After 12 years spent building and running book-related websites, I’ve learned a bit about selling books online. Here are some of the most frequent questions I get asked.
I’m an author. What’s the best way to let people buy my books from my website?
The easiest and probably the most effective way to do this is to link each book to the relevant page in Amazon. If you join the free Amazon Associate scheme, you’ll get commission on all sales that result from someone clicking through from your site to Amazon’s. That’s not just your book. It’s everything else they buy while they are there. I once got commission on a mountain bike which was very welcome.
You’ll also gain access to useful statistics on how many people click-through on your book links and what percentage of them buy.
Mainly because people trust Amazon with their credit card details so they are more likely to buy from them. We’ve tried linking to two other major bookshops in the past and given up because the linking was harder to do and we didn’t get any sales.
Linking to Amazon also offers your site visitors lots of extra information about your book, including sales ranks, reviews and, if it’s set up, the ‘look inside’ feature.
But I’ve got a pile of books under my bed that I want to sell. Linking to Amazon won’t get rid of those.
That’s true, but there are several alternative ways around the problem.
- Put your book on Amazon Marketplace and link to its page so you can still get Associate fees. You have to pay Amazon a flat fee plus a percentage of selling prices, but in return they handle the order and take the money for you. Once again, you’ll be using people’s trust in Amazon to help your sales.
- Provide an order form for people to print out and post with a cheque. This is cheap and simple, but it gets in the way of people making spur of the moment purchases. In our experience, it works best with niche market non-fiction that offers information that’s hard to get elsewhere. It’s not so effective for fiction, although it costs nothing to try, and you can add the extra bonus of signed copies.
- Take payments using PayPal. This is free to set up, but you have to pay a small percentage on each transaction. PayPal is so well-known system that many people who want to buy your book will already have an account and be used to paying for goods this way.
- Take credit card orders with Worldpay or with another payment provider using your own merchant account. This can be expensive and, in our experience, book sales from author websites are usually modest and unlikely to cover the cost of going down this route. You can find out more about the costs on the Electronic Payments website.
These four options are not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why you can’t use all of the first three at once, and it definitely makes sense to offer cheque payments as well as PayPal.
However you take the orders, you’ll still have to pack the books and send them out. That needs to be done promptly so make sure you have packaging materials in stock and check regularly for email orders. You’ll also need to stop taking orders or arrange for cover if you’re away for an extended period of time. Of course, this chore is saved if you’re selling ebooks. In that case, you’ll need to set up a secure download system.
All the above advice is aimed at authors. But I’m a publisher/bookseller and I want to set up a proper online bookshop. What’s important to consider?
Start by taking a long hard look at your competition, especially Amazon. Buy some books from them yourself to see how their systems work and talk to other people who buy books online to see how they would like to see the process improved.
Then plan your site to offer your potential customers an experience that’s at least as good, but preferably better. Spend time planning to make sure you get the site structure right. No amount of pretty graphics and dancing penguins will make up for clunky navigation and slow loading pages.
Your search facility has to be excellent. If it’s not, you might as well give up and save the cost of the site because you will only sell books if customers can find them. So make sure site visitors can browse by category and search by subject or keyword as well as title or author. This is a good place to challenge your competitors by offering a wider range of categories. Hopefully your research has shown up some good ones to include.
Recommendations are good too, but they should be based on what the customer has shown they want to buy rather than on what you want to sell. Something similar to Amazon’s “people who bought this, also bought that” system would be a real asset.
Once customers reach a book page, give them the best experience they can. As well as showing them the cover and the back cover blurb, let them read an extract or download a sample. Reader reviews are good too, but you need to police the system to stop it being misused.
I’ve already got an online bookshop but people keep abandoning their carts without buying the books they’ve put in them. What am I doing wrong?
There will always be people who change their mind or have to stop shopping because the cat was sick on the carpet. But, if you’re getting a lot of abandoned carts, check that the purchasing process to make sure it’s user-friendly. Common problems are:
- Not telling people about the cost of delivery before they’ve committed to buying. Of course, the exact cost will depend on where they live but you should state how you work out your delivery charges on a page that’s easily reached from the main part of the shop.
- Forcing them to set up an account when they don’t want to. We all have more passwords than we can handle, and I often abandon a purchase when I’m asked to create yet another one. Even if you want to offer an account system, give customers the option of buying as a guest if they prefer.
- Not looking trustworthy. If you’re asking for people’s credit card details, you should have your postal address on the site so they know who they are giving them to. A phone number is good too, and so is a clear returns policy.
- Having forms that don’t work properly. I’ve dropped out of sales because the site wouldn’t accept my address or claimed my phone number wasn’t valid.
What’s the best way to test my site?
Ask friends who have never used the site to find and buy a book while you watch. Don’t say anything. Just note where they get lost, go wrong or give up in frustration. You’ll be amazed how much you learn.