How to Sell Digital Products & Services Directly from Your Website: Advice for Authors and Freelancers

Selling services and products through your website

I’ve been building and refining my website (JaneFriedman.com) for nearly a decade, gradually increasing its customizations and complexity. I started with a social streaming splash page, later moved to WordPress, added free WordPress plugins to extend the site’s functionality, and used bare-bones hosting through GoDaddy.

My setup today is more complex. This past month, I bought an SSL certificate for the site and integrated Stripe payments. I’m also on a more expensive hosting package.

Website tools and resources have came a long way since this site first went live. While I still advocate for an incremental approach to site building—don’t make things complicated unless they need to be—it’s also easier to have a fairly sophisticated site without spending a fortune (or having deep experience in site building).

For me, one of the biggest complexities was integrating e-commerce functionality—the ability for someone to purchase directly from my site without leaving it (e.g., clicking a button and ending up at PayPal). But it wasn’t as complex as I was expecting.

If you want to sell products and services directly through your website, here’s how to do it quickly and without hiring outside help. Those of you with a self-hosted WordPress site can probably start selling direct through your site within 24 to 48 hours—without knowing code. However, I know this may still be complicated for anyone without a digital media background, so at the end of this post I’ll mention a couple of alternatives.

1. Make it easier on yourself: get good hosting.

You can’t use a free WordPress.com site if you want to use many of the tools I’m about to suggest. That means you need to self-host your site. If you’re not sure what that means, read my post on how to self-host your site, which includes a tutorial on how to set up a self-hosted site in ten minutes.

While you can get cheap WordPress hosting (less than $100/year), if you don’t have much experience with running your own site, you might be better off with managed hosting. Even I’ve chosen managed hosting for a range of reasons.

This site runs on Media Temple Managed WordPress Hosting. I’m on a legacy plan that’s no longer available, but it allows me to host up to three different sites. Media Temple’s WordPress hosting offers several qualities that I find indispensable.

  • Quick staging areas: If you want to set up a test site, redesign your site, or do anything that shouldn’t be immediately live, Media Temple makes it easy to set up a WordPress staging area in one click.
  • Automated backups: Your site is automatically backed up daily. If something goes wrong at any time, you can immediately restore your site using the backup. Again—one click.
  • Easy SSL certification: SSL certification is a necessity if you plan to sell directly from your site, so that visitors’ private information is protected and transmitted securely. (When you’re visiting a site, look to see whether the URL begins with http:// or https://. That s in https:// indicates you’re on a secure site.) I was able to buy and add an SSL certificate to my site within 24 hours. I wasn’t required to do anything technical; MediaTemple automatically installed it.

Find out more about Media Temple Managed WordPress Hosting. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate with Media Temple and have been a happy customer since 2011.)

2. Get a customizable WordPress theme.

I’ve recommended free WordPress themes f0r writers here, but once you get serious about customization of your site, you’ll likely end up buying a premium theme—unless you know how to code your own WordPress theme. (And I don’t!)

Some of the more powerful WordPress themes allow you to build customized column- or row-based layouts for each page, with integrated buttons, icons, and widgets. I like and use the premium version of Vantage (a SiteOrigin theme that uses Page Builder). But there are other similar options, such as Make from Theme Foundry and Headway.

More flexible layouts tend to be essential once you build landing pages for courses, products, or books. You can see my books page here, and an example course page here.

3. Integrate e-commerce functionality (payment forms and processors).

Once your site has an SSL certificate (see your host’s FAQ for how to add one), the tricky part is integrating a store or payment form, shopping cart, and/or payment processor to facilitate transactions or purchases directly from your site.

If you’re selling courses or services that don’t require delivery of a digital product, then a quick way to get started is to buy the premium WordPress plug-in Gravity Forms. Gravity Forms is considered one of the top WordPress plug-ins of all time for being easy to use, intuitive, customizable, and powerful. When you add Stripe (a payment processor) into the mix, then essentially you’ve just given yourself a way to build a checkout form—with a payment method—that your customers can use to complete a purchase. (If you don’t want to use Stripe, Gravity Forms integrates with other payment processors as well.)

If you need to deliver digital files or products immediately or automatically upon purchase—this is often the case with ebooks and other informational products—you can layer on Easy Digital Downloads (another WordPress plug-in). It’s free to use initially, but for increased functionality, you’ll end up paying a one-time fee.

4. Or start more quickly with alternatives to full integration.

If you don’t want to mess with the suggested solutions in item 3, take a look at these alternate shopping carts or product-payment facilitators:

  • Gumroad — I’ve used this, and it works fine. It’s just doesn’t look streamlined with my site because I can’t adequately customize the design.
  • PayHip — Specializes in ebooks.
  • MoonClerk — Highly recommended by others in online marketing.

Using these services often means the payment or transaction is not happening on your site, although you can get pretty close to making it look like it does! None of these services requires you to have an SSL certificate unless you’re embedding its form/tech on your site. But these solutions will eat into your revenue a bit, since you’re adding a middleman into the mix—you’ll pay either a monthly fee or a revenue percentage.

There’s also the old standby, PayPal. You can just embed a PayPal button that says “Buy Now,” and your customers will be directed off your site to pay. (This is what I’ve been doing for the past year.)

How to sell subscription-based products

I’ve been experimenting with Chargebee, which is a powerful accounting and administrative tool if you plan to sell any type of product that has a recurring fee (monthly, annual, or something else)—but it’s only for fairly serious businesspeople, since the minimum monthly fee is $49/month. MoonClerk can also handle recurring payments and has lower-cost plans.

When you want to charge later, not up front (invoicing)

I use Wave (free!) to invoice clients for services rendered. A good portion of my income is from services that I bill for after the work is completed, so it’s important for me to have a robust online invoicing system that keeps track of who has paid and who hasn’t, with automatic direct deposit to my banking account. Wave has payment processing built in and allows customers to pay immediately with a credit card. On your invoices, you can also include information about paying through PayPal if your customers prefer that method–you can even include instructions on payment by check. (Wave’s invoicing system is highly customizable.)

Shortcuts that don’t involve WordPress self-hosting

If all this seems more daunting than empowering, here are two very easy options:

  1. Use Squarespace. You’ll pay a monthly fee, but it’s a managed hosting environment and integrates e-commerce functionality.
  2. Use Rainmaker. This is a more high-powered option (and more expensive), but it’s a ready-to-go WordPress-based system that has been engineered for e-commerce—including product sales, subscription services, and online education.

What about selling print books?

If you want to sell print books directly off your site, reconsider your strategy. I recommend doing so entirely through online retailers such as Amazon, which have finely tuned order, shipping, and fulfillment systems that work in your favor as well as theirs! For my time and energy, the hassle of selling print books isn’t worth the extra profit. However, if this is something you’ve done successfully, please comment on this post or get in touch directly to share your experience.


What tools have you used to facilitate purchases from your website? Share in the comments.

How to Sell Digital Products & Services Directly from Your Website: If you want to sell products and services directly through your website, here’s how to do it quickly and without hiring outside help. Those of you with a self-hosted WordPress site can probably start selling direct through your site within 24 to 48 hours—without knowing code.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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21 Comments on "How to Sell Digital Products & Services Directly from Your Website: Advice for Authors and Freelancers"

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[…] To sell products and services directly through your website, here are a few services and tools to get up and running fast (no coding or tech help required).  […]

lexacain

This info is awesome! Thanks so much for making it easy to understand. I’m not ready to start selling now, but I’ve bookmarked this page. (tweeting too)

Joanne Tombrakos

As always, great tips! I am a big fan of Rainmaker. It is a little more expensive – but in my opinion- worth every penny. The LMS system they have integrated really streamlined the set up of my online course and made it simple to connect to my email service and payment gateway. I like it because it is one stop shopping and they have customer support.

Imogene Drummond

Another fantastic post with invaluable information. I’m trying to learn about WordPress websites so I can re-do mine, and this is most helpful. Thank you for sharing your experience and what you use with your very clear and easy to navigate website, Jane. There’s nothing like getting guidance from an expert!

Darcy Pattison

Jane:
When I investigated this question two years ago, there weren’t as many options! Certainly not as simple as these seem to be. I’m using WooCommerce on MimsHouse.com. WooCommerce is a WordPress plugin that adds storefront capabilities. It’s complicated, but powerful; I got a book on how to set it up initially because there are so many options. I’m happy with it and won’t change now, but some of the options you list sure seem easier.

Darcy

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[…] How to Sell Digital Products Through Your Website (Jane Friedman) Publishing consultant Jane Friedman has a three-step tutorial on how to integrate the ability to sell digital products through your website, a tool that can be useful for authors and their self-published ebooks. […]

Will

I went with Shopify. If you have only a few items, the monthly charge is just $15. The other thing I liked about Shopify is you could customize the checkout language–I use both English and Japanese. Setting up shipping or downloads is easy too. It does basically create two sites, your blog and your store, but it was easy enough to link them together to make them appear seamless–Shopify does have a blog, but since I did not know if I would ever change, I wanted to keep my blog separate.

Ron Martinez
Hi, Jane. Great article. Wanted to add a couple of other options. Disclosure: these are offered by my company, but I hope the information is useful nonetheless. It is pretty easy to sell your print book direct if it’s available through Ingram. You can sell it easily with our http://Aer.io service. Same for LightningSource print on demand. And it’s straightforward to upload and sell your ebooks, and at the same time make them available for other Aer.io store partners to sell as well. There are currently about 2MM books, videos, audiobook CDs, graphic novels and other products in the catalog,… Read more »
Dan
I do sell print editions, though I don’t push it, because I feel it’s a worthy service to supply signed copies of my books. I offer them also through Amazon Marketplace. I charge the retail price. On my website, where most of my books are $9.95, I price at $15 including Priority Mail. Though Amazon of course I’m required to offer Media Mail, and Amazon makes that very easy, so I don’t mind, though I don’t have as much of a margin (they add $3.99 for shipping, and then take nearly as much in commission, so I’m basically paying postage,… Read more »
David Mark Brown
Thanks for the breakdown, Jane. There are a few things in here I’ll have to give a try. For my author site, I’ve gotten comfortable with Easy Digital Downloads combined with gravity forms. As you mentioned, it has worked pretty great. For one of my startups I had to switch over to Woocommerce teamed up with Userpro in order to gain the features I needed (reviews, registered users, and particularly a better catalog/shop). Easy Digital Downloads lacks a polished shop template/shortcode. Woocommerce made this very easy and attractive (http://www.fictionvortex.com/catalog/). Once I got their review feature working and integrated Userpro I… Read more »
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[…] Selling Direct  […]

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[…] Get full use of your website. Jane Friedman shows how to sell digital products and services on your website. […]

Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn)
Great post Jane – but just a comment around the EU VAT Law which came in 31 Dec 2014 and why I stopped selling direct from my site at TheCreativePenn.com. Basically, the law change means that if you sell digital goods with no personal intervention TO any customer in the European Union, and yes, that includes the UK, you should be collecting and paying VAT in the country of the CUSTOMER. It used to be based on your country as the seller, but now it’s the customer’s country, so US sellers should be dealing with this. More info here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vat-supplying-digital-services-to-private-consumers/vat-businesses-supplying-digital-services-to-private-consumers… Read more »
Don Meyers

What are other’s experiences in selling print books on their websites?

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[…] Own Website. You could also choose to sell books from your website. Jane Friedman discusses options for adapting WordPress for ecommerce; or, you could try one of the sites that provide a sales platform such as […]

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[…] you want to sell ebooks directly on your website, Jane Friedman has a good article on your options for Selling Digital Products. The Book Designer adds a few other […]

Felix

Great tips. I actually prefer Format with their new store features to Squarespace, but other than that great advice!

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