Is there any Real Money in public domain (self-)publishing?

Why you can make a financially free lifestyle with public domain (self-)publishing, but getting rich (quickly) is elusive.

(Photo: Jeneraly)



For several years, I've been evolving the business plan of re-publishing public domain books as an off-shoot of self-publishing, Recent tests with Amazon shows how limited this is.

There has been a profitable business plan at work, using some advantages.

The key advantage has been being able to convert un-owned books to digital and make high-quality versions available. That hasn't been really possible except for the last few years, as the technology and distributors made access possible.

Even today, that remains the advantage, since the books I've recently run into trouble with via Amazon are still not ebooks, although they could be.

The second advantage is that most people don't understand copyright law, even those who have been publishing a long time. So when you know the rules, you can simply bring books to being published that have been out of circulation for a very long time. (You can wind up with people you have to educate, or  - worst case - smile, nod, and pull the book.)

This main disadvantage is that people treat public domain like commodities. Anyone else can bring that book in for sale. Amazon did this in their early days to get adopters for their Kindle platform. Lots of books are still available for free through that platform. What they then did was to carefully close that door until it was very nearly shut.

Amazon has the real leverage in this market, being the one place where you can sell both ebook and print versions, as well as audio (while B-and-N still busy shooting itself in the foot.) While still decreasing, Amazon still owns just under 50% of the book market and are the 900lb. gorilla in the room.

How Indie Self-Publishing can give you freedom but not riches.


1. You don't have to pay authors royalties.
2. You don't have to hire people to work for you - low overhead.
3. If you cut expenses to the bone, live frugally, your living costs require less of your income.
4. A low-cost lifestyle, plus a low-overhead small business can mean financial freedom.

I was financially free over a year before one of my books really started taking off on Amazon. That book was an orphan, meaning no one cared enough about that author to ask about it. The title was very, very good, an inspired one I haven't really duplicated. The content was very, very good.

And it only happened once.

Because Amazon penalizes public domain books heavily on their Kindle platform. That book succeeded because it wasn't named for any earlier successful book. People knew the author, and that is still the risk of that book.

It's defense as an orphan is that it's built from transcripts of audio works. You can do this with any audio - the person who first transcribes an audio work - and publishes it - owns the copyright (not true for song lyrics.) It's a hole in the copyright scene. So that book is relatively safe - as long as I don't try to make it a mega-hit and get gold-diggers and their lawyers after me.

The Amazon Profit Chasm

Being on Amazon is a two-edged sword. Your higher visibility brings you more sales, but also brings you more people to challenge your work. All - repeat all - of my copyright challenges have occurred on Amazon. (I did have one DCMA complaint on Lulu which was simply bullying and I let it slide.) The Amazon challenges are always sent to you with a warning that your account is at risk - so they throw salt in the wound as well. Amazon doesn't care about the indie publisher or anyone else. They are there to make money. That is why they continue to lose market share - they aren't building community.

Being able to get a hit on Amazon depends on originality, high-quality content that people talk about, and being able to jump-start your book on their algorithms.

Being able to sell public domain books cheaply depends on having a readily available known book and known author.

While you can sell your public domain ebook on Kobo, iTunes, GooglePlay, and Nook (...and Lulu, FWIW) - Having a hit on Amazon is the night-and-day difference. I got free of a day job when I started regularly selling on these other five distributors. Once I had a single hit on Amazon, it quadrupled what I was making everywhere else. And I was able to invest in an audio version, as well as the print versions, which compounded my profits there.

This freed me up for other investments, like print versions of different books, and testing more extensively on Amazon to open that market.

I also started watching my savings grow.

But Amazon really only wants original titles. Authors don't matter so much. That then takes out a great deal of what makes public domain books profitable - they are known entities which are poorly marketed, with bland covers and pitiful descriptions.

We haven't dealt with how to really leverage sales on Amazon - their open secret.

How to Get Rich With an Amazon Bestseller

They hid this in plain site. And most of the GRQ books tell about it. To some degree, they've swapped their algorithms around, but getting a bestseller on Amazon consists of mainly two factors - and you can control these.
  1. Reviews
  2. Sales

Yes, that's the bulk of it. (There is driving search engine traffic to Amazon, which ranks your books better, but not as significant as those two.)

Books that don't get reviews or don't have appreciable sales are doomed to the long-tail slag-heap. It's easier to get a Kindle book buried on Amazon than any other distributor.

My own experiences showed that my financial freedom was coming from iTunes, Nook, Google, and Kobo sales. And these were proportional to the number of books I had available on each at any given time. Different books sold on different distributors - completely different audience for each.

The one exception on all distributors was that one bestseller I had on Amazon. That title and that author (I'm sure the cover and description helped) were popular everywhere - and the sales on the other distributors were high way before Amazon "found" it.

What made that book a success on Amazon was the regular sales it was getting, and the reviews people were leaving. The text quality was high enough that the reviews were routinely good. The other point was leaving it at a .99 price so it would sell.

Once it had enough sales and reviews, it was featured more, which meant more sales and reviews, etc. A positive feedback loop.

The way to roll your own Amazon bestseller is to have a mailing list you can control to buy your books on Amazon and leave positive reviews. 

Do a launch to build excitement, then open the flood gates. Done properly, it catches the algorithms' eyes and sales take off. A jumpstart.

You can even do this with books you published years ago.

What no one really talks about is how to build and maintain that list.

Building the list is the core of marketing. And something I haven't been doing.

All this research on public domain book publishing has been simply by putting ebooks up everywhere I could and seeing what happened.

Meanwhile, I've seem people who have been selling books through building a list go on and have their bestsellers - then translate those into an even bigger list and sell them something else, such as a course or personal coaching.

That is why my work in book publishing is moving to marketing and media production.

The book-sale is just the beginning of the "get rich online" chain.

It's not the end-all you are looking for (or where to find those droids.)

The first key action is setting up a core stable of books, or a deep backbench of titles, which will routinely sell for you. That frees you up to do whatever else you want. You want to break open the self-publishing world to get that stable base.  And this has been without really fine-tuning my analytics, but simply looking for books and then converting and publishing them. Getting a massive backbench.

In short, that's how I made my own financial freedom.

The concentration recently is how I break into a higher range of income where I can help others even more because I can afford to.

Meanwhile, I've been studying and collecting resources from people who are actually making an honest living. Sometimes, these two crossed - as when I found that the classics in copywriting told everything that the modern boys are pushing - and publishing these classic texts tended to give me more income.

Otherwise, I've been finding what works broadly and either started using that service or reserving it so that it's ready when I am - again, that extra income is making this possible to pay for monthly services I'm not fully leveraging at this point.

All to make it easier for you to earn your own financial freedom from book publishing.

The story is how to earn income online with little overhead and turn this into 1) financial freedom, and then 2) a nice personal fortune to reinvest in more freedom.

You probably have guessed, my huge publishing empire, which has hundreds of books (well, just over two hundred right now) is just me and two other employees - myself and I.

So overhead is nil. Most monthly costs are for webhosting, broadband, and an autoresponder. I've also invested in Copyblogger's Rainmaker, which will become my membership backend once I finish this current round of testing.

How I got my financial freedom and started earning my fortune starting from scratch and personal debt.


  • First, I kept my day job and paid off my debts as a priority. Quit charging anything on a credit card I couldn't pay that month. Learned how to not fall for scams (especially those with a credit card.) Got really frugal in my lifestyle. Turned all my free time into getting a functional online business.
  • Second, when my bills were paid down and I had some savings in the bank, I quit the full-time day job and found a part-time freelance job.  So I then had more time to invest in making a functional online business.
  • Third, when that business (publishing public domain books) started paying all my bills, I got myself replaced at the freelance job - and became permanently unemployed.

There are a few more details, but those are the broad strokes.

Next is concentrating on making a fortune. Which is why the recent tests about publishing to Amazon, which I'd basically ignored in favor of the much easier approach to iTunes, Nook, GooglePlay/Books, and Kobo (plus Lulu.)

Amazon showed me the gnarly side of publishing. I started getting dinged by lawyers and publisher gold-diggers for books that never sold. And that the only books that were accepted quickly by Amazon had original titles - or they simply didn't have a Kindle version of that book (extremely rare - and usually books that wouldn't sell well.)

So it really led me right back to the point that I needed to build my list and get that going. That always has been the key to any fortune.

Why work at getting rich?


  • It's easier to help people as you can invest in more promotion and delivery.
  • You invest what you don't need to live on in passive income sources (which won't take your time in maintaining) and will leverage your income more.
  • Once you build it up more than you need to even take care of (worst case) total disability in old age (what used to be called "retirement") - then you give increasing amounts to charity.
  • You then turn over your business to deserving relatives (like Sam Walton did.)
Note that three of the four are to help other people live better lives directly, and the fourth makes it more possible do more of that.

How to approach profitable Amazon self-publishing

  1. Build your list outside of Amazon. ((See books in this area - means using a website and search engines, etc.)
  2. Publish only those books which are worth it to you personally. Follow your bliss closely. Original works, or public domain books that match your most fascinating interests.
  3. Get those books to give you more followers to your list - or reward those who already follow you.
  4. Build a membership where you can give extra value (such as discounted book versions or paid online courses) - again, outside of Amazon.
  5. Build affiliate sales to expand your list.
  6. Encourage your list to buy and review your books on Amazon.
  7. Meanwhile, make sure you are publishing those same books everywhere else you possibly can, as well as making the hardcopy and audio versions available as sales take off and those books can pay for the extra investment. This mostly leverages Amazon sales, but shows up as Lulu and Audible revenue.
  8. Rinse, repeat. Ask your list what they want and then publish that. Your sales on the other distributors can predict this somewhat.

Look that over closely. You see that Amazon isn't the end-all, just a side-journey. All this hype about Amazon is really someone selling other services and using the Amazon brand as a promotion gimmick.

You're only really interested in Amazon because it's possible to leverage it to increased income far better than other distributors - but you don't neglect those other distributors when you are going for that brass ring. It's like ignoring the beautiful horses and calliope music accompanying your ride meanwhile... The journey is more important and more valuable than the end.

Going from brass ring to brass ring could be an incredibly stressful journey.

The sensible steps to Real Money in (self)publishing are these:

1) A frugal lifestyle, paying off all debt and ignoring expensive status bling.
2) Building an online/low-overhead business which starts paying all your regular bills so that you can afford to quit any day job, full-time or otherwise.
3) Keep doing what's successful, but narrow your focus onto what will leverage your time into the most earned income returns. Again, passive income.
4) Get positive feedback loops going (Amazon sales/reviews, offering new releases to your list, turning your list into an affiliate salesforce free/paid memberships, reinvesting passive income into more passive income sources.)

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