I recently got consumed with the idea of getting a storefront online. The store will have my fiction eBooks and and, in the future, some audio versions of those books. There will be a lot more about the store tomorrow, so I won’t dwell on the details.

I asked for some advice on how best to go about this. I received good suggestions about working with web sites that routinely sell eBooks for people. Unfortunately, the setup fees were more than I wanted to deal with – I wanted to keep more of the money in house, so that I could afford to charge a lower rate to customers.

This led me to a product called Zen Cart, which was advertised as a “one step install” on my web host, Dreamhost. Let’s look at the good and bad of Zen Cart,

What Zen Cart did right

First of all, Zen Cart is free. How does the company manage to stay in business? They sell a manual, of course. I’m a big fan of this business model. It’s possible to use the product completely for free if you can Google to find the answers to your questions (as I did). If you like it well enough, you can always leave a donation later.

The installation itself actually was pretty easy. A big chunk of the praise goes to Dreamhost for this, though. All the necessary databases are set up by invisible hands, and Dreamhost sends you an email cheat sheet to guide you through the installation screens. I stumbled through the screens a bit because I wasn’t paying attention. Once I actually read what was written, I did much better.

The product is actually pretty feature rich. More features than I needed, really. It has support for multiple tax structures (for each state, for example), allows various payment methods (including pretty cool PayPal integration), digital products (the files are stored within the Zen Cart installation), coupons, and much, much more. I’ve barely scratched the surface, since I had fairly minimal needs.

What Zen Cart did wrong

Setting up downloadable products was not very intuitive. I finally figured out how to do this by Google’ing for the answer. It involves setting up and “option name” and “option value” and configuring this option to point to a file. I was expecting to perhaps just check a box for “this product contains a download” and be prompted for the file location.  There are a lot of people interested in selling their intellectual property on the internet.  A quick-to-setup solution would gain a lot of fans.

On the subject of downloads, when you configure the product, you type in the file name, rather than using a dropdown box to select it from the available files. The greatly increases the chance of making an error.  (Oh, hey, make sure you actually TEST the process).  Setting up a multi-part file was even a bit different.  In the end, I was able to set this all up, and the downloads enable after the cutomers finished the checkout process successfully.

By default, the customer registration screen asks for the person’s physical address. This is completely unnecessary for me, since all I’m selling are downloads. I really don’t care what street you live one. This fields were also set up as required. My fear was that some potential customers would say “aw, screw it” when asked for that much information. I just wanted them to enter their email address and password.

It took a bit of searching to find the answer to this. Finally I stumbled across the perfect solution from a helpful forum member (this guy) who outlined a five step process that involved editing 3 PHP files. It was very effective – but, seriously, I need to edit a PHP file so that people buying my PDF books don’t have to type their address and phone number?

Along the same lines, I had to edit PHP in order to change the default text on other screens, notable the main page for the screen.

I suspect that a manual would have come in handy – or even a step through the tutorials. Of course, I didn’t have the time for that ☺

The verdict

I do like the product. It’s not the simplest thing to configure, but once you have it set up, it does work very well. If you need a virtual storefront, give Zen Cart a shot. If you’re selling products that sell for less than $12, you will also want to sign up for PayPal’s micropayments option. This is a different fee schedule that charges for 5% plus 5 cents for each transaction instead of 2.9% plus 30 cents. At the very low end of the price range, this can make a lot of sense.