How to Publish Public Domain Books and Profit Nearly Forever, Part 1

It's possible to have a profitable business plan based on re-publishing public domain works.
(photo: 401(k) 2012)

I found sometime this year that it was more profitable to publish than it is to write. And publishing copyright-free material was faster than about anything.

[Update: the list of How-To steps have just been posted.]

I now have several dozen books published, some of them my own written works, most of them as tests. 

So I did these tests with public domain classics and PLR (public-licensed-rights) material - both came up profitable. Not incredibly so, but since I was spending about a week to get dozens of books up, and then a handful of these sold regularly after that with no further work, I quit looking for other work to do. In fact, in my frugal/spartan lifestyle, these books paid my operating costs monthly.

I became financially free and didn't have to "work" for a living. I still worked, but now it was to increase the quality of that freedom.

Today, I found some limits to expanding that lifestyle - some were my own creation, some were imposed on me.

Public Domain


A coordinator at Kobo recently sent this in an email to me:
You cannot take others work and claim them as your own. If it is in the public domain, you need to declare it as such.

This also goes for collections and derivatives of authors’ work. The works are still part of the domain and need to be declared as such. You retain the copyright to any books published through Kobo Writing Life but public domain needs to be declared.
That is their unofficial policy at this point. Declaring these as public domain on Kobo means dropping to a 20% royalty. Compared to the 70% enjoyed at most price points, this is a huge drop.

But as they hold the (purse) strings, this is their prerogative.

I also found that sending an ebook based on public domain via Lulu to iTunes and Nook would get rejected completely. Lulu would host it, but not these other two. (I'm still testing this to see what might get through, if any.)

Kobo is incorrect to infer they are public domain if they are legitimate derivative works.

A derivative work, is one where extensive editing has been done to the original, or it quotes or excerpts without containing the entire text - the original being used as inspiration or source reference. One example book I did was to select chapters from a dozen books having reference to the "Law of Attraction." This book is definitely my own creation. This is a derivative work.

However, another book is also under my own copyright as a collection, "Secrets Between Your Ears" which has four books collected into a single volume, all dealing with affirmations. Kobo doesn't recognize this ebook as anything but public domain, but says I still have the copyright (FWIW.)

However, I've accepted the concept that a person could simply slap a new forward onto a book and claim the copyright. This isn't true, since it's not extensive enough in the revisions. A good description is at Public Domain Sherpa. There is a full discussion of the what-is-public-domain scene there.

PLR

Another source of copyright free material. The quality on these vary intensely. Some of the more recent ones are better written and edited. Now they are coming with high-quality covers and source files to edit them fully.

They actually create these mini-books or reports with the idea of selling them so anyone can reuse them. Like public domain, there are essentially limitless competition out there with all these copies.

But also like public domain, you will see that mostly they have been poorly edited or poorly marketed and are really no competition at all.

While some have put various restrictions on them, you'll usually find that there are many places to acquire these materials, so it's arguable who originally put them up for sale said what restrictions are enforceable. As they are PLR, there are seldom any author who can be found on them.

Here the caveat is to look for an actual copyright notice - although one isn't needed if you put your name on it and publish it. Another way to ascertain if someone simply did that is to look at the text stylings - if you find they have simply put a name on it but many other books are constructed the same way, then you have a PLR book or content.

My test was to find what I had collected, see which ones had good-quality covers and editable files, then publish these as epub-version ebooks.

Amazon will not accept PLR material, but Lulu, iTunes, Nook, GooglePlay, and Kobo will. It's a bit of a Gold Rush to do this, however. If you are first with your name on this book, you essentially have the copyright. (I published under CC license with all these, just to be fair.)

Until they figure out how to crack down on PLR as they have on Public Domain, these will continue to be profitable - depending on quality.

Doesn't Apply to Printed Works

I publish through Lulu to get books to Amazon. This is printed books, as I publish direct to Amazon all my ebooks. (Lulu recently started publishing ebooks to Amazon, but takes 10% of your royalty for doing so. Which made me re-think publishing to Nook...) You can publish public domain as hardcopy all you want. I added another yesterday on top of the nine I published about a week ago.

The trick is to make sure Amazon links these books together as they have different ISBN's. But ebooks sell hardcopy ones, and vice versa.

A New Business Plan

My old one saw that publishing public-domain classic works as ebooks could be profitable. So I hobby-horsed on simply getting as many as I could up there. Unfortunately, this fell apart with today's news about Kobo and iTunes/Nook rejecting or penalizing public domain works.

However, this interestingly leaves Amazon - who has guidelines on what makes a derivative work out of public domain content.

Meanwhile, you are able to publish the trade paperback through Lulu and match these up together so they sell each other. That paperback (even hardback) can go wider than Amazon via Ingrams. You only have to pay for a proof copy.

I hadn't been doing this to public domain ebooks, as it's more extensive work. However, these others have forced my hand, so it's a simple re-compilation job at this point. The side benefit is getting a library of hardcopy books.

eBooks which do take off on Amazon (most don't, actually) will do quite well. And listing these on GooglePlay will then give these books an added boost. I may be able to get public domain ebooks on to Nook directly - this is another research job waiting.  (I have no MAC, so if iTunes blocks public domain books coming from Lulu, then that's life.)

Publishing public domain and PLR books is a numbers racket to some degree. It will depend on the niche and the earlier recognition of that author and work. (Which is a blog post all on its own.)

Publishing to GooglePlay/Books enables a bit of search engine marketing to be done, as you are linking hardcopy and ebooks together when you do - and Google sends traffic to Amazon, which in turn raises that book's value in their algorithm. The old mutual back-scratching model.

What tends to solve this is having all possible versions of a book available. Paperback, ebooks, audio-book, even hardback. And get all these versions available to as many distributors as possible. The Many Eyeballs strategy.

My plan at this point is to punt back to the beginning with these classic fiction works. I've compiled a list of the top 100 all-time bestselling and currently still popular classic fiction books. Also, the genres in order to publish them. The next step will be to edit these into shape for inclusion in Amazon and also publish the hardcopy version so these are linked. There are around 28 of these published as ebooks currently. So when I catch up with these and start publishing new books, they will then get distributed as possible to the other online outlets.

- - - -

There is much more to write on this subject. It will become a book at some point, to do with being able to create an independent income via online self-publishing.

For now, I have miles of sleep to go before I can work at this again. It's much too late...

Some reference links:

http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/05/how-public-domain-publishing-can-grow-your-business/
http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Copyright_FAQ
https://www.google.com/search?tbm=bks&hl=en&q=9781304403322
http://booksearch.blogspot.com/2008/06/us-copyright-renewal-records-available.html
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