Making Sense of Amazon's Public Domain Policies

When the same policies get different results - it makes you wonder...

(Two McCoy's... photo: JD Hancock)

We start with very simple Amazon policies regarding Public Domain (PD) books:

In order to provide a better customer buying experience, our policy is to not publish undifferentiated versions of public domain titles where a free version is available in our store. We consider works to be differentiated when one or more of the following criteria are met:

• (Translated) - A unique translation
• (Annotated) - Contains annotations (unique, hand-crafted additional content including study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or detailed historical context)
• (Illustrated) - Includes 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book

Books that meet this criteria must include (Translated), (Annotated), or (Illustrated) in the title field.

For example, "Pride and Prejudice (Annotated)" is acceptable, while "Pride and Prejudice (with an Introduction by Tiffany Gordon)" is not. The product description must also include a summary of how the book is unique in bullet point format at the beginning of the product description (maximum 80 characters). 

 And also this policy:
Public Domain and Other Non-Exclusive Content Some types of content, such as public domain content, may be free to use by anyone, or may be licensed for use by more than one party. We will not accept content that is freely available on the web unless you are the copyright owner of that content. For example, if you received your book content from a source that allows you and others to re-distribute it, and the content is freely available on the web, we will not accept it for sale on the Kindle store. We do accept public domain content, however we may choose to not sell a public domain book if its content is undifferentiated or barely differentiated from one or more other books. 

Then there is  policy concerning confirming content rights:
During the title upload process there are two areas where you will be asked to confirm your rights to publish your content.

You can publish content that is in the public domain. We may request additional documentation to confirm that it is not under copyright. Titles which consist entirely or primarily of public domain content are not eligible for the 70% royalty option at this time (see the Pricing Page for more details). 

A Test of Amazon Public Domain Publishing 

Earlier, I avoided Amazon because at the time they had just started publishing public domain again, after having banned those books for awhile. The policy wasn't exact, and what was there meant I would have to create special books just for Amazon - so I skipped them and worked on publishing via Lulu to iTunes and Nook, direct to Kobo and later Google Play. I made money on all of them with tests in both PLR (Private Label Rights) and PD books . (Amazon doesn't accept PLR.) 

When Lulu started distributing to Amazon and Kobo, they stopped distributing Public Domain books (but will still distribute PLR.) Since I had to start publishing directly to iTunes and Nook, Amazon came back on the radar. As well, a book I'd published there a couple of years ago went number 1 in it's category and started giving me substantial extra income once it hit the algorithms just right (and got a lot of great reviews - an Amazon-only foible.)

The test
I was doing research on copywriting classics. This wound up with 12 books which were all public domain editions. In order to make them work under the policies above, I added a selection of essays to each one - same set for each book. In that way, they'd be annotated - which takes much less time than finding images for each book which are appropriate and original.

In the middle of this, I ran into the concept that it's actually a problem they have in differentiation - they want unique books. Because there are a handful of public domain books which are huge bestsellers that everyone wants to publish. Amazon simply doesn't need more versions of these. They've already got tons.

The other interesting facet is that they will bring in reviews from other versions of the same book. So when you publish a public domain book, you'll get instant reviews and share the sales which have already developed there. Another reason they don't need more versions of these bestsellers.

So I made roughly half of these PD books "annotated" and the others mostly had different titles than the original. This was to test this differentiation theory. I was fully prepared to take a lower percentage.

Out of a dozen books, One got blocked right off. Three others were queried. The other 8 were approved right off. 

The blocked one was Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." The exact reject quote was: "In order to provide a better customer buying experience, we've stopped accepting and selling undifferentiated or barely differentiated versions of book content previously published in the catalog even if the title, author, and other metadata for new versions may be unique."

[Update: It was found that the Carnegie book was actually under copyright as it had been renewed - although some questions remain, Amazon was right to block it - even if they gave me some odd reply.]

The three queried books came back with various requests:
To publish your book, please respond with documentation confirming your publishing rights within five days:
Acceptable documentation includes:
- A contract or statement from the author or publisher verifying you retain publishing rights
- An e-mail from the address listed on the official author or agent’s website
- For authors using a pseudonym, copyright registration or statement of pseudonym use.
To verify public domain status please provide the following:
1. A URL that includes all authors and translators (if applicable) and their dates of death
2. A URL that includes the initial publication date of the work.
1.      If you hold the publishing rights for this book, please resubmit your book for publishing following the instructions provided below.
2.      If the book is in the public domain, please confirm the initial publication date of the work and the author’s date of death. We will contact you if we need additional information.
3.      If you do not hold the rights for this book, please remove your book following the instructions provided below.
Two got the same reject in one email. One required several goes at this. You can see that these are cut/paste responses.

Test Results:

As covered, eight got approved immediately. Over the next three days, the other three were also approved.

Only one of the three was "annotated." The blocked book was also "annotated." The annotation in each was the same.

But even though two of the non-"annotated" books were queried on the basis of being public domain, there was no instruction (as I've experienced on Kobo) to declare them as such. But per their agreement with you as a (self-)publisher, you have to declare them as such anyway - and take the lower percentage.

Just be prepared to have no reviews (and few if any sales) as you'll be at the bottom of their algorithms.

The general idea that if you want to share reviews, you simply use the same author- and title-name - plus add (annotated) or (illustrated) to the title and a bullet point at the beginning of the description saying how you did.

If you don't worry about the reviews, then rename it as something else.

But the real scene seems to be whether that particular public domain book is has some behind-the-scenes copyright/DMCA conflicts. (But the other distributors don't have this problem, so be prepared to just move on.)

Workarounds

1. Rename it and have other ways to drive traffic to the book to get sales.
2. Annotate or Illustrate the book, title it as such.
3. Publish as boxed sets (binders/collections/series) and get multiple placements on Amazon's search engine for author/title combinations. Box sets/Bundles/Collections/Series of public domain books are uniquely copyrighted as a set, so need no annotation or illustration. This seems the way to get around some of the public domain publishing problems on Amazon - and may actually be the best way to sell PD books by a single author or in a given genre.
4. Always have a web page around with the Author date of death and original publishing date for the book, plus any data such as the renewed copyright expiry. Then you can give them that link simply. A series page can have them all listed.

Upcoming Tests

Watch the sales (or lack thereof) and see how these perform.

I'll shortly be porting a stack of public domain fiction books to Amazon and will let you know how these go. They'll be showing up as both individual books and also binders. As these sell well on other platforms, getting them accepted on Amazon for sale should result in near-immediate additional income.

Update: Results are in... Binders of books are queried just as individual PD books are. One binder was blocked as it contained the same single PD book blocked above. It's that particular book they have a problem - rightfully.

Summary

1. Be prepared for senseless rejects, but answer just what they need. If a book is blocked - move on to the next (and meanwhile you're still publishing it everywhere else, right?) Unknown PD books don't apparently get queried as much as the better known.
2. Always match up the ebook with a hardcopy version to max out your possible sales.
3. Always promote all the distributors you posted the book at - both ebook and hardcopy.
4. Either go for reviews with the existing name and share in the existing sales, or create binders and hope they sell well so you can get reviews. You're competing with a commodity, so add value - you can't compete on price as they are already available for free. Binders add value.

This is all the effort to profit from Amazon with public domain, but avoid their crap-shoot approach most original self-published books receive there. Once we get the breakthrough - which points to bundles (by any name) - we should be able to get popular sales to bring that package up the ranks.

The point to all this work is to get regular sales and leverage PD publishing for extra income. Nice work for a home business.

[Update: per their terms and conditions, "Books that consist primarily of public domain content are not eligible for the 70% Royalty Option." So your options are a) to go the "annotated" route and b) create binders with the bestselling name/author as a "collection". You can only claim 35% royalty on Amazon, so stick with the bestsellers. Or build a new book which is not primarily public domain. I'll need to check out iTunes for this scene. GooglePlay doesn't ask whether it's public domain (and only gives a flat 52%, regardless. Nook doesn't require you to declare it as public domain, but asks. Kobo does (and gives only 20% royalty.)]
[Update 2: This also means you can't use KDP select. So make sure you publish your books as broadly as possible.]

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