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.
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:
- Use Squarespace. You’ll pay a monthly fee, but it’s a managed hosting environment and integrates e-commerce functionality.
- 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.
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 publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
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. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
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.