Selling from Your Website
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Selling directly to customers online requires help from a third party. At the least, you must provide a payment gateway with PayPal or one of the hundred other such services. (For a good blog post on choosing the best one for your business, along with a few suggestions, visit blog.formstack.com/2013/infographic-choosing-payment-gateway.) And if you have only one or two titles, PayPal is the best, easiest, fastest, and most convenient way to set up for selling from your site (see paypal.com/us/webapps/mpp/shopping-cart).
If you have more than about 10 products, a payment gateway won’t be enough. You’ll also need to provide a real e-commerce shopping experience, which is possible only with a solution you get from a third party.
You have two main choices and one viable alternative choice for e-commerce solutions. The main choices are:
(1) the paid (subscriber) solution, whose cost varies, depending on richness of functionality
(2) the free (open source) solution, which can be costly in terms of time and may be problematic in terms of skills because you have to do all the work yourself
Paid E-Commerce Solutions
Basically, paid solutions provide a comprehensive online retail experience for your Web customers. Some popular paid solutions include ProStores, Shopify, Volusion, and the older KickStartCart. (There’s a good comparison chart of the top 10 most popular online shopping carts at shopping-cart-review.toptenreviews.com.)
You pay a monthly fee that is often but not always charged a year at a time. Then you can either download the software and get very good technical support in installing and configuring it, or you can simply open an account with a SAAS (software as a service) provider, in which case you just need to configure the storefront and backend yourself, or provide information to the service’s tech support people so they can do the setup for you.
Setup includes connecting with the SAAS server to make it play nice with your Web host; uploading all images, specs, and sell copy for each of your books (and possibly other products); learning how to update that content as needed; and maybe learning how to use any marketing and promotional tools the service provides (services don’t always offer them).
Generally, these services get you set up on a secure server with a secure socket layer (SSL) certificate to put your customers’ minds at ease about using their credit cards at your site.
Free E-Commerce Solutions
Free solutions, which I use, generally entail downloading software, installing it on your Web host server, reading through provided tutorials or wikis (sometimes video tutorials are offered as well) to learn how to configure everything, and then uploading your product content as above. A slightly dated but still useful comparison of the 15 best free, open source e-commerce platforms can be found at webappers.com/2010/07/09/15-best-free-open-source-ecommerce-platforms.
With free solutions, though, you usually don’t have on-demand access to a live person for tech support. As a rule, you have to send in a service ticket via an online support interface and wait for someone to get back to you (I’ve never waited more than 24 hours). Or, if the issue is urgent, you have to find a solution through tutorials on troubleshooting it by yourself. There is a third option, which is searching for professional troubleshooters for a particular solution, but you’ll pay these folks for their time. So far, I’ve never had to do this.
Note that payment gateways are not usually integrated into these free solutions. You are almost always required to provide your own, but the solutions do tend to be coded so that they’ll easily interface with major gateways. The free solution I use is called Open Cart, which installs quickly and easily into our WordPress-based site, and is easy to set up, to customize visually, and to maintain. We used to use ZenCart, but found it harder to use, and we’re currently considering moving to WooCommerce. Other good open source solutions are available too.
Still Another Alternative
A third option is becoming more mainstream now. Some Web hosts, such as GoDaddy, will include a free or very low-cost shopping cart with a paid hosting account. At this point, these shopping carts tend to be kind of lame; you probably won’t have the ability to sell downloadable digital merchandise or to customize for visual branding. But they are getting better, and I expect that soon they’ll be providing such functions to compete for potential customers. If so, this third option could be a very attractive and affordable one, especially for publishers with, say, fewer than 10 titles.
How to Think This Through
As you work to decide which alternative would be best for you, take seven considerations into account.
Budget. Can you afford a recurring monthly charge or an annual upfront fee for a paid service? Fees can run from as low as about $15 a month to about $100 a month, and you may have to pay some one-time purchase, initiation, or setup fees too, such as $385 for the CS.Cart solution.
You need to weigh your likely sales against the cost of your solution and decide which is likely to allow profits. Having a sales capability on your site is far cheaper than having a brick-and-mortar store, hiring a sales associate/checkout person, and using a point-of-sale solution on your computerized register. But the costs are still real, and you still have to assess your needs carefully, both in terms of current conditions and in terms of conditions you expect at least three to five years from now.
Technical savvy. Do you have an in-house person with the technical chops needed to install and/or configure your shopping cart solution, and to later maintain it by updating listings? Or will you need to hire someone? You must factor such costs in when you calculate what kind of sales solution you can afford. Possibly, they will make a free solution more expensive than a paid solution, which wouldn’t require you to pay for tech support. Using paid solutions, your initial investment will be time, and after that, updates are usually very simple or are done by the solution provider as part of the service.
Staff time. If you have an in-house person with the necessary technical savvy, does that person have the time to install/configure/maintain an ongoing solution? If not, a paid solution is probably what you need.
Product types. Do you only need to process orders for physical print books? Or do you want to be able to sell e-books that can be downloaded directly from your site? Not all shopping cart solutions allow the latter. Make sure you know the functional features of any e-commerce package before you commit to it.
Promotion. Does your solution provide ways to promote your products? Can you offer coupons, sell gift certificates and cards, send out special sales notices, and interface with popular social media, including Facebook and Twitter? Is your solution customizable so that you can make the look of your Website contribute to a consistent visual experience for your customers?
Security. Do your homework carefully on this one. Your customers need to feel safe using their credit cards with your interface, and it’s your responsibility to assure them that they are. Don’t count out Open Source solutions just because they’re free: A lot of developers are working on security tools specifically because they believe the major software is bloated and riddled with security holes. So ask the tough questions and be sure you’re comfortable with the answers. If you wouldn’t trust your own card with the software, don’t use it.
Timing. Remember that there are a lot more options now than there were even a few years ago. If you can’t find something you can live with at this point, wait a while—something new will be along soon.
About the Author: Mary Shafer is an independent publisher, an award-winning author, and a marketing consultant with more than 20 years in the industry. Formerly president of the MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association, she provides guidance for authors considering self-publishing and for indie publishers seeking greater success. To learn more: IndieNavigator.com.
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