Carla King interviews Nate Hoffelder: How to sell digital and physical books and products directly from your website
Nonfiction Authors Association Podcast | May 17, 2023
“I think authors have to be prepared to invest time in not just building [their ecommerce website] and making sure it’s running…They also need to invest time promoting it and actually getting people to come to the store–to their website–to buy [product]. The ecommerce store will only be as successful as the time and marketing energy that the author puts into it.”
About Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder has been helping people fix broken tech since 2010. He turns broken-down WordPress sites into sites that convert visitors into superfans, also builds sites from scratch, and helps authors with their social media and newsletters. In 2010, he launched a news blog called The Digital Reader, which he has since sold. Nate is on the board of the Florida Writers Foundation and helps writer groups with their websites. He has presented sessions on websites and marketing tools for editors at EFA and ACES conferences and offers website-building services for editors. When he is not volunteering, he writes bad jokes on Twitter and creates memes and graphics. In his spare time, Nate maintains three Little Free Libraries.
Nonfiction Authors Podcast: Nate Hoffelder
Find the video podcast, show notes, links, quotes, and podcast transcript below.
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In this episode…
- An explanation of direct selling for authors.
- The benefits of directly selling your books.
- Why it’s important to offer something to your readers when selling direct.
- How to sort through ecommerce platforms to find the right one for you.
- How to integrate an ecommerce system into an already existing author website.
- Options for outsourcing your printing, packing, and shipping needs.
- The approximate time it takes to install an ecommerce plugin, and what to expect when hiring a professional to help with setup.
- Tips on refreshing your current author website if it needs updating.
- More about widgets found on an ecommerce website.
- Why publishers should consider ecommerce platforms.
- Figuring out sales tax when setting up your ecommerce platform.
Hello and welcome to the interview series for the Nonfiction Authors Association. Today’s session is with Nate Hoffelder and we will be talking about how to sell digital and physical books directly from your website. I’m Carla King, your host, and I’m happy to have you with us today. This interview will last only 30 minutes and you can find the replay on our Nonfiction Authors Association website and social media platforms including YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
Nate Hoffelder has been helping people fix broken tech since 2010. Nate specializes in turning broken-down WordPress sites into sites that convert visitors into superfans. And he also builds sites from scratch, incorporating your email, newsletters, social media, and e-commerce. In 2010, Nate launched a news blog called The Digital Reader, which he has since sold. Today, Nate is a partner member at the Nonfiction Authors Association and sits on the board of the Florida Writers Foundation. He educates writers and editors about websites and marketing tools for organizations and events like the Editorial Freelancers Association and the American Copy Editors Conference. When he is not volunteering, he writes bad jokes on Twitter and creates memes and graphics. In his spare time, Nate maintains three Little Free Libraries.
Hi, Nate. Welcome to the podcast.
Nate Hoffelder 1:45
Hi, Carla. Thank you for having me.
Carla King 1:47
Well, you do a lot of fun and important things. And you’ve been in touch with authors and tech for a long time. And when we talked before, you pointed out that most authors sell on Amazon and the other retailers, and that gives them control over your publishing future as an author, right? So could you start by explaining direct selling–maybe ecommerce–and what it means for authors to do that?
Nate Hoffelder 2:11
For one thing, they earn a greater share of each sale, which is also great. But really what it means is–it’s freedom. And it’s a way of building your own platform–you don’t have to worry about Amazon, or Apple, or whoever decides that they don’t want to sell your books anymore. Amazon, in particular–there’s an ongoing problem. It keeps happening, and keeps happening, and keeps happening. Well, I think it’s a bot. I don’t understand any other explanation. Amazon keeps closing author accounts saying that they have violated rules or that they are pirated content. And actually, I have heard this happen to several authors I know. And I can tell you that I really don’t think they were doing it. And they found it almost impossible to get their accounts reopened. Or one told me that her account was closed, she did eventually reach a person, they opened it up again, and then the bot closed it again. Direct sales is a way of making sure that you can decide whether you can sell stuff, rather than relying on Amazon’s bots.
Carla King 3:07
Right. And I know, as authors, we all have an Amazon Author Central page, and there is that customer service button at the bottom. But basically, what I tell writers is–put your website information in the front and the back of your book so that people always–no matter if they look at the book preview on Amazon–they can get to you. And then you should have something to offer, right?
Nate Hoffelder 3:30
One thing I also tell authors is to make sure that their profile on Goodreads is well laid out–is populated. Because one thing I found is–if I’m looking for an author–sometimes their author websites show up first, but sometimes Goodreads will show up first. So I’ve often found author websites through Goodreads–Amazon’s book focused social network. But yeah–when you want to start sending readers to your website, you do need to have something for them to find–blurbs for your next book and your book cover. And ideally something for them to buy would be good.
Carla King 3:30
Right. And an email newsletter, maybe a freebie. So when we’re looking for ecommerce platforms, that’s a direct way to sell your book–or products, or workbooks, or photographs, or calendars–from their own website to capture those email addresses. There are a lot of ecommerce platforms to choose from. How can you sort through them and figure out which one is right for you? Can you just go through some of the products, and maybe their advantages or their strong points?
Nate Hoffelder 4:47
A lot of the time it’s really more of–Where’s their website? And does the website host have an ecommerce platform? Weebly does, and so does Squarespace, and so does WordPress.com. Or Payhip, which is primarily a retail platform. They’ll have all the steps for you. They’re branching out into websites now. And I just recently had a client ask me if I could set up a Shopify site, which is entirely a retail platform. But if you want to do a lot of direct sales, it might make sense to start to build a store there, and then go ahead and build a site there as well.
Carla King 5:27
So that’s one option if you don’t have a site. But I have this legacy WordPress site with so much information on it–blog posts and all of that. I don’t even have the energy to start moving it over to an ecommerce site. Plus, I love WordPress because there’s all kinds of plugins, and themes, and all of that. So, if I have a WordPress site, how can I integrate an ecommerce system into that?
Nate Hoffelder 5:55
Well, I think, really, the first question is–what do you want to sell? And how many different items do you want to sell? For WordPress, I usually recommend one of two solutions–either Payhip or WooCommerce. WooCommerce can be a very complex, full featured retail platform. But it’s not really for an author who sells one or two books a month–it’s for someone who regularly posts about bundles, or regularly has sales. So it’s really more for retailers. And Payhip is a lighter platform for if you want to integrate two or three books, sales pages into your website.
Carla King 6:32
So a lot of authors–maybe they have a book launch coming up and they want to sell autographed copies, and maybe send coffee cups, or pens, or something along with it. How do we set that up? Would that be through a Payhip type ecommerce widget, or a sales page?
Nate Hoffelder 6:57
I actually like WooCommerce if you’re going to sell physical products. Actually, with WooCommerce you can sell both digital and physical, and it will deliver the ebook files for you, or the audiobook files. But then you can also sell physical products and collect the shipping as well. Payhip is very good for digital. You’ll have to give them your cover and the blurb and tell them the price, but they’ll display a book for you on your site, collect the transaction, and then they’ll deliver the ebook to the customer–your reader.
Carla King 7:33
While you sleep, which is always nice. It’s no hands on at all. Either way, we’re going to have to package it up and do that. Is there any option for outsourcing that process? Because I don’t want to spend all day boxing stuff up and sending it out through the post office or UPS?
Nate Hoffelder 7:51
Well, most authors that I know of–they do ship their postcards, or books, or what have you. I do know of a few services that will act as dropshippers for authors. I forget the name, but I know where to look them up.
Carla King 8:09
I just tried out–and successfully integrated–the Lulu API, which needs the WooCommerce WordPress plugin to send physical books to my customers. So basically, I had to have the Lulu API. So I got some technical person to install that on my website. I don’t even know how that works. And it costs me very little. And then installed WooCommerce myself, created a sales page and a product page. And when people order my workbook, it goes right to Lulu, they print it, and they send it to the customer. Are there more systems like that? Or is Lulu the only one for printing? Do you have any other suggestions?
Nate Hoffelder 9:07
I do know of one other. It’s from Ingram. It’s called Aer.io. And they’re really more of an entire source solution. But you can set up your own branded store on their platform, and then if someone orders an item, it’ll be shipped from Ingram’s warehouses.
Carla King 9:30
I used Aer.io way back, basically–because my genre is motorcycle adventure travel–I set up a store on my website for motorcycle adventure travel books, and I used Aer.io for the sales page. And it was like my Amazon affiliate link. It didn’t give me that much money for it, but it served to drive people to my website to find the books that I liked. And then it gave me a little bit of an affiliate kickback.
Nate Hoffelder 10:01
Yeah, that’s one of the things I like about Aer.io, is that you could sell not just your own books, but books related to what you like.
Carla King 10:10
So it sounds like WooCommerce is your favorite WordPress plugin. It’s not very expensive. How hard is that to install, for an author themselves? And how much time–and maybe money–would you expect to spend for somebody professional to incorporate that into your WordPress website?
Nate Hoffelder 10:29
If they’re technically capable, it wouldn’t be too hard. I did recently work with an author. I just did the basic setup, and then I was waiting for them to send me the files, and they just went ahead and set everything up themselves–added the content, and added the book covers, so I’d say it’s pretty easy. The technical setup of setting up the payment processing–that’s a little more complicated. I went for the simple option here–just having payments processed through PayPal. And that involves getting several keys–private key, site key, public key–and then putting them into WooCommerce.
Carla King 11:00
And WooCommerce and the other tools really are pretty great at stepping you through the process. Like, ‘here’s what you do next, here’s what you do next.’
Nate Hoffelder 11:08
Yeah, they do have you walk through it step by step. And they even have reminders that you need to have pages like a refund policy, and that you need to make sure that your payment is connected, and so on.
Carla King 11:30
That’s true. You know what–I’m remembering when I set it up myself. So I had to set up a product page for my workbook, I had to set up a store page for all my product–the only thing in my store is the workbook right now.
But if I plan to sell any physical or digital items, they would also appear on that store page. And each one of those would have a product page. And then when you click through, there’s a sales page, right? With all of the pricing information, and choose two, or three, or just one. There’s a shopping cart. And then there’s a checkout page. And there’s a thank you page.
So does the WooCommerce system–do the systems come with all of those pre-populated a little bit so you can populate them with your own images and words?
Nate Hoffelder 12:24
Those pages come pre-built, and they usually built websites with a page builder called Divi. And one thing I like about WooCommerce now is that–if I install WooCommerce on a site builder using Divi, it automatically rebuilds all the WooCommerce pages using Divi. So I can go ahead and redesign it in ways that blend in with the rest of the site, rather than just having a checkout page, which has its own color scheme and its own layout. I can instead redo the checkout page or the cart page, so they are completely integrated with the design of the site, which is a nice thing.
Carla King 12:56
I love Divi. Divi is a very popular theme for WordPress. I’ve used it. The Nonfiction Authors Association uses Divi. And most people know how to use it. On my website, I use Thrive Themes, which also does that same thing. It has global colors, and headers, and footers, and typefaces, so you don’t have to design everything all over again. So say I have an old website. A lot of authors have really old websites–years old. And they look old. And they have a lot of blog posts, and maybe they’ve set up reviews. They have a lot of pages, but it’s just old. How would you advise them to go about either refreshing or starting over? When is that cut off point when they want to incorporate direct sales and do a nice branding update on their site?
Nate Hoffelder 14:12
I’d probably recommend doing the branding first, and then adding the direct sales second. Two separate parts. Because one of the things I would like to do with a website is to remove all the excess plugins. And one reason we do that first is–I don’t know whether it’s going to cause conflicts with WooCommerce or with another ecommerce solution. So it’s best just to simplify the site by removing things they don’t need, and then rebuild the new site, and then add the ecommerce at the last step.
Carla King 14:45
So you’re a fixer. You’re a fixer–you’re going to take that old website, and make it fresh, and then incorporate the ecommerce. So there’s a couple kinds. Can we talk about the widgets that you can get from services like Payhip, like PayPal, maybe stripe. Sometimes you can configure it so that when somebody clicks on the product, the sales widget just comes up to say, ‘How many do you want? Here’s what it costs. And put your credit card in.’ How does that work? How do you make that happen?
Nate Hoffelder 15:31
Well, this is actually one of the reasons I like Payhip. But it takes a little bit of work. There’s two bits of code that you have to add to a website in order to make the buttons pop up the right way. And that is a little technically complicated, because Payhip actually has two different ways of doing it. Just a ‘Buy Now’ feature or an ‘Add to Cart’ feature. And the ‘Add To Cart’ is really cool, because then the cart just appears on someone’s website, and it’ll complete the sale without anyone leaving the website, which is always nice. It’ll have a little pop up window for a cart. And then even if you click ‘Checkout,’ then it does. PayPal actually has something similar, but it’s a little harder to integrate their cart. Because one thing I like to do–but PayPal makes it hard–is having a little cart icon in the menu bar. And that’s harder to do, because they hide that code. I don’t know why.
Carla King 16:31
So I can actually have a cart on my website menu bar? A little shopping cart?
Nate Hoffelder 16:37
For PayPal, yes. WooCommerce–with some themes, anyway–WooCommerce will add it automatically.
Carla King 16:45
I see. I’ve used PayPal. I’ve used it for a ‘Buy Now’ button.
Nate Hoffelder 16:52
I’m just remembering, right now, some of the things I bought using PayPal. And what happens–some websites, depending on how it’s set up–what will happen instead is a PayPal window will pop up over the site, and then you complete the transaction in the window, and then it will send you back to the site. If it’s set up properly with merchant service PayPal features.
Carla King 17:19
When should an author completely start over and use a Shopify or a Payhip type builder? If you’re an author, and all you’re gonna do is sell books–because we’re talking about nonfiction authors here. So a lot of nonfiction authors who are listening are maybe memoirists, and some of them are business people who already have products, and courses, and consulting. When would you say, ‘Use an ecommerce website builder?’ And when would you say, ‘Use WordPress and just a WooCommerce and Payhip plugin’?
Nate Hoffelder 18:02
For nonfiction, they do have the advantage. Because their customers–their clients, or their readers–will be more willing to buy direct and be willing to buy things like PDFs. For nonfiction authors, they can sell things which are easier for a reader or client to use, like an audiobook file, which you can just double click on and listen to. Or a PDF rather than an ePub file. Because the PDF works everywhere. I don’t know if I would recommend a nonfiction author having a Shopify site, but a publisher–one with dozens of titles and one who offers regular sales–quarterly sales, or annual sales, or their new releases, or a bundle of the authors backlists. A publisher should certainly consider going with Shopify or an ecommerce platform like that.
Carla King 19:01
I see. I think also, it’s giving me the idea that somebody who’s selling coaching, and consulting, and online courses could also benefit from an ecommerce web build–specifically for an ecommerce website versus a WordPress website with a plugin.
Nate Hoffelder 19:27
Well, for courses–I’m torn on this. I tend to think that courses should be taught/sold through a platform like Pluralsight or Teachable, rather than an ecommerce site, because they’re set up to host the course and to present the information sequentially through one video and one PDF at a time, or so on. So it’s a real course site, rather than just a bundle of files for somebody to use.
Carla King 20:00
It turns out I interviewed Imelda Dharwami from Payhip a couple months ago. And they’re integrating courseware into Payhip. So that’s pretty nice. You can sell directly–coaching, and courses, and virtual products, and physical products with that order form that we were talking about. Now I get your weekly email–’Morning Coffee’ –about what’s going on in the publishing world and authors world. And we’re just seeing these tools and services grow with technology, but also to meet our needs. It’s hard to keep up.
Nate Hoffelder 20:52
Yeah. Take, for example, taxes. Five years ago, or seven years ago, you were largely on your own if you wanted to comply with tax law and collect the right taxes. But now, most ecommerce platforms will do that for you. They won’t send the taxes to the various authorities, but they’ll collect the right tax. Squarespace does that now, and so does Payhip, and WooCommerce. I think Square also does it, but I could be wrong.
Carla King 21:23
I would bet they do. I would bet that most of them do. Because that’s horrible to sort out. Because if an author sells something in England or Portland, Oregon–which Portland has no sales tax at all–retail sales tax. And California has got some in the high teens. So how do you figure that out?
Nate Hoffelder 21:44
This is one of the things I do check for clients when I set up stores. I check to see what their local tax laws are, because whether or not an ebook is taxed varies from one state to the next. And whether or not a service, like a course–I’m not even sure if of course is a service, depending on which state you’re in. Sometimes those are taxed, sometimes they’re not. For example, I know here in Virginia, my services are not taxed. But I believe there are other states where they are.
Carla King 22:10
Okay, that’s awesome. Okay, any last advice for nonfiction authors on building ecommerce into their websites?
Nate Hoffelder 22:23
I think they have to be prepared to invest time in not just building it and making sure it’s running. Although, that’s one of the nice things about Squarespace or the hosting companies–they handle most of the tech for you. But they also need to invest time promoting it and actually getting people to come to the store–to their website–and buy stuff. If people get an interest in an author, and they Google their name, they’ll generally find the author’s Amazon pages, getting them to come to the author’s website and buy things and gain the trust of the author–that takes more time and effort. And so the store will only be as successful as the time and marketing energy that the author puts into it.
Carla King 23:12
That’s a good point. So having a goal, and having steps to meeting that goal, and building a platform, and doing all the right things to bring those authors from Amazon to your website is super important. Well, Nate–wish we have more time. Thank you for sharing your experience and your expertise. And I also just want to end with–where can we find you on the web?
Nate Hoffelder 23:43
Carla King 23:52
Okay, that sounds Irish.
Nate Hoffelder 23:54
I think it’s actually originally Scottish. But it’s the town’s name in West Virginia. And it’s originally it was–I think Clenebbie was the original name in Scotland, but yes.
Carla King 24:08
Okay, we’ll put that in the show notes so that we can spell it right.
Nate Hoffelder 24:12
You can also find me on Twitter at @inkbitspixels. And of course, I hang out on various online forums on Facebook.
Carla King 24:20
Great. And go to natehoffelder.com and sign up for the Morning Coffee newsletter. It comes once a week, and I always find interesting things there. So thanks for providing that, and all of your expertise, Nate. It’s great to have you.
Nate Hoffelder 24:37
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Carla King 24:41
And thank you to our listeners for joining us today and every week. For a list of guests and topics just check our schedule on the site, use your favorite search engine, or better yet, sign up for our mailing list at NonfictionAuthorsAssociation.com.
Quotes from our guest
“I think [authors] have to be prepared to invest time in not just building [their ecommerce website] and making sure it’s running. Although, that’s one of the nice things about Squarespace or the hosting companies–they handle most of the tech for you. But they also need to invest time promoting it and actually getting people to come to the store–to their website–and buy stuff. If people get an interest in an author, and they Google their name, they’ll generally find the author’s Amazon pages, getting them to come to the author’s website and buy things and gain the trust of the author–that takes more time and effort. And so the store will only be as successful as the time and marketing energy that the author puts into it.”
“When you want to start sending readers to your website, you do need to have something for them to find–blurbs for your next book and your book cover. And ideally something for them to buy would be good.”
“For nonfiction [authors], they do have the advantage. Because their customers–their clients, or their readers–will be more willing to buy direct and be willing to buy things like PDFs. For nonfiction authors, they can sell things which are easier for a reader or client to use, like an audiobook file, which you can just double click on and listen to. Or a PDF rather than an ePub file. Because the PDF works everywhere. I don’t know if I would recommend a nonfiction author having a Shopify site, but a publisher–one with dozens of titles and one who offers regular sales–quarterly sales, or annual sales, or their new releases, or a bundle of the authors backlists. A publisher should certainly consider going with Shopify or an ecommerce platform like that.”
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