The Virtual Construction Zone — Building a Web-Store.By: Mike July 13, 2012
This post may contain references to crass commercialism and the business of writing. It should not be read by those with romantic notions of authors scrivening with a quill pen in quaint, drafty garrets who don't wish to be disillusioned. This will be the first in a short series of posts aimed primarily at helping other authors. We'll return to your regularly-scheduled programming in a month or so.
P.S. Patty is still out in her drafty garret, er, office trailer, typing away!
In order to sell things, you need a place of business. Many years ago I cut my nerd-teeth writing web pages in HTML. Those were the early days of the world wide web, and it was high-tech to embed a few images into a page of text. The internet leveled the playing field for small companies. In the real world, I would have had a hard time coming up with the money to pay for a stall in the local flea market. I certainly couldn't match the big retailers in their granite and marble main-street castles. On the internet, however, my fake-marble background image was just as good as the one used by the biggest banks or chain stores. You didn't need money to make an attractive and professional web store that could compete with the big guys.
To a large extent, that's still true. Oh, the big guys have fancy flash content and all sorts of nifty Ajax controls. They hire top-end graphics designers while we make do with an aging copy of Paint Shop Pro and my unsteady mouse. But, in the end, the average person can make a neat, clean, usable store on the internet with just a little time and effort.
Getting Started: Choose your Platform
There's a nearly infinite number of ways to set up a web store. If you're using a content management system like Drupal or Joomla, or a blog system like WordPress you can probably find shopping cart plugins that integrate nicely with your existing content. If your needs are simple (and most authors have simple needs) using such a system may save a lot of hair pulling and frustration.
If you don't find a plugin or module for your current platform, there are still many programs available for opening a web store. We're using Zen-Cart, which is a lovely and well-maintained system. My only complaint is that it's a bit like swatting flies with a sledgehammer; our little store uses a tiny fraction of the built-in capabilities. There's lots more, both free and commercial, in every combination of price and complexity you can imagine.
Take your time when choosing your platform. The choices are daunting, but the difference between a good choice and a bad one can be many hours of frustration. While I love open source solutions, this is one of those times where having tech support a phone call away may be worth the purchase price of a commercial product. Simple is probably better for most author sites.
This is at once the most essential and the most thorny of tasks for ecommerce. In the simplest solution, you can ask people to send a check or money order (preferably to a P.O. box rather than your home, just for safety's sake). However, in the internet age of instant gratification, most customers will balk and the inconvenience.
If you want to take credit cards, you'll need to make some choices. If you want to play with the big kids you'll need to set up a merchant account through a banking institution. This is a bit like getting a home loan -- you essentially get to go throw your financials in front of a banker, who will check your credit rating, collateral, employment history and whatever else they deem relevant, and ask you to sign a contract that basically says if things go wrong, you're the responsible party. The initial costs are high, but the transaction costs (the fees charged by the credit cards) will be quite low.
If you're using your own merchant account, you'll also want to be very careful with what data you store and where/how you store it. If you just store your clients' credit card numbers, names and addresses in a plain-text file on your web server you'll find you've violated a number of laws with unhappy consequences. It's like Spiderman says, "With great power comes great responsibility." Personally, I recommend leaving this game for companies who can hire accountants and nerds to keep them safe and legal.
If you want to accept credit cards without risking fines and jail time for, you probably need a third party Merchant. You know, a kind and caring company who will agree to do all the heavy lifting and bear the burden of legal compliance and risk mitigation in exchange for a healthy share of your profits. The best known of these third party merchants is PayPal, but there are many others. Each offers slightly different services at slightly different terms. These are the money-changers of the internet. Like money-changers everywhere, they're universally vilified and widely despised. They also provide a valuable service, and their fees are probably going to be lower than the missed business opportunities of not accepting electronic payment or the compliance costs of maintaining your own merchant account.
No, not that hobbit-like contentment of a full belly and a cold tankard, the part where you actually go out to the garage, put things in boxes, and mail them to customers. There's nothing fulfilling about it -- it's work, plain and simple!
Because our store is small, we run a very simple (and terribly inefficient) fulfillment center. We have a little office trailer divided into two rooms. One is Patty's office, where the books actually get written. The other is our shipping room. This room has lots of plastic bins filled with shirts, and a couple of cartons of patches and other items all stacked on some big metal shelving units. There's a big table with a task chair, and a stack of envelopes and boxes obtained from the post office. I print out the orders in my office, walk in, and start stuffing the envelopes and boxes full of the items pulled from the bins and cartons like some demented Elf escaped from Santa's shop. When I'm done, I file the orders under "shipped" and carry a big armload of packages to the car and stuff them in trunk. I drive fifteen miles to the post office, carry the big stack of packages into the counter, and endure the glares from the line of people that inevitably arrive right after I do. I slink out, drive home, and do it again the next week.
Now, big companies have all the swag sitting in a computerized storage center, and nifty robots (or teams of underpaid workers) rush about filling orders in a much more organized fashion, stuffing them in boxes neatly labeled with the company logo, and mailing them at deeply discounted rates from their own shipping centers. Who me, jealous? You must be mistaken.
I suspect that, for most authors, your solution will look more like ours. I know that there are several companies who specialize in order fulfillment. You can send them the swag, and forward the orders to them, and they'll have their winged monkeys, er, employees package the orders and ship them out for your. All they want is (you guessed it), a little of your profits for their time and trouble.
The biggest head-scratcher for me is the packaging materials. The U.S. Postal Service offers high-quality packaging (various sizes of cardboard boxes and Tyvek envelopes) for free, but they're marked "Priority" and have to be sent by priority mail, which is more costly than first class. I can buy similar envelopes and boxes from Staples or Office Depot, and save on shipping costs. Sadly, when I ran the numbers, it was costing me more to run into town and buy the shipping supplies than I was saving in postage. Obviously, big companies don't have that problem, or they'd be shipping everything in priority boxes. I think this is a question of which shipping services and packaging suppliers you're close to -- once again, it doubtless pays to do your homework. Our low-tech approach is send everything except overseas orders via priority mail.
ConclusionSo that's the mechanics of it. If you set up a shopping cart on your website, tied to some means of accepting payment, and figure out how to actually send the customer the items they've purchased, you're off and running in ecommerce, and your swag can be worn by legions of dedicated readers. Or at least, that's the theory!
Making swag is actually fun, and seeing your readers come to cons and signings wearing the shirts and patches you've produced is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. It's pretty easy to open a bare-bones store like ours, so it's time to quit reading this blog, break out your colored pencils, and make it happen.
Good Luck, and have fun out there!