Online Publishing: A Quick Overview

Selling your writing online is only getting easier. Low overhead, cheap startup costs and fast setup time means it’s easy to make money. However, it can be just as easy to lose money, and that’s because of piracy. I’m not going to get into the debate of corporate, pirate and indie interests here, but the fact is that piracy exists and, if you want to sell on the internet, it’s something you have to deal with.

There are many ways to publish content online, all with different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to potential profit and loss. I’ve picked out four of the most common to see what their potential risks and rewards are.


The first and most popular option is to use a third-party distributor.’s Kindle platform is far and away the leader in this arena (do I even need to tell you what a Kindle is?), but there are many other contenders in the market. They handle storage, delivery and payments for you; all you need to worry about is marketing and the story itself. That makes it the safest in terms of piracy because often distributors will use some form of DRM, such proprietary file formats that can only be used on with specific software.

However, this is also a market rife with the unscrupulous, particularly when it comes to royalties and publishing rights, so be careful and read terms thoroughly. Some people also have visceral reactions to DRM, so expect to lose a percentage of potential readers for ideological reasons.


Newspapers gave paywalls a bad reputation when so many tanked a few years ago trying to get people to pay for their daily news. But, that was just bad business. They were trying to make people pay for something they could get legally for free anywhere. A paywall is just a fancy term for a subscription and subscriptions only work for one reason: you have something unique that’s worth reading.

Using a paywall means you have full control over distributing your content, but it also means having to control how users can access your content, which means all that overhead a distributor would handle is now on your shoulders. This is good for people who have specific needs that can’t be handled through another vendor.

A subscription also implies getting new content on a regular basis, so paywalls are generally better if you’re collaborating. Fortunately, you get to keep all of the profits from every sale so there will be more to go around.

Direct Sales

Of course, you could just keep it simple and simply sell PDFs through your site. You don’t need all of the overhead of maintaining a paywall, just a PayPal account and an e-commerce plugin (WordPress has several). This is probably better for individuals because there’s no implied contract to keep a schedule and you still get to keep all of the profits. However, it’s also the option with the highest risk of piracy. After all, that separates your work from a torrent site is one person willing to post it.

Give it Away

Then again, sometimes the best way to beat something is to embrace it. Rather than selling your work, you can publish it for free and setup donates on your site or you let your readers set their own price for your eBooks (it’s worked for some bands anyway). Leo Babauta from even went so far as making his content “uncopyrighted“, so anyone can reuse his work for their own needs. It’s hard to say if this will mean lower or higher profits for you (enthusiasts of this method often give more, but are also rarer), but people can’t pirate what you give away for free.


One other thing worth mentioning: It’s easy to get caught up in one way of doing things. Don’t forget that these are only the four most common methods of selling your work online and there’s no reason you can’t do two, three or more at the same. It is digital content after all.

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