How to Build a Public Domain (Self) Publishing Assembly Line

Publishing public domain books means volume and repetitive tasks - an assembly line.

Publishing books on an assembly line basis is possible in self-publishing.
(art credit:Tobias Mikkelson)
A one-person publishing "empire" is possible these days. Regular passive income can be made from re-publishing public domain as long as you:
1) Add value.
2) Market effectively.
3) Stay focused.

The efficiencies of scale work here. As a single person (or small group) it's best to work in batches.

A project I'm currently involved in has passed the testing phase (28 books to 5 distributors) - sales are quite good, which means it's time to broaden the project.

Elsewhere, I've dealt in why this is possible, why it's profitable, specifics necessary to public domain publishing itself.

Today, let's organize for regular production.

0. Overview: we are building ebooks as the cornerstone, since in many cases these books have only poor-quality versions out there. While we also create the hardcopy version, the ebook version will have the links to send people to your website and also to the hardcopy version. You can do far more search engine marketing more easily to a digital product than a physical one.

We work in batches so that you can get some done and then do some more, and so on. If you give yourself a hundred books to publish in a certain niche, it can get tedious to do more than a few at once. A week doing each step could get monotonous. So set yourself a target for a handful of books published all the way through for that week. The next week, you can take the next set, and so on.

Note: You should do all the steps below to every distributor you are going to be using at least once. That way you can verify each step and adjust your templates as needed. You'll be tweaking as you go, but start off on the right foot with correct files - so you don't have to correct several dozen files which weren't created right originally. Each distributor is slightly different. Now that Lulu won't distribute public domain books, you are distributing to iTunes and Nook on your own. The other major ones are Amazon, Kobo, GooglePlay, and Leanpub. (See my other posts for specifics on each - as well as "Just Publish!")

00. Best is to set up a regular slot for uninterrupted work. Because it's work and you have to focus. Except for the cover, there is very little creative work here. It's more a point of digging a ditch, figuring out how many feet you can dig each day. Don't allow distractions, set daily goals and meet them, much as Stephen King and other writers simply crank out 2,000 words each day or else. Clock in, do your job, clock out. Move on.

1. Amass a selection of public domain books in a certain area. This is one of the points to adding value. You are going to be marketing these books newly, banking on either their content or their previous "well-known" status to gain your own sales.

You want the best-quality books you can find, as this will speed up your editing. Right off the bat, let's get one thing straight. While versions come and go, when a book is in the public domain, it belongs to everyone. In a later edition which has been edited, only the edits belong to that editor as copyright-able. The original text is still free to use. (See Wikipedia article on Derivative Works. This is not legal advice.)

I've found that quality ebooks are the easiest to edit. Sometimes the PDF's are created such that they have line breaks after every line, so you have to do a massive search/replace with a text editor to solve this. Time-consuming, and not often accurate, so requiring extra cross-check steps to ensure quality.

But, isn't this a rip-off? That's your value judgement. A lot of people put a lot of work into editing public domain books into shape. They are much appreciated. I link to my ebook sources all the time, and contribute to them as well. Even Gutenberg says that if you are going to use their books, ensure you take every mention of them out for trademark reasons. The point is adding value. There are literally hundreds of sites out there offering free ebooks of one type or another. Add value to make your versions stand out. Attract only paid readers, and become their go-to choice for these. You can always make derivative works which are even more helpful. Collected works by a single author in a sub-genre is one example. Study guides are another. Making it more possible for people to access and appreciate out-of-print public domain books is valuable in and of itself. People pay for quality. Creating a series of books in a certain area (like copywriting classics) is quite valuable, compared to the maze of misleading texts in this area these days. Always, always add value.

Many of the machine-produced ebooks have errors in them. So finding sites which offer versions which have already been edited are best - though sometimes you have no choice, particularly in long-tail niches.

1a. Select a logical batch to work on. Example: Out of a pile of fiction books, pick a genre, then subdivide that by author, etc. In a mass of fiction works some genre's (Romance) are more popular than others. Self-Help and Biography are more popular in non-fiction. Starting with a batch of these (selected Jane Austen's works, then the Bronte sisters, for example) would be a simple one. Or simply take the top 10 bestsellers, then the next 10, etc. so you can see an immediate boost in your income.

Long-tail niches are different. A site with old machine manuals might have books divided by brand or by type of equipment.  The books for a self-help author site could be divided into batches by author, school (New Thought), or technique (Affirmations).

2. Build a landing page for this set of books. We want to be able to send people to a site for "additional materials and related books," as well as being able to have a specific page where they can buy the books with all the links on it. If you are doing a handful of books only, then you can create a landing page for each one. A series could have a landing page for the set.

At the extreme front and back of each ebook, there is a link where you send people to that landing page. First and last thing they see - which will help them to act. You want to leverage any buyer of a single volume into a client for the rest.

At this stage, you merely set up the landing page. Later, we'll flesh it out with the cover, description and links. Building this at the beginning so you can easily link to it as you go, then come back when your book is published to update the landing page itself.

2a. Set up a template for the cover. Using GIMP, it's simple to create this in editable layers so that you can change out images and titles, etc. as you go. Create the master template at this point, then "save as" the specific book you are working on when you get to this.

3. Edit this batch into shape. Easiest production line is to use Calibre to convert epub versions to HTML files. Then open this in LibreOffice (or your own doc editor) and save in their native format. This has to be done on a one-on-one basis, obviously. But the steps are very similar and are actually less tiring to do several at once, as you can import the settings from one document to the next.

You do add the links at the front and back at this point to your landing page. If you have several books, you can link them with on-page anchors (Ex. "") so when they click they go to that specific part of the page to buy.

3a. Export the epub and test. This is by Sigil. You do an epubcheck to see if it will pass. I've only ever had a single book rejected (out of literally hundreds) which had earlier passed this check. That one turned out to have a very unique filename on it which was fine with Sigil, but not with Lulu.

Now days (and I haven't been able to do this on the MAC, and forget Windows...) I use another step of opening it with Calibre's editor, which will correct oddball filenames and often gets it into shape so that Sigil passes it right off. It's an extra step, but Calibre will correct mass errors that I've had to edit by hand in Sigil, which is painful.

3b. Create the hardcopy version. Save as a new file, then export as PDF. LibreOffice will automatically embed the fonts and produces a file which Lulu is happy with. We are using Lulu to publish as they have been doing it longer than anyone else, give free ISBN's, and are not subject to Amazon discrimination by independent bookstores who won't carry a CreateSpace edition, as it's owned by Amazon. CreateSpace has had to constantly play catch-up to Lulu.

You want to base your template off what is acceptable in Lulu. I usually format to trade-paperback, which is the same as hardback. Or rather that a 6x9 paperback can also be published as a hardback. Both versions get their own ISBN (required for hardcopy books) and will also add more authority (and sales) to your ebook when you do.

3c. Amazon has specific requirements to ensure they don't have duplicative files. These are linked on that step of their submission - but are essentially adding additional, relevant images (at least 10) or an annotation.

4. Create all the covers for this batch. This is a different form of editing, and will get faster as you repeat the actions as one set. Each one is different, so don't get into a scene of rubberstamping them.

If you want, out-source this, but ensure you aren't busting your own bank. Many public domain books will not sell well, just like they never did to begin with. Some bestsellers will sell regardless of who re-publishes them. Like the legacy publishers, the handful of books which sell really well will pay for the production of the others.

There are requirements for cover size, such as being a minimum of 1000 pixels on the shortest side for iTunes. Your template should take this into account, so that you don't have to go back and resize each one.

5. Fire up Calibre to record the meta-data as you publish these. You'll want to import all your books in all their versions into Calibre as well.  This will come in very handy for exporting a batch of books to GooglePlay, where you have to rename them by ISBN for submission.

6. Taking one distributor at a time (and starting with Lulu) publish the batch. We start with Lulu to test each book for inclusion into iTunes and Kobo. This is also where you can get a free ISBN. If it passes here, then you're set. Lulu will check for correct titles and files. At the end, you want to make sure you uncheck distribution to anywhere else. Saves you and them time.

The reason for the ISBN is to make searching for these easier. None of these distributors require ISBN's, actually. They all assign their own number to the book. You can (in all cases except Amazon) search by ISBN, so this is a template of links where you only have to change a single number in the code to have it work for each additional book.

6a. Submit your hardcopy version to extended distribution, so it will go through to Amazon and everywhere else. This means you will be buying a proof. Note: In doing this in batches, don't "check out" until you've published all your hardcopy books - this will save you shipping costs.)

Again, record this (required) ISBN in Calibre. (Note: Again, each distinct version of a book requires its own ISBN - ebook, paperback, hardback, audiobook, etc.) Most of the distributors (not Lulu or Amazon) actually encourage you to enter the print ISBN along with the ebook's. For GooglePlay, this is a simple way to promote both versions. (In Amazon, you need to send them an email to match up the two versions. Lulu isn't all that important in terms of actual online sales.)

You'll use the same cover as the ebook. This is efficient, it's also branding.

6b. For Googleplay, you'll upload all the ebooks as a batch with their titles changed to [ISBN].epub.

6c. Note: I haven't tested Leanpub extensively, so consider the below theory at this point -

In Leanpub, you are going to actually re-edit the book in their editor to get it into their system. Export the file (save as) to HTML, then open it up with Leanpub and (re)create your book again.

Other than already having several batches ready in LibreOffice, I would recommend setting up your ebook with Leanpub first. You are already starting out with an HTML file. Leanpub then gives you an epub version which is supposedly passing epubcheck. With this line, you'd then check it with Calibre's editor and Sigil just to be sure.

You will still need to open up the file in LibreOffice in order to create the hardcopy version. Leanpub creates a PDF file, and you can specify sizes of output. It is unknown at this writing if such a PDF will pass Lulu's requirements. (Tests forthcoming.)

The value of Leanpub is in creating binders and also to get maximal royalties. Buyers can actually reward you with higher royalties by increasing the price. Here you are also able to create packages with additonal data you weren't able to include in the book. Samples of other books, additional graphics, other related PDF's, etc.

6d. Publish to Kobo last as they pay the least in royalties (20%) - and have the worst policy of having to declare it as public domain if you include the entire book - even collections. Otherwise, they remove it. (Googleplay pays the most, as they simply don't care if it's public domain. So their 52% royalty is the highest except for Leanpub.)  If you get behind, you won't miss much. But do publish to Kobo, as you will get some income that you won't know you missed otherwise. Every penny counts.

7. Rinse, repeat - with your next batch.

- - - -

Obviously, the devil is in the details. Producing high-volume, low-value shlock is exactly why distributors don't really like (read: royalty penalties) accepting public domain books. I usually publish as a beta edition, as there is no real cost-effective way to find every single error - 99.99 should be sufficient for most readers, since you make up the difference with price or other added-value.

If you have a truly original book (or one which is composed from excerpts of several public domain books) then you can distribute via Lulu to the Amazon, iTunes, Nook, and Kobo - all for 10% of your total royalties. That makes it much simpler and faster. Lulu decided not to publish public domain any longer, which now makes individual publishing required. Each distributor has their own requirements about public domain, which is apparently why Lulu changed their policy to squash this.

Since the bulk of my income comes from PD books as opposed to my original works, this will limit Lulu's sharing my future income. (They'll still get my hardcopy version income, though.)

Publishing PDF's directly to Lulu for hardcopy can be done. But you'll never be able to get an epub out of it without OCR and editing that OCR into shape. A big book can take me most of a work-week to create an epub that way. So it's not suggested compared with taking an existing epub, cross-checking it with that PDF to correct errors. But fastest is to work with high-quality epubs to begin with.

This also applies for PLR as an assembly line. I only really know that Amazon doesn't accept PLR. You don't get the royalty penalties for these books, but you also can't easily make them into hardcopy books. Again, you work with those where you get the .doc or .odt file along with .psd graphics.

I'll tweak this as I start publishing more directly to iTunes and Nook. This is based on nearly a couple of years now publishing directly and via Lulu.

- - - -

Had to get this out of my head, and to clarify it for myself.

Have fun with this.
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