The Joy and Pain of Running your Own Photography Download Store
I've been running my own digital download store for a good few years now. I started by selling Aperture presets, and then moved to selling Lightroom presets and then ebooks. It's great that in this era the tools exist that allow you to easily create your own store and sell your products online. It's something that would have been difficult only a decade ago, but now it’s something that anyone can do. It is not without its downsides though. In the time that I've been running my store I've had a lot of ups and downs.
Between accounting rules changes and technical issues, running your own store can take a lot out of you. Sometimes dealing with issues takes up so much of my time I wonder if it's worth it. Before I get to that, you may be wondering what this article is about and why I'm writing it. Well, a few people have asked me about running the store, and so I wanted to answer those questions. Secondly, I've had some issues lately, and I wanted to address those.
Thirdly, I run this store all myself and without any technical support. While the majority of people are understanding when some problems do occur, some people aren't so nice about it. So I wanted to show just what goes into running a store, and some of the issues that you have to deal with.
Most importantly though, if you're a photographer, an artist or whatever, and you are thinking of starting to sell stuff yourself, I wanted to give you an idea of what it's like. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is a warning of what you're letting yourself in for!
Early Days - E-Junkie
My first foray into selling photography related goods, was from my now defunct Aperture Blog. I started selling some presets for the software , and while it wasn't a huge success, I did have a good few customers, and it got me started. I created my first store using the e-junkie platform. This was relatively easy to set up, and it could integrate with your existing site relatively easy. It's a fairly basic platform, but it allowed me to start selling quite simply, and for a while it was perfect for my needs.
Using E-Junkie was not without it's drawbacks. For a start, a customer couldn't create an account, and deliveries were only via email. That means if someone lost their download email, I would have to manually re-send it to them. This didn't happen very often, but it was a feature that I know I would find frustrating. There were a lot of other little limitations, and so I finally decided to change to a better platform, that would give me more control over the process.
EU Rule Changes
Another big problem was the fact that the EU changed the rules for accounting for VAT two years ago, and e-junkie never updated to support that system. So technically, you can't sell digital goods in the EU using a platform that doesn't support the new Vat accounting rules. A surprising number of platforms still don't properly support these EU Vat rules, and it's a real pain, because it limits your options. It also is a bit short sighted on the part of the platform developers. Technically, users of their systems are breaking the law if they are selling downloads inside the EU because the platform doesn't support the vat accounting changes.
When I started my current store a few years ago, I decided to use WooCommerce. This sounded like a really good idea at the time. It was relatively easy to set up and it integrated with Wordpress quite easily. Over the years it has grown in complexity but at first it was pretty straightforward.
Today, I'm still using WooCommerce, but the number of problems with the platform has grown significantly. Because of the nature of Wordpress being open source, the environment is less controlled than a closed platform, such as SquareSpace. This means that there are lots of different components from different developers that all need to work together. This often leads to issues. Most are minor or cosmetic, but sometimes they are bigger and more serious. It’s probably not something that’s a big deal if you have a dedicated staff whose sole job is to deal with the problems, but when you’re running it all by yourself it is a different story.
For example, I was using a theme for a year or two that I was really happy with, but the developer of that theme stopped updating it. As newer versions of WooCommerce came out, as well as newer versions of Wordpress, the theme started to break. Eventually, it was just getting ridiculous. The credit card images took over the screen and it stopped working properly on mobile devices. So I had to change my theme and that involved lots of re-tooling of the product pages and blog posts.
That might not sound like a big deal but it is. The appearance of your store directly impacts how likely a customer is to buy from you. If your store is having all sorts of visual issues, a potential customer is put off.
Another issue that I had with the old theme is that it didn't work properly on Firefox. I am not a developer so I couldn't fix the issues, and so was reliant on the theme developer to resolve it. Of course that didn't stop a handful of Firefox users from sending me irate emails about how I had no business having a store on the Internet. My logs show that Firefox users account for less than 1% of my traffic, but people don't understand that or that you aren't a developer. And to be fair, they shouldn't have to. If I was a customer I probably wouldn't care either. But as a store owner you have to fix it. I tried several times, and eventually I figured out it was the theme and when I changed it, it seems to have resolved the issue.
The adage of the customer is always right applies to selling online too. Even when it’s not your fault, of if it’s something the customer is doing wrong, you have to accept that it’s ultimately your responsibility if you want to make a sale. One bad customer can bad mouth you all over the internet, and this can ruin your store or your chances of your business growing.
The bizarre array of problems you have to account for
That's just the tip of the iceberg though. There are lots of other things that have cropped up over the years, all of which you don't think of until they occur, and then you have to fix them as soon as possible before someone gets mad. Here's just a few examples of some of the things that I've had to deal with over the years:
People using fake email addresses.
All of the things that I sell on the store are digital downloads, and when you buy something you get an email with a link to download the file. This is all pretty straight forward, except that every so often someone will use a fake email address. People for whatever reason don't want to give their real email address, and even though the files are delivered by email (and I say that in several places on the store) people will still try to use a fake email address.
Originally I had to constantly engage with people who didn't get their files, and I could tell straight away what the problem was. Usually you could see that the email they were contacting you with was different from what they used. I would try to explain that the files were delivered via email, and that you would have to use a proper email address, but that would make some people even more irate. A few times I got the "why should I give you my email address, I don't know what you're going to do with it" response. They couldn't grasp the fact that if the files are being delivered by email, it helps to have a valid email address.
Another related problem is that the emails would get caught in people's spam filters. Some people seem to have aggressive spam filtering, and occasionally the delivery email would get lost in it. While most people figure this out, some would blame the store owner regardless. I got several irate emails from people who didn't get their delivery emails, and every time they were in the person's spam folder.
While all of these issues were out of my control, I had to find a solution. It was taking up too much of my time dealing with it, and also, customers don't care that things are out of your control, or that it might be their own fault. I know that sounds kind of cheeky to say, but it's true. The solution I came up with was to make it mandatory to create an account, and therefore, everyone could download their purchase form their account page directly after a purchase. This meant that everyone could get their purchases regardless of whether they used a fake email or not. Unfortunately this led to a new problem….
Why do I need to create an account?
I occasionally get an angry email asking why the person who want's to buy something needs to create an account. They also want to know why they have to provide me with their details (address and so on) when buying something. A lot of this stems from a degree of (possibly justified) paranoia about identity theft, while some of it is people just not wanting to fill in a few forms. The amount of complaints about having to set up an account are far less than the issues that occurred form not having customers have to set one up, and so I have left it as it is.
The not wanting to fill in details thing is quite annoying though. As a business owner, I try to follow the law as closely as possible, and you have to keep accounts. When you sell something online, you have to keep a detailed record of your customer. This means, address etc. Part of this is due to the EU vat law, and part of it is due to standard accounting law. Some people think it's like going into a physical shop and buying something with cash, but it's not. You have to keep records. It's the law, and it's quite frustrating when people send you angry emails because you're trying to obey the law.
There is the option of PayPal express. This lets someone fill in their PayPal details, and then PayPal will supply the necessary information. This basically saves someone filling in the form, however it still provides the store owner with the the details. I had one exchange with someone who didn't want to give me his details and wondered why he couldn't just use PayPal so as not to have to give me his personal details. While I don't have that PayPal feature enabled, if I did, it would still give me the customers details. So for those who think they're not giving any personal information when buying via PayPal express, I have some bad news for you.
Incidentally, I have tried several times to get PayPal express to work on my store, but the gateway plug-ins for it are so bad that I gave up, which leads me to the biggest source of problems….
Being able to use PayPal to receive payments has made it possible for people everywhere to sell stuff online with relative ease. It's also been nothing but trouble. PayPal is the biggest source of issues that I’ve had when running my store. 90% of the problems that I've had have been to do with PayPal.
When a customer goes to buy something via PayPal, they complete the transaction on PayPal’s servers, and then that information is passed back to the store server behind the scenes. Or at least that's what's supposed to happen. Occasionally, there is either a delay or the information isn’t sent. This results in an order not being completed. To the customer it says that payment is pending, even though they have completed payment on their end.
This, understandably leads to some upset customers. While it only happens occasionally, and I’ve tried to mitigate it by making it as easy as possible to contact me to get it resolved, people still get very upset about it. I think part of the problem is the PayPal gateway for WooCommerce. Even though I have everything set up correctly, it still gives problems. I have never had this happen once with Stripe, but it happens about once a month with PayPal. Sometimes more often. It’s a real pain, as it’s out of my control, but customers generally don’t accept that excuse. In the end it looks bad for me.
Another problem with PayPal is that some people are ideologically opposed to using it for whatever reason. Either they’ve had issues with it in the past, or they have some other personal reason, but some customers just don’t want to use it. There are plenty of other payment processors out there but they vary by country. Some charge a subscription fee, while others will charge per transaction. I use Stripe as it seems to work well, and has a good reputation. I haven’t had a single issue with Stripe since enabling it.
If you are planning on setting up your own store, the chances are you will be using PayPal. I think you should be aware of the various issues surrounding PayPal and be prepared to deal with potential customer blow back. In particular, you should have a support system in place to deal with uncompleted orders.
There are other plug-ins available which offer PayPal integration. I’ve tried a few of them, but all have had issues. Part of the problem is that because WooCommerce is based on Wordpress, there are just so many options and parameters that it makes it difficult to get everything in sync and know which are the right components to use. It’s also not like you can just leave a system static if you get a set of versions that work well together. You have to keep updating, because of the constant security issues being found. Leaving a Wordpress install un-updated is playing with fire. So if you are planning on using WooCommerce, be aware that it’s not as easy or straightforward as the marketing material for the platform would have you believe.
It’s gotten so bad in the past week, that I’ve actually disabled PayPal altogether. Unfortunately though, while some people really really don’t want to use PayPal, others expect to be able to pay via PayPal and get a but annoyed if you don’t offer it. So it’s kind of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t sort of thing. I do plan on re-enabling it at some point when I find a better solution, but for now, since I’ve turned PayPal off, my store has run smoothly (touch wood).
That’s just a small taste of the things you have to deal with when running a store. It actually takes a lot of work. Of course, part of that is the platform that I choose. I would probably be better off on a more closed system like shopify or selz, but switching now would be somewhat difficult. I wanted to use SquareSpace commerce, but they don’t support the EU vat rules, so I can’t.
Despite the fact that this post seems mostly negative, the store has worked for me overall. It’s enabled me to pursue a new career direction, and I do hope to continue to improve it, despite the issues. If you’re planning on starting one yourself, be aware that it’s not easy and requites a lot of work.
When writing this post, I actually started off on a longer essay which I realised was a bit much for this blog post, but it gave me an idea for a guide on the subject. It would not be platform specific, but cover the things you need to know, and what you need to be aware of if planning to set up your own store. I have a few years experience of this now, and I wish someone had told me a lot of the things that I’ve learned a long the way before I started. If that sounds like something that would be interesting to you, please let me know in the comments below.