Shopify vs Woocommerce for Author Bookstores

The hot new idea in writer circles is the author-owned bookstore. According to the Wayback Machine I’ve had my author-owned bookstore since 17 May 2013, so you can imagine I’m fully on board with this. This store now accounts for 35% of my income, more than Amazon, so it’s a critical part of my business.

When folks look at building a store, though, they’re immediately confronted with choosing a platform. There’s two major platforms: Shopify and Woocommerce. Which should you pick? The costs are comparable. The skill level to use either is about the same. They then commit a grievous error and ask me for my opinion.

I will always advise Woocommerce. Always.

When I say this, many authors immediately jump up and say “I tried Woo and it sucked, Shopify works better!” I would reframe that. “The first store I built sucked, the second store I built is much better!” The first book you wrote probably sucked, too. The first iteration of my Woo store also sucked. I look at a lot of author bookstores and immediately say, “Oh sweetie, no, this is not how you do it.” Some of them hired ‘technical’ people to build the store. Technical people are like literary agents: there is no qualifying exam, they act in their own interests according to their own biases, and you can’t afford a good one. Even a disaster is educational, though. Your failed first store taught you how to build a second store containing less suck. (It’s amazing how many writers are willing to spend years noodling over a manuscript, but expect their first store to work perfectly on their first try.)

My motivation for standing up my own bookstore is to declare independence from any outside channel. A decade ago, Amazon was the majority of my income. Making my books available in all channels increased the number of readers I drew while reducing my dependence on Amazon. Adding my own bookstore reduced my dependence on anyone. Yes, I use outside components and services, but every one of those parts can be replaced. Why would I replace a dependency on Amazon with a dependence on Shopify?

Cory Doctorow recently made a big splash with the word enshittifcation. He describes it as the process where an Internet company starts off being useful, becomes powerful, then starts squeezing values out of suppliers and then customers. It’s standard business practice at Internet scale. Ford and General Electric would totally do the same, if federal regulation didn’t prevent it. Amazon exists with very little federal regulation.

I prefer a simpler word: betrayal. It’s harsh, yes, but it fits.

Internet companies betray their user every day. Glassdoor sold itself as a place to anonymously rat out employers. Now the company wants to monetize its users, and is attaching real names to user profiles. While I could laugh and say You idiots trusted an Internet company, what did you expect? this will literally destroy lives and careers. Findaway Voices sold itself as one service, got bought by Spotify, changed its ToS to become an IP-pillaging company, and appeared to back down under protest. People thought it was a victory. It was not. We lost. We lost huge. It was an absolute rout. Compare their current terms of service to the pre-Spotify terms of service. Now consider what a minor update like “we added three carefully-chosen words to the ToS, they’re harmless legal boilerplate, we promise” could do. I guarantee that Findaway’s lawyers knew what words they would add and where they would put them before releasing these “friendly” Terms of Service. In Reddit’s quest to raise money, it trashed the people who create its value. All that’s only in the last year.

Betrayal is the Internet’s business model.

Businesses look out for their own interests. If a business believes it exists solely to maximize shareholder value, and has no legal, regulatory, or competitive barriers, it will become invaluable and then betray you.

What happens if either Shopify or Woo betrays me?

The Shopify software and all hosting thereof is fully controlled by the Shopify company. When folks tell me that they’re lovely people, what I hear is “the company’s current management is lovely, but the owners have decided to not betray their users. Yet.” A third of my income is at risk. If they become a problem I must hurry up and find a new store system, without advance warning, right freaking now.

The Woo software is freely available under a permissive license, and is hosted on a WordPress site I pay for. There is a Woocommerce company, yes, but they make money by selling support and add-ons. The actual software cannot be taken away. Yes, I buy some Woo plugins. There’s a super healthy plugin marketplace. If Woo Inc betrayed me, I’d have time to switch. After all, I have all the code. It’s running on my server. Betrayal would vex me, and I’d feel obliged to rant and rave. Also, Woo is a fork of Jigoshop. If Woo betrays its users, any number of those outside firms would leap up and happily take their place. And Woo knows it. That’s how they replaced Jigoshop. One day they’ll get bought and the new owners will go for a betrayal anyway, though.

When Shopify inevitably betrays me, over a third of my income is at risk.

When Woocommerce inevitably betrays me, I am not at risk. I’m merely pissed off.

Either way, you need to experiment with your store. Polish it. Experiment. Some of those experiments will be complete failures. Some will succeed worrying well. It’s all about what your readers want. Give readers a seamless buying experience, and expect that it’s gonna take a while.