Sell PDF files & digital documents

How to sell PDF files online securely

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Selling PDFs files & digital documents online

Why sell digital documents as PDF files online?

Selling digital documents as PDF files, such as research reports and other information products online has many advantages, including:

  • Reducing costs – saving on paper and postage.
  • Time savings with electronic distribution.
  • Reaching new markets.
  • Environmental benefits (less ink and paper).

However, the main disadvantage is that electronic documents can be easily copied, shared, and pirated.

Issues to consider when selling PDF files online

When selling PDFs online, or other digital documents, there are various factors to consider:

  1. What types of digital documents sell best?
    Which genres and topics make the most profit and sell the most copies?
  2. Where to sell PDF files: which platform is best?
    Should you sell PDF files online via your website or use a marketplace such as Amazon, Etsy, eBay, etc.
  3. How to protect documents from copying and sharing
    How do you stop your intellectual property from being copied and shared freely or prevent someone from stealing it and selling it as their own?

  What types of digital documents sell best?

Whether you are looking to sell an ebook, a report, or guide, here is a list of which types of PDF documents sell best.

  1. Fitness and Weight Loss:  Pamphlets and guides that offer exercise routines, diet plans, and tips for achieving a healthier lifestyle.
  2. Dating and Relationships:  PDFs that provide guidance on dating strategies, relationship advice, and enhancing interpersonal skills.
  3. Health and Lifestyle:  Informative materials focusing on maintaining overall well-being, including mental health, stress management, and healthy habits.
  4. Self-care and Self-improvement:  PDFs that offer techniques for personal growth, self-esteem boosters, and strategies for achieving goals.
  5. Wealth Building and Finance:  Educational resources on money management, investing, budgeting, and strategies for increasing financial stability.
  6. Beauty and Fashion:  Guides featuring makeup tutorials, skincare routines, fashion tips, and style inspiration.
  7. Parenthood and Prenatal Care:  PDFs providing valuable advice for expecting parents, including prenatal care, childbirth preparation, and parenting tips.
  8. Beliefs or Spirituality:  Educational materials exploring different belief systems, spiritual growth, and practices for mindfulness and meditation.
  9. Cultural Integration or Relocation:  Guides aiding individuals in adapting to new cultures, learning languages, and navigating the challenges of relocation.
  10. Travel, Wanderlust, or Digital Nomad Culture:  PDFs offering travel advice, digital nomad tips, destination guides, and travel hacks.
  11. Food and Nutrition:  Resources featuring healthy recipes, dining guides, and nutritional advice for various dietary needs.
  12. Blogging or Vlogging Secrets:  Guides on starting and maintaining successful blogs or vlogs, content creation strategies, and building an online audience.
  13. Art and Graphic Design:  Instructional materials that teach various art techniques, design principles, and tips for creative expression.
  14. Music and Musical Instruments:  PDFs providing music theory lessons, instrument playing guides, music sheets, and tips for improving music skills.

These all contain valuable intellectual property that represents monetary value to a business.

Preventing revenue loss should, therefore, be the number one priority if you want to make money selling PDF files online.

Where to sell PDF files: which platform is best?

Where you sell PDF documents depends on various factors:

  • How popular your website is and how much traffic it generates.
  • If you use offline campaigns to drum up online sales.
  • How easily you can integrate eCommerce into your site and effectively manage it.
  • How your payment provider handles chargebacks and what control you have over your documents when this occurs.
  • If you are willing to give away a proportion of your earnings in exchange for using a marketing platform such as Amazon (it can be 30% to 65%).
  • Whether a marketing platform forces you to use its own file formats or document security.

  Choosing a marketing and selling platform

If you sell PDF files such as legal documents, sell research reports, or sell online courses, you’ll likely want to make them available on your own website.  This gives potential customers a chance to see relevant information about your product rather than competitor information, and you maximize your profits.  Alternatively, you can sell digital documents using PayPal – attaching the document directly to an invoice.  This can be ideal if you’re supplying reports directly to a business that you have an established relationship with.  Marketing and selling platforms also have their advantages (and disadvantages), which we cover below.

   Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing)

Amazon is comfortably the most popular ebook platform in the Western world, generating 487 million sales per year with a market share of 67% of the US ebook market (83% if you count Kindle Unlimited).

This has its advantages.  Amazon is a recognizable brand, and millions of users frequent its site each day.  It also has a dedicated e-reader in the Kindle lineup, which can be used to funnel users towards your books – these are commonly published in the Kindle format (AZW or KPF), but other formats such as PDF are accepted for selling eBooks.  A full list of file formats can be found on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.

Amazon provides its own DRM to protect your digital documents or books.  However, not only can it be easily removed, it only protects Kindle file formats.  It is not possible to read Adobe encrypted PDF ebooks on the Kindle.

Can I sell digital documents on Amazon?

Anybody can sell digital documents on Amazon, so long as they own the copyright to the work and it doesn’t contain AI or illegal content.  However, the costs associated with publishing on Amazon may make you question if you want to do so.

The retail giant will take 70% unless you’re one of the lucky ones that qualifies for its 35% option.  For a lower 35% fee, you’ll need to:

  • be selling it to somebody in an eligible country
  • price your document between $2.99 and $9.99
  • have the sale price at least 20% lower than your print price
  • make your document lendable for a 14-day period.

Either way, a big chunk of your profit is going directly to Amazon, and this doesn’t even cover the delivery fees (~$0.15/MB).  It’s worth considering if spending that money elsewhere (such as on a marketing campaign) makes more sense.  Also, Amazon locks you into exclusivity so you can’t sell elsewhere.

The other aspect to consider is discovery.  With 7,500 new Kindle books published daily, it can be a real struggle to get Amazon to recommend your book to customers.


Etsy is primarily known for selling physical, handmade goods, but the platform also allows you to sell digital documents and downloads.  It has quickly evolved into one of the best places to sell non-fiction works, from craft guides and sewing patterns to digital marketing courses, self-help literature, and much more.

Though Etsy’s 90 million active buyers per year across the platform is not as big as Amazon, it’s a reasonable number matched by reasonable fees:

  • You pay a flat rate of $0.20 per listing, which is charged regardless of whether the item sells.
  • Etsy takes 6.5% of the total order amount in transaction fees.
  • There is a payment processing fee of 3-6% (it varies depending on your country, the US is 3% + 0.35 USD).

Overall, then you are paying a maximum of 12.5% in fees compared to Amazon’s default of 75%.  Listing fees for Etsy also likely add up to less than Amazon’s delivery fees of $0.15 per MB.

That’s a lot more revenue.  The trade-off is:

  • Fewer eyes (and most people are probably still going to Etsy for physical crafts).
  • No e-reader/reading app ecosystem.
  • Lots of low-quality and spam listings may affect the platform’s reputation for quality content.
  • Its recommendation system isn’t nearly as advanced as Amazons.
  • It only allows you to sell specific file types.

The good news is that Etsy has no exclusivity agreement, so you are free to try selling on there alongside other platforms.

How to sell PDF files on Etsy

You sell digital products such as PDF files on Etsy the same way you do physical ones.  The only difference is that you choose “digital” item when you create your listing.  You can then choose whether to make it an instant download or “made to order”, where you upload the file for delivery manually later.


eBay isn’t the first place that springs to mind when selling digital documents such as PDF files, but it works well enough.  The platform lets you sell various types of digital items so long as you are the copyright holder.

How to sell PDF files on eBay

eBay allows you to sell downloads with no final value fees.  You pay $9.95 monthly for a “Classified Ad,” and you and the user finalize the transaction outside the platform.  By default, these items must be listed in Everything Else > Information products, but you can also be approved to list items outside of this category (such as in “Books), in which case fees may apply.

There are, of course, some downsides to such an approach.  As the payment is finalized outside of the platform, eBay does not offer the same level of support.  You can’t cancel the order if the user doesn’t pay or access the feedback feature.  Additionally, all digital content being listed in one obscure category by default may hurt organic discoverability.  Overall, there are likely better places to sell PDF files online, but selling on eBay also grants access to a different customer base.


Unlike the other platforms mentioned, Gumroad is more focused on digital products than physical ones.  Selling PDF files online using Gumroad is, therefore, very easy, and it integrates well with WordPress, Zapier, Discord, Circle, and more.  It also has a dedicated online PDF document viewer.

The platform charges a very reasonable flat 10% fee on each sale and allows sellers to add both set prices and a “pay what you want” option.  The main disadvantage is that Gumroad is primarily for people who already have a following.  It’s not a place where users typically browse for products organically.  Additionally, managing a lot of products on Gumroad can be time-consuming due to a lack of tags, sorting, etc.  It’s mostly just an easy way for people who don’t have a website to sell.

How to sell a PDF book on Gumroad

To sell a book on Gumroad, you just create a new product, select ebook, then enter its information and upload the file.  After you hit publish, the PDF is instantly available for users to buy.

  Selling PDF files online from your own website

The final option is to forgo all mainstream platforms and sell PDF files from your own website.

While many people imagine coding a website and e-commerce system from scratch, this is rarely needed.  There are several ways to quickly set up your own ebook-selling website, including:

  • WordPress themes and the WooCommerce plugin
  • Squarespace
  • Shopify
  • Wix
  • PayPal

The advantage of selling on your own website is that you get complete control.  You can entice customers with good sales pages, hone your technical and on-page SEO for the best ranking chance, etc.  You also have more control over fees.  A site developed from the ground up will only have to pay payment provider fees, while WooCommerce, Squarespace etc. usually take a lower percentage of sales (if any).

These aspects can also be seen as a disadvantage.  Selling on your own website means you have to do more of the marketing work yourself, including SEO and getting your PDF seen by customers.  It’s an easy choice if you already have a following, but it can be a little more challenging if you’re just getting started.

Protecting digital documents from piracy

There are various companies that say they can help you sell PDFs online securely or protect digital downloads and prevent copying, sharing, and piracy.  But how much help are they really?  Here is an analysis of some the security methods they use and their value.


PDF password protection is one of the most common and cheapest methods of securing PDFs.  PDF documents are encrypted with a password to prevent unauthorized access (open password), and PDF restrictions can be applied to control some document use (permissions password).  You’ll see similar protection in Microsoft Office apps, as we outline in how to password protect a Word document and how to protect an Excel spreadsheet and prevent copying.

However, this type of security is completely useless as a form of document protection:

  1. Users can share the open password with others and post it online along with the document.
  2. You have to give the user the open password for them to view the document, which they can use to remove it instantly.
  3. Passwords can be removed by password recovery applications.
  4. Adobe or Microsoft permissions (these control how a document can be used – i.e. allow or deny printing) can be easily removed in seconds by free online password removal tools.

Of course, there is also the problem of creating, distributing and managing passwords to begin with.

  Secure Downloads or time-limited links

Secure download systems or time-limited links rely on generating a unique download link for each user when they purchase your documents online.  They often combine this with a password protected file, and the user is given the download link and password after purchase.

However, once the user has downloaded the file and has the password to open it, they can then share these with others.  Time-limited links are therefore useless since only access to the link expires rather than access to the actual PDF document.

Although secure downloads and passwords may stop users from arbitrarily downloading documents they have not paid for, they do nothing to prevent someone who has paid for a document then giving it to others for nothing.

  Cloud DRM and data rooms

Choosing one of many fully online document solutions is tempting because they simplify distribution while promising strong security.  The problem is that while an always online document platform might be convenient for you, it’s not for customers.  Most users want to be able to view purchased documents offline when traveling or in areas with poor signal.  Browser-based systems are also often sluggish on poor connections or when displaying large documents, degrading the user experience.

As for the security – there’s a reason why cloud providers make a lot of noise about their server security and not much about their document controls.  Online solutions use JavaScript to control what users can and cannot do with documents, which offers weak security.  It cannot stop screenshots or lock documents to specific devices, and users can easily share their account details with others.  JavaScript controls can also be bypassed by using the browser’s developer mode or by using a plugin, to re-enable printing, copy and pasting, downloads, etc.  For just how simple this is, see Google Docs security.

  Dynamic Watermarks with user information

Some systems watermark PDF files with user information – this is added to the PDF document when it is purchased.  They claim that PDF stamping adds your customer name to the document so you can see who has been sharing it (assuming of course that they make it publicly available).

However, what you are not told is that these watermarks can be easily removed in a PDF editor.  All the user has to do is to open the PDF file, select the watermark, and press the delete key to remove all instances.

  Social Watermarking

Social watermarking, also known as social DRM, is a type of dynamic watermarking for ebooks that inserts hidden watermarks that identify the user.

Unfortunately, despite the name, it can hardly be called DRM.  It does not stop users from editing, which means that the code can easily be inspected and the hidden watermarks removed.


There are many ebook DRM systems available from the big brands (Amazon, Google, Kobo, etc.).  However, all of them provide only weak security: ebook conversion tools such as Epubor can remove the protection for free in seconds.  There’s little point in applying these popular DRM solutions since they provide no protection against piracy.

You should instead look for a good PDF DRM or ebook DRM system that uses multiple technologies to prevent the copying, sharing, printing, and piracy of your documents.  These include:

  • Document encryption to prevent unauthorized access and lock use to machines.
  • Transparent key technology rather than passwords.
  • Licensing controls to identify users and devices.
  • Dynamic watermarks that are permanent and cannot be removed.
  • The ability to transfer licenses between devices – see ebook DRM & license transfer.
  • Proprietary security techniques to control operating system behavior – i.e. to stop screen grabbing applications from operating effectively.
  • Full security and control over offline documents.
  • Dedicated secure viewer applications to control document access and use.

See our DRM technology to better understand how these components make up an effective document security system.

Some document DRM systems rely on plug-ins to Adobe Acrobat, but these bring with them their own problems, including compatibility issues, security issues (plugins can be circumvented by other plugins), and failure to continue working after Acrobat updates.

How Locklizard enables you to sell PDFs online securely & protect your revenue

  • Strong PDF Security

    Unlike the simple removal of Adobe PDF password protection Safeguard PDF security cannot be easily bypassed.

    With Safeguard:

    • PDFs are only ever decrypted in memory.
    • Keys are securely & transparently relayed and locked to authorized devices.
    • DRM controls are persistent and cannot be removed.
    • We stop screen grabbing apps from taking high-quality screenshots of document content.
    • We prevent printing to PDF files (an easy way to remove protection).
    • We don’t use insecure passwords or plugins.
    • We use US Gov Strength AES encryption, DRM and licensing controls to enforce access and document use
  • Stops unauthorized use

    Stops sharing, copying and pasting, printing, editing and saving – and unlike Adobe permissions, document controls cannot be removed.

    Stops Windows print screen and third party screen grabbers and prevents printing to file drivers.

    Regardless of how strong the password you use Adobe permissions can be removed in seconds and this can be easily done without using any password removal tools.

  • Non-removable dynamic watermarks

    Dynamic watermarks (user’s name, email, company, date/time, etc.) can be displayed at view/print time.

    You only have to protect the PDF once for all users and the correct information is inserted depending on the user who has opened the document.

    This discourages photographs or photocopies (if printing is allowed) from being distributed since the user responsible is clearly identified.

  • PDFs are locked to devices and locations

    PDF documents are automatically locked to authorized devices so they cannot be shared.  If a user copies a document and keystore to another device it will fail to operate.

    PDF files can be locked to a country location, a domain, or a range of IP addresses on a user or global basis.  For example, you might want to sell different digital products to different markets and ensure they can only be used in those locations.

  • PDF Expiry & Revocation

    You can use PDF expiry to produce time limited trials or to ensure only the latest information is ever made available.

    • Set PDF files to expire on a fixed date, after a number of days, a number of opens or prints.
    • Individual user access to the same PDF document can be set to expire at different times.
    • Revoke PDF files at any time no matter where they reside for single, multiple or all users.
    • Revoke user access to a single, multiple or all PDF files.

    User revocation can be invaluable if a chargeback is made and you want to ensure that a user no longer has access to documents they have not paid for.

    Document revocation can be useful when you need to replace an updated report if a previous version was found to contain incorrect information, or if a user should no longer have access to a specific document.

  • Track & Log PDF use

    Track & monitor PDF use – see when users viewed and printed your documents, from where and on what devices.

Safeguard uses US Government strength encryption and digital rights management (DRM) controls to enable you to sell PDFs securely and control their use.  Sell digital documents as PDF files securely online and stop piracy, theft, sharing & misuse.

   Selling PDF files online as subscriptions

Locklizard enables you to sell PDF documents as subscriptions through robust expiry and revocation controls.  You can expire access to current PDFs if a subscription payment has not been made or automatically prevent access to new editions once a subscription period has ended.

Selling subscription-based documents is common for educational material, magazines, manuals, and more and offer various advantages:

  1. Recurring and predictable revenue
    Subscriptions simplify cash flow compared to one-time purchases by securing a steady stream of income.  This allows you to better plan your finances and investments.
  2. Increased profit per customer
    Subscription-based products give you the option of increasing your profit margins by improving the value for existing customers rather than constantly chasing new ones.  Less money spent on marketing and more spent on keeping customers happy typically leads to a better product and the ability to raise prices.
  3. Lowering the barrier to entry
    Subscriptions open the door to customers who find it difficult to justify a large, one-off purchase.  There’s the potential to offer both models to your customers for a wider reach.
  4. Monetizing community building
    Subscription products allow you to build a regular community that is invested in your brand rather than just your product.  This opens the door to additional revenue streams such as merchandise, events, partnerships, etc.

The ability to control which devices have access to documents and what users can do with them is fundamental to this model.  Otherwise, you will have users who subscribe for a single month to download all of your documents, share their subscription with others, and make non-expiring copies.

   How to Sell PDF files online securely with Locklizard

Selling PDFs online with Locklizard Safeguard is simple, secure, and quick to implement with your existing systems.

  1. Right-click your PDF in Windows File Explorer and select “Make Secure PDF”.
  2. Select the restrictions you’d like to apply, including restricting access after a certain date, which can be found in the “Expiry & Validity” tab.  By default, editing, copying, and printing are disabled.
  3. Press the Publish button to protect the PDF and apply restrictions.  On pressing the Publish button, Locklizard will output your encrypted PDF file.

    Once your PDF is encrypted, you can either manually add and give users access via the Safeguard Admin portal or make use of the Locklizard e-commerce option to automate the process after website checkout.
  4. Add a user account and send them their license via the Safeguard admin portal.  See how to add a new user and grant them document access.
  5. The protected PDF file can be uploaded to and sold directly from your website – you can safely host it on a public-facing web page, as only those who are authorized will be able to open and view it.

  How quickly can I sell PDFs online with Locklizard?

The Locklizard e-commerce API enables you to sell PDFs online securely as quickly as on any other marketplace or selling platform.  Once you integrate it with your ecommerce system, customer accounts and licenses will be automatically created at checkout.
You can also purchase ready made ecommerce add-ons for WordPress, opencart, and Magneto via ProExe.

   Key takeaways for selling PDF files online securely

  1. Selling PDF online can significantly increase profits by reducing costs and reaching new markets – provided you can stop them from being pirated.
  2. A wide variety of PDFs sell well, but the ones that make the most profit tend to be non-fiction and include valuable intellectual property that represents monetary value to a business.  Digital documents are simply to duplicate and distribute so adding protection against copying and sharing is vital.
  3. The platform you choose to sell your PDFs on is crucial, and may also inform the kinds of protection you can apply to your digital documents.  Amazon, Etsy, eBay, and Gumroad are all valid choices, but be aware of the fees you will have to pay to utilize them and the security they offer.  It may be better to sell from your own website.
  4. PDF subscriptions are an excellent way to grow your revenue and create predictable income.  However, to offer them, you need to be able to effectively revoke access to documents or prevent customers from accessing new documents when they unsubscribe.
  5. Solutions that encrypt PDF files with passwords are completely ineffective.  Once a customer has purchased the PDF they can simply remove the password (since they must have been given it to open it) and share the unprotected version.  If editing and copying restrictions have been applied, then those can be instantly removed using using free online tools.
  6. Time-limited downloads provide little security.  Once a customer has downloaded your PDF document or book, they can upload it to the cloud and easily share it with others.
  7. Cloud DRM and data rooms are not effective because they try to enforce security in the browser, which does not have enough control over the user’s system.  Customers can easily screenshot documents, and edit the browser’s JavaScript to enable printing, copy-pasting, and more.
  8. Dynamic watermarks can be a useful deterrent against phone photos and unauthorized sharing.  However, they only work if the user cannot modify the document file.  Otherwise, customers can simply find them and remove them.
  9. The best way to protect PDF files from sharing and piracy is to use a PDF DRM solution.  Specifically, one that can lock PDFs to devices, expire PDFs wherever they are located, and stop editing, saving, copy-pasting, and screenshots.
  10. You can automate access to your protected PDFs and subscriptions using the Locklizard ecommerce API.


What is the best way to sell PDF files online?

It depends on a number of factors, such as what you’re publishing and how wide a market you’re wanting to reach.  Generally, though, PDFs target niche markets with course content or reports.  In such a case, the best choice is typically to publish on your own website to reduce fees and gain full control over anti-piracy mechanisms.

How can you stop sharing when selling PDFs online?

You need a PDF DRM solution to prevent copying, printing, watermark removal, and more.  Adobe Acrobat software or ‘secure’ data room solutions will not provide adequate protection since the controls to stop sharing can be easily bypassed or removed.

Do secure download links protect downloadable PDF files?

No.  A secure download link or expiring PDF links only protect the same file from being downloaded by multiple people.  It doesn’t protect the files themselves — those can still be shared after they’re downloaded.

Is it safe to sell documents online with Google Drive and PayPal?

Yes, if you protect them with a PDF DRM solution first.  Pirates can easily bypass the default Google Drive protection, and PayPal offers no protection at all apart from validating transactions so you are not exposed to fraud.

Doesn’t encryption protect PDF documents from being shared?

Not by itself.  Encryption only protects a file when it is in transit or at rest (not being used).  As an encrypted file needs to be able to be opened by the user you have sent it to, they can simply decrypt it and then share it.  This is why it’s important to use a DRM solution that combines encryption with DRM restrictions to prevent copying and pasting, printing, screenshots, etc.

Can you sell documents online from a website securely?

Absolutely – it is a great way to reduce fees.  You can create your own online store or storefront, and use a payment processor such as PayPal or Stripe to accept credit card payments.  You just need to make sure you apply the proper DRM protection to your PDF books, reports, manuals, and other documents that you sell.

Does Locklizard charge transaction fees per sale?

No, we charge a one-time fee or renewable subscription for use of our Digital Rights Management software.  Pricing information can be found here.

Does Locklizard support PDF stamping?

Yes.  You can stamp a PDF by adding a dynamic watermark to discourage unauthorized sharing and help prevent piracy.  This will automatically add the buyer’s name and email to each page, along with a date and time stamp.  Unlike Adobe, the watermarks cannot be removed, and the font, size, and placement are fully customizable.

Does Locklizard prevent direct URL access to PDF files?

No, there is no need to.  If you prevent direct URL access to a PDF file, then once an authorized user has downloaded the PDF, they can share it with others.  With Locklizard, you can let anyone download a protected PDF (there is no need to prevent direct URL access) because only authorized users can open it.  In addition, you can also control how the PDF is used – prevent sharing, copying, editing, screenshots, and printing, restrict access after a certain date, and much more.

How quickly can I sell PDFs online using Locklizard?

You can be up and running in less than 5 minutes.   Just protect your PDF, upload it to your website, and create a payment link for it.  Once a user purchases, you can either manually give them access or use our ecommerce API to automate this.

  Download DRM Software to Sell PDFs online securely

Download PDF protection software that uses US Government strength encryption and digital rights management controls to protect PDF files without using insecure passwords.  Protect PDF files from copying, printing, editing, and unauthorized distribution.  Lock PDF files to individual devices and locations so they cannot be shared.

Secure PDF files on your computer (no uploading of unprotected documents to the cloud), then sell protected PDFs from your website or distribute them just like any other file.

See how you can benefit from implementing Locklizard document security to sell PDF files securely – prevent IPR theft, protect your revenue streams, save costs and time, and instantly gain access to new markets.  Read our customer testimonials and case studies to see why thousands of organizations use Locklizard Document DRM to securely sell PDF files, ebooks, research reports, courses and other digital documents online.

Download your free 15 day free trial and see why Locklizard is the best way to sell a PDF document online securely so it can’t be shared.

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