miniscule), except for the Kindle for iOS app, and my old Kindle DX, which looked like this:

The drop cap went away, the first paragraph is indented, and the inset image was simply placed on a line of its own before the paragraph. These aren’t conversion problems, per se; old Kindles and Kindle for iOS display a version of the mobi file (MOBI7) that is based on old PalmPilot technology; it can’t handle sophisticated formatting at all. There are some things that you can do (involving media queries) that will allow you to format the same file differently for old (MOBI7) and new (KF8) Kindles; however you can’t do that from Word. To make that magic happen, you’ll need to create an ePub file, edit it, and upload it.

KDP doesn’t have an online edit function, nor can you edit the downloaded mobi file directly. [3] KDP does, however, allow you to download the ebook as an HTML file, which you can edit….

Read the rest of the article by visiting THE BOOK DESIGNER.