How to build a really simple site that sells PDFs
May 16, 2009 9:58 AM   Subscribe

Codefilter: I'd like to build a website that allows people to buy a PDF of a publication and then download it. Only problem is, I'm not an out-and-out coder/developer.

Here's what I'd like to do: create a website where people can view simple thumbnails of publications and then buy PDFs of these, ideally using a standard internet payment system (PayPal, Amazon etc).

Optional, but nice:

* People could create an account with the site, which would store details, enable them to re-download etc
* Site could accept codes to allow for free downloads, or we could flag up certain accounts as 'free'
* Ability to have groups of users, each group seeing different PDFs

And the complications:

I am not, in terms of training a coder or developer. I have reasonable HTML and CSS knowledge, and have lots of experience with CMS type systems, but no real experience writing PHP etc.

I'd very grateful for pointers towards something that can help - or am I being wildly optimistic about what I, as a non-coder, can do?
posted by Sifter to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is not trivial to do, but it's certainly possible. However, it strikes me that you'd probably either need to work through a rather high learning curve to build this yourself, customize something like Drupal to achieve this (probably your best bet on with a D.I.Y. strategy or small budget), or just hire a developer to build it for you.

Question: are you looking to generate the PDFs dynamically with the website upon purchase (or some other time, but by the web application at some point), or are these "pre-built" PDFs of documents which you are just putting up behind an ecommerce system? That will make a big difference in what sort of answers you get.
posted by dubitable at 10:15 AM on May 16, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry - should have mentioned that these are pre-generated PDF files, the system doesn't need to creat them.
posted by Sifter at 10:24 AM on May 16, 2009

Response by poster: *e.
posted by Sifter at 10:24 AM on May 16, 2009

wordpress and yourmembers.
posted by txvtchick at 10:36 AM on May 16, 2009

Since I use WordPress for everything these days, my first thought is to do this with WordPress and a shopping cart like E-Junkie.

I'm using E-Junkie to sell access to a membership site and am very happy with it. It's cheap and lightweight but still has many useful features, such as coupons, discounts, etc. It was originally designed to do what you want--sell digital downloads. Here's a quick list of features.

What I like about E-Junkie is that they don't make you set up a separate "shopping cart" page on their system. You just copy HTML code for the "Buy" button for each product and paste it on whatever site you're using to sell from.

You could use the WordPress category feature to group PDFs, and you could use a membership plugin like this one from WishList to control what each group (level of membership) can see. If you don't want the site to look like a blog, you can manually code the WordPress menu and identify a specific home page that looks like a "regular" site.

I'm not sure if E-Junkie lets each customer save credit card info and past purchases in an account, but you can send re-download links to past buyers.

No matter what solution you use, I would suggest avoiding anything that requires you to use PayPal. When I used them, I was one of the many innocent merchants who are presumed guilty by PayPal and without warning locked out of their accounts. They're also a bureaucracy that has poor internal communication, their site was often slow and occasionally down, their customer support was dismal, and once all their fees added up, they weren't a deal, either.

I'm far happier with a "real" merchant account through Dharma Merchant Services, using Authorize.Net as the gateway.
posted by PatoPata at 10:56 AM on May 16, 2009

Basically, you want a membership site with a payment-processing system and a download system.

You can probably use or the like to hire someone who can set up a system for $300... or $100... or even $75.

Alternatively, you can do it yourself with a membership script, such as this one.

For the backend, you can use, or, or get yourself a merchant account. Honestly, for convenience's sake, PP and CB are perfectly viable solutions.

If I were just starting out selling PDFs, I'd a) hire somebody to build it for me and get a simple system running; b) THEN learn about the details, afterward. Site tweaking can be costly, in terms of time and energy, and hiring some eager coder in Badluckistan, one who's already done what you want to do, makes things much easier.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:10 AM on May 16, 2009

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but if all you need is that processing system, you might consider using something such as Lulu, which will give you a "storefront" and will handle the payment/download transactions.
posted by Picklegnome at 11:40 AM on May 16, 2009

Take a look at GoodBarry. It's a pretty well designed and simple storefront package with a CRM and many other features built in. You can do e-downloads with their store. I'm about to use it for one of my clients storefronts.
posted by FearTormento at 12:38 PM on May 16, 2009

To get a basic system up and running isn't actually all that complicated, using the Paypal IPN system (Instant Payments Notifications). It works like this:

- you have your .pdfs tucked away somewhere in an unseen directory
- you have 'buy now' buttons on your HTML page, which add items to the Paypal shopping cart.
- after they pay (over at Paypal) your site can receive (instantly) a specially formatted IPN message from Paypal containing details of who/what/etc.
- you need a php script on your site that will act as the target of that IPN notification. Your script parses the data, and sends an email to the purchaser with a link to the .pdf file.

Paypal's manuals (Merchant Manual and Website Payments Manual) explain all this, and give sample scripts for many variations, so you don't have to write it all from the ground up. Download them and take a look ... It might be something you can do yourself, perhaps with a little bit of php advice from somebody.

(I add one more small twist to this (I sell eBooks this way) by having the download link obfuscated in the customer email. I don't send them a direct link, but a link to a second php script that locates the .pdf file based on the obfuscated data.)
posted by woodblock100 at 5:14 PM on May 16, 2009

It may be a better option for you to go for custom solution. Out-if-the-box solutions are generally to complex in features that they provide and still they may be limiting sometimes if you want to get done something in a very custom way, today or in future. I have also sent you a MeFi mail. Please check your inbox.
posted by tvjoshi at 7:10 PM on May 16, 2009

Google Checkout allows you to sell downloadable content and only requires "Basic HTML" knowledge.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:14 PM on May 16, 2009

nthing e-Junkie. I use it to sell a pdf e-book. You can set it up to accept both PayPal and Google Checkout payments, and it is very convenient to set up. e-Junkie handles the checkout portion only, so for the previewing part I'd set up a custom website (either as flat HTML, or using a simple CMS such as Wordpress or Drupal) featuring the e-books. Upload your e-book previews to Scribd and use the embed code to add them to your site so they are easily browseable, without forcing people to start Acrobat.
posted by lsemel at 10:25 PM on May 16, 2009

I haven't used it myself, but you can use Shopify in conjunction with Fetch to offer paid downloads, avoiding having to install/maintain your own server-side code.
posted by malevolent at 3:56 AM on May 17, 2009

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