Experiences Publishing my Latest eBook, Running Epic Tier D&D Games

by Mike Shea on 14 February 2011

30 Second Summary

I finished a new eBook, Running Epic Tier D&D Games, to go along with my previous D&D book, Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips, and I learned a couple of new things this time around. First, Apple's iWork 09 Pages app does a great job outputting the ePub format. This is a huge time saver for me. Second, I decided to forgo publishing to the Apple iBookstore, instead adding my ePub version to my PDF package sold through Paypal. Selling directly gives me a 96% margin instead of Apple's 35%. Kindle sales account for a third of my sales of DM Tips and offers an average 58% margin so its still worth the pain of hand coding HTML to get it to the Kindle. Overall, I'm still in love with self publishing ebooks. You ask no one's permission and you reap nearly all of the rewards yourself. My goal? Earn enough money to pay for the next book.

Lessons from DM Tips

With seven months of sales data for Sly Flourish's DM Tips, I'm able to see pretty well where my energy should focus. I made a few decisions for my new book based on my experiences from the last. First, I wanted to simplify what I sold. For DM Tips, I sold six different versions of the book - PDF, print, ePub native, iBookstore, Kindle, Mobi, paperback. Far too much of a pain in the ass to build and maintain. Now I'm focusing down to three packages (PDF and ePub package, Kindle, paperback form Lulu) with a total of five formats (large PDF, small PDF, paperback, Kindle, and ePub).

My core philosophy to focus on writing and editing the book before mixing formats worked very well. Markdown was a fine way to write it and still hammer out draft copies for the editors. I used my wife and friends for editing, I probably don't have too many of those favors left to ask but I don't think I have another book coming out anytime soon. I also had a couple of my D&D community friends look at it and their input was very valuable.

iWork 09 Pages outputs ePub - and it's awesome

I was interested to see that Apple's iWork 09 Pages app had an ePub output but I wasn't very optimistic. Normally these sorts of conversions create an unholy mess at the end. I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that it put out an almost perfect ePub rendering from my Pages master copy. I had to remove the table of contents, add a few extra section breaks, and put images in-line but with just those few minor changes I got an ePub export that looked perfect on my iPad including the tricky table of contents. This meant I didn't have to dork around with Calibre this time around which saved a lot of time.

It also means that Pages could probably work as the master copy of an eBook. From it you can export excellent PDFs and now ePub files. All it's missing is a way to get it onto the Kindle. For that reason alone, I'll stick to my Markdown master.

Kindle formatting, still a pain in the ass but worth it

I still haven't found a good direct conversion to the Kindle Marketplace. Instead, I have to hand-code the HTML output of the markdown document using <mbp:pagebreak/>s for page breaks, a bit of a custom stylesheet, and <a name="chapter title">s for chapter breaks that, I hope, show up in the Table of Contents. Still quite a bit messy. Amazon says they will take in an ePub so I fed it the one I generated from Pages but it came out as a big mess with no page breaks and poor formatting for chapter headings. For the time being, it looks like we're stuck hand-coding the HTML to get it to work well on the Kindle.

And it's worth doing. Kindle sales made up 37% of my total sales with an average margin of 57%. Amazon offers a 70% commission for books sold in the US and UK but only 35% sold elsewhere so the margin overall is a bit less. Still, it would appear a lot of people are willing to buy the Kindle version so its worth the trouble of getting it up there. Unlike the Apple iBookstore, you don't have to go through a mediator to get it up on the Kindle Marketplace. It's just you working with Amazon.

iBookstore, not a good deal at all

I decided against publishing to the iBookstore for Running Epic Tier D&D Games. First of all, I've sold very few copies there - only about 2% of total sales. Second, they don't take books directly so you have to go through a mediator like Lulu which cuts into your margin quite a bit. While I make $7.50 on an $8 book sold directly through Paypal, I only make $3.23 from the same book sold through iTunes. That's simply not worth the effort. So with poor sales and a poor margin, I'll stick to the Kindle.

Selling an eBook package instead of just a PDF

I wanted to simplify the number of packages I'm selling of my books while at the same time focusing where the commission is best and offering customers a better product at the same time. To do this, I switched from selling a single format PDF to a package that contains two different PDFs and an ePub version. The PDFs include a large format for 8.5" by 11" pages or normal computer screens and a small format 6" by 9" version for smaller screens. The ePub can be easily transferred to the Apple iBooks app on the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad or onto the Nook, Sony eReader or any other ePub book reader. This is all packaged up in a single zip file and sold through Paypal for a great margin of 89% ($3.54 on a $3.99 purchase). I only have to sell one package, the customer gets a versatile package of different formats, and I get a great margin on each purchase. Hard to beat!

The only drawback is the complexity of dealing with files downloaded in a zip. For a D&D crowd, it's not a big deal. For everyone else there's the Kindle version.

The new ebook publishing workflow

So how did my workflow look for this book? I had only a few slight modifications from the workflow I used for Dungeon Master Tips. Here's how it looked:

That's a bit simpler than the previous version and should still get it into the hands of all who want it.

Not writing to sell, selling to write

Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips did very well for me - far better than I expected. It wasn't enough to quit my job but it was enough to buy a new Mac on which to write the next book (and play a little bit of WoW in between). While I'm writing these and putting them out, I remember the words of Walt Disney when it came to selling movies to make money:

"We don't make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies."

Unless we sell about 20,000 of them, we're not going to make enough to live on the profits. Instead, we can use the money from the previous book to fund the next one. The material cost to make an eBook is low but it isn't zero. Graphic design, cover art, and copyediting can cut significantly into our profits. My goal, therefore, is to make enough from one book to pay for the materials for the next. Given the success of DM Tips, I have enough for a few books to go.

Right now, I need a break.