Selling Ebooks Direct: How To Set Up A Simple E-Bookstore

Selling e-books direct to your readers has just got a little easier, thanks to a new company called Gumroad.

I heard about them through indie author Sarah Billington on Friday, had my store up and running on Saturday, and fully pimped out by Sunday. (Cost = Zero!)

But before we get to that, should you open your own e-bookstore?

Advantages of Selling Direct

The first obvious advantage is higher royalty rates. You can earn a lot more than 70% if you sell direct. I’m making $3.49 on my $3.99 titles (as opposed to $2.70 from Amazon) and I’m getting nearly double the royalties on 99c titles.

On top of that, I can now directly serve readers who face higher charges internationally (such as readers in Amazon’s surcharge zone) and those readers who can’t buy from the major retailers (e.g. Barnes & Noble only serve the US, and Amazon don’t serve much of Asia, most of the Middle East, and nearly all of Africa).

It also gives me somewhere to send readers who hate opening an account just to make one purchase, and an alternative for them when there are technical problems at their preferred site (as happened recently with Kobo and Smashwords).

Finally, it allows me (with readers’ express permission only, of course) to capture the email addresses of my readers, to get paid quicker than any other retailer, and to do things I can’t do easily otherwise, like offer e-book bundles or extra formats for those who own multiple devices.


There are downsides to selling direct though. It takes time to set-up (and can cost you, depending on your approach). You have to deal with customers if anything goes wrong (your processor goes down, their card gets charged the wrong amount, their file is corrupted or doesn’t arrive, or they just can’t figure something out etc.).

Some might also worry that selling direct could dilute their sales (and thus their ranking) on key retailers, costing them crucial visibility on bestseller lists.

Honestly though, that’s not a huge worry for me. If I cannibalize my sales on Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, I won’t care too much. At the moment at least, I seem to bring them most of the customers that buy my books anyway, so it’s logical to readers the option of buying direct and make more per transaction.

As for Amazon, I can’t see my direct sales cutting into that business too much. The overwhelming majority of my sales there are customers that Amazon brings to me, so I wouldn’t be able to divert them if I wanted to. It might cannibalize some of my international sales (especially those in the surcharge zone), but I only get 35% for those anyway, so I’m quite happy to do that.

Besides, I think most people will continue to purchase from their preferred retailer, this is just an option for the minority who may wish to buy direct. I don’t have any data to back this up, but my hunch is that this will grow my overall sales, rather than simply moving them from one column to another, as greater distributive reach usually means increased sales.

One final consideration: taxes. Depending on where you live, and the applicable sales taxes or filing requirements etc., selling direct may not be a viable option for you. I can’t advise you on tax matters, and my situation is quite different anyway (it’s my understanding that, in my country, I’m not liable for VAT unless I pass a certain sales threshold each year, and, if I reach that level, I’ll have a team of minions to take care of such trifles.)


To sell your own books, you have a number of choices.

1. You can have a custom store built for you with all the bells-and-whistles – which accepts credit cards and PayPal, calculates sales taxes and VAT, automatically fulfills orders, and often has support too. This can look slick and work very well. You will get the highest royalty percentage – 95% or more. However, there’s also a fair whack upfront and, as such, will most likely only suit either those selling in high volume or those who can code such a site themselves, or rope a friend into doing it for free.

2. You can add a shopping cart to your existing site or blog, which will do much of the above for you. Some shopping carts cost a monthly fee, some are free but take a cut, and some do a little of both. You should note that you can’t add a shopping cart to a free blog (but you can do a custom, paid blog). I wanted to host the store on my blog (my website gets little traffic and needs a redesign before I can do anything with it), so I didn’t research this option too deeply.

3. You can sell via PayPal, manually. This is the most labor-intensive, as you will have to manually email the files after payment comes in. This might seem trivial, or your worst nightmare, depending. PayPal is a popular (and trusted) payment option and this low-tech solution is unlikely to trip up on tech problems. However, if you’re not online when the order comes in, the customer will have to wait, and may get frustrated. On the other hand, you keep a very high percentage of your selling price.

Even though I had wanted to open my own e-bookstore for some time, none of the above options particularly suited.

I wasn’t selling in high enough volume to justify the upfront cost of a custom site. I didn’t want to move my blog from, and I couldn’t justify to devote the time and money to getting my website redesigned (and a shopping cart installed). And I certainly didn’t want to have a manual fulfillment system when I’m moving house (and country!) in a few weeks, and likely to be without regular internet access until I find somewhere to hang my hat.


And then I heard about Gumroad, whose idea is so unbelievably simple, that I didn’t quite get it at first.

In short, you upload a file (any file) to Gumroad, and they give you a download link. Place that link on your site, and you are good to go. Customers click on the link, get whisked to a secure off-site payment processor, complete the transaction, and receive your file. You can see how it all works by clicking on any of the links in my store (and if you really want to test it out by buying something, work away) and you can read the full Terms of Service on their site.

Gumroad charge 5% of whatever price you attach to the file, plus a transaction fee of $0.30. This means I get $0.65 for $0.99 books, and as much as $3.49 for my $3.99 titles (and I also have $7.99 bundles, where I’ll clear $7.29).

There are some disadvantages with Gumroad. For starters, you can make more per book with other solutions (but they each have their own drawbacks, outlined above). They are new (but legit); some teething problems are to be expected. I had some issues with test transactions not going through yesterday, but they ironed everything out very quickly after I contacted them – very impressive customer service, in fact.

Finally, not all planned features are online yet. For example, there is no PayPal option for customers (but you get paid that way, end of each month, once you’ve earned over $10). That’s the biggest drawback for me. PayPal is a hugely popular (and trusted) payment option; many readers may not want to dig out their credit card for one purchase.

However, after weighing it all up, I decided Gumroad was the best approach for now. I don’t think there’s simpler, cleaner, more elegant solution out there, and I just like the whole feel of the site, as well as the vibe from the team behind it. I think they have big plans for the future, and I’m excited to see what’s coming.

Building My Store

Initially, I just decided to replicate the layout of the big sale I had last week, but after some feedback, I shrank the book covers and blurbs, to minimize scrolling, and tried to make the layout more intuitive overall (and more like a regular e-bookstore).

After tapping into the hive mind (Twitter and Facebook), I decided to offer not just mobi and epub files, but also PDFs, zipped files containing all three formats (for multiple device owners), and various e-book bundles of my different titles.

Laying out the store the first way only took a couple of hours. Doing it the second way took all Saturday – but a lot of that time was spent doing up nice-looking PDFs of my books with new backmatter pointing directly to the store.

I had a basic version running on Saturday and made a couple of sales, and then made a couple more on Sunday when the new version went live (until I ran into some snafus). And, I must say, it’s a very nice feeling to sell your own books through your own store.

Other News

As part of my mission to be as widely distributed as possible, A Storm Hits Valparaiso will be appearing in a bookstore for the first time, hopefully later this week. More details soon. Maybe even a picture.

Following hot on its heels will be the print edition of Let’s Get Digital. It’s something I should have done quite some time ago, to be frank, and was finally spurred into action by said bookstore order.

In a naked attempt to blot out the sun with sheer mass of titles, I’m also lining up the release of the digital and print editions of Passons au numérique: Comment s’auto-publier, et surtout pourquoi (the French edition of Let’s Get Digital). The translation is complete, I just need to find a French proofer. If you know of anyone (or are one yourself), get in touch at david dot gaughran at gmail dot com.

This will be the first translation released under the royalty sharing program, but it won’t be the last, and various other translation projects are at different stages. If you are a translator, and you would be interested in forgoing your upfront fee in exchange for 20% of my royalties, get in touch at the above email address and we can talk further.

All of this stuff has, of course, taken time away from writing – but it has been fun and I think it will pay off long-term. Besides, I wrote a book in February and needed a break before tackling the rewrite. I might start that this week, if I stop pussyfooting around.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.