Distributing Public Domain Books: Should You Do It?

When US federal judge Jed Rakoff ruled against KinderGuides in August, one of the main arguments used against the company cited public domain books. Indeed, if the publisher wanted to bring classics closer to the kids, they could have chosen from millions of available books, including the works of Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Dostoevsky.

This prompted us to revisit the question of public domain.


While the exact rules differ by country, after a certain period books all around the globe become public domain. This means that they are free to be used in any way by anyone: including you. You can turn them into a movie, sell them, use their characters for Zombie rewrites or print T-shirts with quotes. Nobody can say a thing.

Re-publishing classics is a road many publishers decide to step on and quite rightfully: there is no bookshelf that wouldn’t look better with this Vintage Russian Classics on it. Since public domain books are usually widely available for free through various channels, whoever decides to publish them should consider adding something extra.


How to check if a book is public domain?

A book becomes public domain once the copyrights have expired. (Some books are created to be public domain straight away.) In some cases, copyright laws even work backwards. The 1995 copyright law change in the UK, extending copyright of written works to expire 70 years after the author’s death worked retroactive, causing some books to fall out of 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. If you are interested in every country, check out this list.

Translations and adaptations 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. Same is true for movie adaptations: movie adaptations of classic tales and novels are original works and can contain elements that cannot be used. (If your own adaptation of Romeo and Julietlooks a lot like the picture below, be prepared to pay for use of rights.)


How to make public domain books people will pay for?

With the majority of public domain books available for free, it is a challenging task to make public domain books people would want to buy. However, it is definitely not impossible.

1. Create your own epub.

There are three main reasons for this.
Firstly, this is to ensure quality: many public books have been automatically digitalized using a scanner and an OCR software. As no app is perfect, somebody has to proofread the book and look out for ‘t’s and ‘f’s.

Secondly, many places you might get public domain books create their own ebooks – they are free to use, but you can’t resell them. Yes, the content is out of copyright, but the publisher still did the job and deserves credit for it. So would you if you decided to publish them under your own name. Although the works of Tolstoy are public domain, you wouldn’t just put a sticker over the publisher’s name in the new Penguin edition and try to resell it as your own work, would you?

And last but not least: you are trying to make money out of it. Nothing comes out of nothing: you have to put an effort into reselling public domain books if you would like to see a return.

2. Add your own cover.

Creating a creative book cover won’t only show that you have put some work into publishing this book but can also serve as a marketing tool. It will make you stand out from the crowd of bad quality, mass produced PD books. Your readers will honor quality work and look for the same publisher.

If you have books you have written yourself, you can even use the same branding! This works best if you handpicked the books you publish based on your reader’s taste. Public domain books could be a great addition to your reader’s library if they are somewhat related to your genre or main topic. You are creating a Jane Austen Book Club, republishing everything the great writer read and she was influenced by? Take my money.

3. Add some extras.

Translate it. Create a glossary of difficult words or add annotations: old books should be read, but many people are put off by not knowing the historical background or foreign words. Make some illustrations. Turn it into an easy read. (For language learners, not for cheating high schoolers – I would never recommend that.)

4. Find books that are not digitalized yet.

The bulletproof way of making money out of public domain books is to offer content nobody else does. Go to antique stores and second-hand bookshops to find hidden gems and scan them. You don’t even need a scanner, there are plenty of clever smartphone apps! You can also browse library archives: they might even have some pdfs that could be turned into an ebook with a bit of work. (Check the local laws before you do this.)


© 2013 Jason Parrish, CC-BY

Where to sell public domain books?

Not everywhere. For better customer experience, most stores don’t accept PD content that is not differentiated in any way from other PD content. Who would want to browse through hundreds of identical Anna Kareninas? Amazon does accept PD books 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 in the book description how your book is unique.

The same goes for GooglePlay Books. They accept public domain books but only from select partners, and only if they don’t create a duplicate in their database. For a complete list of PublishDrive stores that accept (some) public domain books see our Stores page.

Bear in mind that some stores that accept public domain books pay less royalty: it can range from 35% to 20%.

How to sell public domain books?

If you decide to publish a public domain book, you still have to have a copyright page: this shows that you created this specific edition. Your copyright page should include “Published by Your Name Ⓒ 2017”. Please also include copyright information of the cover and illustrator if applicable. The stores and aggregators will also ask you to mark ‘Public domain’ when uploading the book to their system. This won’t affect your rights but will fasten the approval process.

To sum up: it is a mistake to think of public domain books as an easy way to earn money. Republishing public domain books should be viewed as publishing any other books: bringing valuable content to your readers.

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