Public Domain Publishing: How To Publish Public Domain Books?

In the vast literary universe, there is a realm filled with treasures of the written word that are free for all to use. This galaxy is home to classic books, intriguing tales, and compelling narratives that have withstood the test of time. We are referring, of course, to the universe of public domain books.

Imagine thousands of public domain books, untouched by the usual copyright restrictions, accessible and available for you to republish, recreate or transform. The rules change here; you can create a new income stream by selling public domain books without worrying about lawsuits. 

However, harnessing the power of these public domain works isn't just about cherry-picking titles and hitting the publish button. It requires a thorough understanding of certain guidelines and restrictions.

Remember, these books, though they've entered the public domain typically 70 years after the author's death, still demand respect for their literary legacy and adherence to specific rules when you plan to republish them.

This article aims to guide you through the labyrinth of understanding and using public domain books to your advantage.

I go over:

What Is Public Domain Book Publishing? 

Public domain book publishing involves reproducing, selling, or transforming works that are no longer protected by copyright laws. This fascinating realm provides plenty of copyright-free books to sell, which can become a significant income stream for creative and enterprising individuals. From classic literature to educational texts, the public domain book list spans various genres and periods, all perfect opportunities for potential profit.

When a book is in the public domain, it essentially means the intellectual property rights have expired or are otherwise inapplicable. Therefore, publishing public domain content is legally permissible and can be done without obtaining explicit permission or paying royalties. It presents an opportunity to give new life to timeless classics, reviving them for contemporary audiences.

One unique approach to publishing a public domain work is to provide detailed biographies or historical context to accompany the original work, adding value for the readers. New and appealing book covers can also be designed to refresh the look of these classic works and attract potential readers.

However, it is vital to ensure that the works are indeed public domain works. Laws vary globally, and the status of a book may differ between countries. Understanding these nuances is crucial to navigating the public domain book publishing world successfully.

How to check if a book is in public domain?

A book becomes public domain once the copyrights have expired. In some cases, copyright laws even work backward. The 1995 copyright law change in the UK, extending the copyright of written works to expire 70 years after the author’s death, worked retroactively, causing some books to fall out of the public domain.

When assessing whether a work is out of copyright, you should consider the death of the last author (including the translator and illustrator, if applicable) to calculate how many years have passed. In most countries, works become public domain 50 or 70 years after the last author’s death. 

Translated, annotated, or illustrated editions based on out-of-copyright work are often subject to copyright: Pride and Prejudice may be out of copyright, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not. The same is true for movie adaptations: movie adaptations of classic tales and novels are original works and can contain elements that cannot be used. 

Can You Sell Public Domain Books?

You might find yourself asking: "Can I sell public domain books? Is it even legal?" Indeed, publishing public-domain books and selling public-domain books might seem counterintuitive. After all, they're readily accessible, with free versions available to everyone, so how could one profit from them? 

The key lies in understanding that while the original work is in the public domain, your unique presentation of it, be it an annotated edition (relevant to the book), an expert introduction, or an artfully designed cover, could indeed be a product worthy of selling. 

By selling public domain books, you are not selling the content alone but the added value you've incorporated into it. So yes, with creativity, market understanding, and legal knowledge, you can profit from the decision to publish public-domain books.

So here is the step-by-step guide on how to effectively publish public domain books:

1. Find public domain works

The first question you might ask yourself is, "Where can I find suitable material to publish?". Worry not. There's a plethora of resources providing access to public domain content. 

A top pick is Project Gutenberg, with a vast library of over 60,000 ebooks, which is the source of most of the public domain ebooks used by many. is another useful resource, offering books and materials like original scans of books and magazines.

For religious content, Sacred Texts is the go-to site, while LibriVox is your destination for audiobooks of classic public-domain books that can serve as bonus material on your platform. 

Authorama offers a collection from the greatest authors throughout history, and Classic Literature Library, a partner with Project Gutenberg, is known for its impressive collections of works by popular authors.

Lastly, don't underestimate the power of a Google search for specific works. Adding "full text" or "PDF" to your search can lead you to digitized versions of the work. If it doesn't exist in digitized form, consider transcribing it yourself if there's demand.

To decide what to publish, start with topics that pique your interest. Remember, if it's something you'd like to see, there's a high chance someone else shares your interest. Additionally, keeping an eye on upcoming movies based on public domain books can give you insights into future popular works.

2. Adding unique value to public domain works

In the realm of public domain book publishing, differentiation is crucial. This isn't just a requirement from Amazon but a smart approach for you as a publisher. Since anyone has access to the same books, your unique value will be the distinguishing factor.

There are several ways to make your version unique, such as translation, annotation, or illustration. We recommend annotation or illustration for the most impact. Here are some suggestions:

  • Develop a modern language version of the text.
  • Include a glossary of terms at the end of the book.
  • Provide summaries at the beginning or end of each chapter.
  • Incorporate footnotes explaining difficult words or phrases.
  • Commission custom illustrations. 

Another approach to add value is to create collections of related works. While a collection on its own is not deemed unique by Amazon, it can attract readers. By adding annotations or illustrations to your collection, you can enhance its appeal and uniqueness.

3. Make formatting improvements

Public domain texts sourced from the internet often come in HTML or .txt formats, which can result in poorly converted ebooks or PDFs. Thus, formatting becomes a necessary step.

While numerous formatting tools are available, a simple and efficient tool to try is Atticus. For $147, you can:

  • apply print formatting features to secure optimal margins, trim sizes, gutter layouts, and more.
  • utilize numerous chapter header themes to foster a professional aesthetic.
  • personalize your content with a custom chapter header theme builder.
  • integrate your public domain text into various chapter elements.

Formatting a public domain book in Atticus is a straightforward process:

  1. Start a new book.
  2. Upload your public domain text and images, chapter by chapter.
  3. Include any additional front or back matter for personalization.
  4. Incorporate your unique material, like footnotes, annotations, or illustrations.
  5. Select your chapter theme and style using a pre-made or custom theme builder.
  6. Export your ebook or print PDF.

Atticus is compatible across various platforms, including Windows, Mac, and Chromebooks, making it a universally suitable choice for authors.

4. Get an eye-catching book cover

We cannot stress enough the impact of an outstanding book cover and well-chosen title fonts

If you have design capabilities, you can undertake this task yourself. With basic knowledge of software like Photoshop or Canva, you can merely replace a stock image and modify the title according to your needs. 

However, if you lack the necessary skills, consider employing a professional to craft your cover.

5. Get your book’s metadata in order

Remember to tweak your metadata while handling the finishing touches to ensure discoverability and help your book sell. Ensure a cohesive table of contents, an accurately filled title field, a compelling and inciting blurb, and detailed guides or literary critiques and reviews, as these are crucial elements to provide the readers with a complete and improved reading experience.

6. Release your public domain book

Once you have your book uniquely crafted, accurately formatted, and adorned with a compelling cover, you are prepared for publishing.

Where To Sell Public Domain Books?

Not everywhere. For a great customer experience, most stores don’t accept public domain content that is not differentiated in any way from other public domain content. Who would want to browse through hundreds of identical Anna Kareninas? 

PublishDrive does not accept the distribution of public domain works. However, Amazon does accept them, but only if they are translated, annotated, or contain at least 10 original illustrations. Books that meet this criteria must include (Translated), (Annotated), or (Illustrated) in the title field. You will also have to explain how your book is unique in the description.

Note: PublishDrive doesn’t distribute public domain books anymore. However, if you do decide to publish a public domain book, this can be a source of income for your self-publishing career.

The same goes for Google Play Books. They accept public domain books but only from select partners and only if they don’t create a duplicate in their database

How to sell public domain books on Amazon?

Selling public domain books on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) comes with specific rules, despite the inherent freedoms of public domain materials.

Amazon's policy clearly outlines: "We strive to provide an enhanced customer experience, therefore, we avoid publishing non-differentiated versions of public domain titles if a complimentary version is available in our store. Unique, or 'differentiated', works are welcomed."

This policy entails that for any public domain work that is readily accessible for free in the Amazon store or online (which constitutes a considerable volume of content), you cannot merely duplicate that content into a document and anticipate selling it on the Kindle store.

Take note that this rule applies only to the Kindle store. When publishing a paperback book through KDP Print, the same restrictions do not apply. Nevertheless, you would still be required to demonstrate that the book belongs to the public domain.

So, how can we "differentiate" a public domain work enough for it to be recognized as unique by Amazon? They suggest three distinct methods:

  1. Translations: If you have the language skills to translate a book from one language to another accurately, this qualifies as a unique work. This method might prove challenging, as a basic Google Translate output won't suffice. A thorough understanding of the languages involved is needed, and full translation can often be more labor-intensive than original writing.
  2. Annotations: Annotations can range from chapter summaries to historical context, author biographies, and explanations of complex words or phrases – often, it's a blend of these elements. It's like embedding your own study guide within the text. This method might be the easiest route for some to create differentiation.
  3. Illustrations: For the artistically inclined, adding ten original illustrations to the text can render the work unique. However, these must be original and not sourced from other public domain materials.

When uploading a book to KDP, remember to incorporate its unique element into the title. For instance, Pride and Prejudice [Illustrated]. Amazon has explicitly listed several techniques that do not qualify as unique differentiation. These include a linked table of content, improvements in formatting, collections, sales rank, price, and content freely available on the wide web. 

Collections are a popular method of packaging public domain content to increase its value to the reader. However, although it might be appealing to purchase the complete works of Jane Austen, Amazon does not deem such a collection as "unique.”

Is It All Worth The Effort?

The world of public domain books presents an intriguing, value-for-money opportunity for authors looking to expand their portfolio or generate income. These works, no longer bound by copyright restrictions, allow for numerous creative endeavors, from producing derivative works to selling your own editions.

However, while the prospect of using public domain books is certainly enticing, authors must navigate this landscape with care. Familiarize yourself with copyright laws and ensure that the books you're considering are indeed in the public domain. Some works might appear copyright-free but may still be protected in certain jurisdictions.

While the public domain route offers potential monetary value, it's not without its share of effort and due diligence. Weigh the costs and benefits, understand the legal aspects, and ensure you're offering your readers a product that brings true value. Public domain books can be a significant and rewarding addition to an author's toolkit when done right.