How Public Domain Publishing Can Grow Your Business

by Joel Friedlander on May 21, 2010 · 18 comments

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When Jill and I started our publishing company, Globe Press Books, my publishing mentor Felix Morrow gave me two books.

The first was a manuscript for The Body of Light by John Mann and Lar Short. Felix had planned to publish this book, but gave it to me to start our company instead. We published it to some success, and it was a great way to launch a new company.

The other book was actually a printed book, from the 1960s by the look of it. It was a copy of The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk by the famous Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki.

Felix looked at me from under his bushy white eyebrows. “Take this one,” he said, although he didn’t look like he really wanted to give me the book. I noticed it had his own imprint from his publishing days.

“What am I supposed to do with it?” I asked.

“Publish it,” Felix replied, looking like he was talking to a child.

“Okay, Felix, how can I publish it?”

Here, although we were alone, he lowered his voice and leaned in to whisper, “It’s public domain, but don’t tell anyone.”

I did end up publishing the book. It’s an instructional manual with charming illustrations of monks in day-to-day life. Something of a classic, the book had a steady market. Eventually, what I learned was that books like this sell enough to keep one edition in the market. But they wouldn’t sell enough to keep two editions alive. So, whoever put the book into the market would pretty much own the market for that particular book.

Since Felix had had the book in print for some time, no other publishers would bother with it. Although it had fallen out of print, Felix kept close tabs on this book and others like it to see if they resurfaced somewhere else, when some other enterprising publisher realized there was a vacuum to be filled.

A Whole World of Products Opened

The Suzuki book sold from the day we issued it. There seemed to be a steady stream of people discovering Suzuki from his other, more famous books, and eventually they would stumble on the Zen Monk. But the whole idea of public domain publishing had really caught my interest.

Visits to used bookstores turned up other Suzuki books with similar copyright problems to the Zen Monk. There are a lot of oddities to copyright law and, although I’m not a copyright expert—far from it—I started to recognize when books could be identified that had problematic histories. Often this involved being published in another country in English before being published in the U.S.

I found an essay by Suzuki in a longer, more academic work. This was about the way the Zen koan—or riddle—was used as a teaching device. It was terrific. I designed a cover to match the one on the earlier book, but in a different color, and titled it The Zen Koan as a Means of Attaining Enlightenment. I now had 2 Suzuki books to sell alongside each other. I had doubled my product line in this little niche, for virtually no cost and no development time.

Soon I was looking elsewhere for material. The world opened up into a vast field of books. Most of the books that have ever been published are in the public domain, free to anyone who wants to publish them. That’s one of the reasons why you see so many editions from different publishers of works like Shakespeare’s Plays.

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

The base of our publishing company was built on books about the psycho-spiritual system taught by two russians, George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky. In my public domain research, I started to have serious doubts about the copyright on one of Ouspensky’s biggest books, A New Model of the Universe, published at the time by Alfred Knopf.

I selected all the essays from this book that had to do with science, and put them together into a book we called New Horizons: Explorations in Science. Soon after the book was announced, I received a call from an editor at Knopf. She claimed to not know that the book was ineligible for copyright, and I never heard from them again.

But, This Isn’t Self-Publishing!

Why am I telling you this? The biggest leap a self-publisher makes toward profitability and a real publishing business is coming out with a second book.

But what if you could add that book without having to write it yourself? Here’s what I mean. Suppose you write about naval battles of World War II. I bet you could find a really interesting book about naval battles earlier in history that is now in the public domain. Put a new cover on it, and you’ve doubled your product line, while never leaving your tightly-focused niche.

Or if you write about self-improvement, find one of the authors who was writing in a similar vein (this is an American staple) in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Publish cook books? There are numerous out of print and public domain books on cooking, menus, and ingredients that might match your existing book.

Just thinking this way puts you into a different mindset as a publisher. You’ve worked hard to create a market for your book, to establish a readership. When you begin to see these customers as a cohesive market with common interests, you will see the opportunity I’m talking about. A writer may write for profit or for self-expression. A publisher needs to sell books.

If you are interested in public domain publishing, check out the review on Bob Spear’s blog of The Public Domain Publishing Bible by Andras M. Nagy. It will get you off and running.

Takeaway: One way self-publishers can increase their product line without having to write more books is by finding public domain books to reprint that are complementary to their topic and appeal to the same market.

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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    radhakrishnan January 12, 2014 at 4:07 am

    can i print and sell american public domain books in india ?please help me by giving guidance on the procedures ?waiting for ur reply

    Reply

    Rich Cook December 13, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    Joe,

    Finally some uplifting (I hope) news. I’ve been developing a number of PD murder mystery titles to republish under my own imprint primarily as ebooks, but possibly new paperbacks. Based on my research now (Dec. 2013), it seems like distribution channels are severely limited. Amazon says they may allow PD to be sold if not available free there or elsewhere on the web. Smashwords says “NO!” to PD; Apple seems to lean that way.

    What is your current experience with PD titles? How, through what distribution channels, are you selling your PD titles? Is this still a viable option?

    I’m writing novels in this genre & my initial plan was to give away PD novels & short stories to build an email list to market my stuff to, but I’ve found there are gobs of great novels that are disappearing because the paperbacks are rare. I want to make sure that these great works rant lost … and make a little $$ to support my writing efforts.

    Thanks,
    Rich

    Reply

    Sue August 9, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Hi Joel,

    I have some of the same questions posted above from Efioanwan.
    Quote——————–
    Secondly, can I put my name instead of the original author’s (as author) or do I have to publish only (but in the name of the original author)

    Thirdly, if I’m interested in a work of fiction, can I manipulate the story at all, say, change names, locations, background and such things?
    ——————-

    We have inherited a few hundred very old books (1800’s) that I cannot find other copies online. The books are in terrible condition, but I was wondering about re-publishing them and don’t know if I could re-publish exactly as-is, or need to add additional information to them.

    Thank you,

    Sue

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander August 9, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Sue and Efioanwan,

    Books that are in the public domain have no rights associated with them. Keep in mind this applies to U.S. copyright law only. If a book is in the public domain you can do whatever you like with it, regardless of what others are doing with the same work. You can use parts of it, republish it, claim it as your own (although I don’t see why you would want to do that) or use it in other ways. Hope that helps.

    Reply

    Jim Carroll June 3, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I get the point you make but the wording ‘you can … claim it as your own’ is a bit misleading. The book is public domain – that’s established – but your statement could lead someone to think that by claiming it as their own they get to own the copyright.

    Incidentally, publishing an out of copyright work is one thing, but putting someone else’s name as the author doesn’t do the self publishing/POD cause one iota of good.

    Great article btw!

    Jim

    Reply

    Efioanwan April 19, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Hi, thanks for this topic. I’m considering using some books in the public domain to bolster my own work as I start out as an author/publisher.

    Can you clarify for me, I have some PD books I’m interested in but I see things like, “The Present writer . . . ” in the Foreword or the Endnotes. Obviously someone got there before me. My question is, does this put complexities on the book? Do I have to write my own Foreword/Endnote to claim it?

    Secondly, can I put my name instead of the original author’s (as author) or do I have to publish only (but in the name of the original author)

    Thirdly, if I’m interested in a work of fiction, can I manipulate the story at all, say, change names, locations, background and such things?

    Thanks in advance for your advice.

    Reply

    Gibson Goff April 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    THANK YOU, JOEL!

    I have used Public Domain items, rewritten some, given away others. But to me, it never seemed as honorable a method for authors to increase their offerings. (But then I used to think the same thing about velum and pantographs when I first started drawing and cartooning!)

    Hearing your very warm, well told story of your mentor really put the thing in perspective for me.

    You know, I read your stuff because I always learn something. Today, indeed, I learned a great deal.

    So again, thank you!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander April 2, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Hey, great Gibson, glad it helped.

    I haven’t thought about this for a while but this morning I realized I have a number of texts that would be perfect to publish as public domain ebooks, so now my wheels are turning also.

    Reply

    David Mark Brown November 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    This is blowing my mind. Thanks for this great insight. I am writing a series of alternate history punk/retro/pulps, the first of which will vaguely resemble an old western pulp. I am wondering if most/all of these old pulps from the 20’s and 30’s are public domain. This gives me a lot to chew.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    David, the copyright laws were changed often over a period of time before U.S. law got more in line with international copyright law. Because they kept “grandfathering” in the older titles that might have gone into the public domain while this was going on, there’s a whole period of time where you have to check which year the original copyright was to figure out if it’s still protected. I have a reference for that I’ll try to put my hands on and post when I can. It’s certain that a lot of the books you’re looking at are in the public domain, but it pays to check the individual title before committing to the project. Thanks for visiting.

    Reply

    Walt Shiel November 4, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Actually, what I quoted above is apparently from an early PG eBook, and they appear to have clarified it on their website to read, under Public Domain Books:

    “These books are in the public domain in the United States and everybody — including Project Gutenberg and you — may read and distribute them. If you don’t live in the United States you’ll have to check the laws of the country you live in before downloading and distributing our ebooks.

    “A Project Gutenberg ebook is made out of two parts: the public domain book and the non public domain Project Gutenberg trademark and license. If you strip the Project Gutenberg license and all references to Project Gutenberg from the ebook, you are left with a public domain ebook. You can do anything you want with that.”

    That seems pretty clear to me.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 4, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks very much for that Walt. It makes sense since, as we know, once a book goes into the public domain, it can’t come out again. Clearly the only things PG is adding to these texts are their name, logo and licensing information. The text itself is still public doman.

    Reply

    Winson ng October 12, 2012 at 1:25 am

    Thanks very much to Joel and Walt for opening the horizon for me… i previously thought that using public domain books was uncouth and improper…. Alright , but if i were to edit and restructure and rewrite according to my style, and publish it in Amazon… should i label it as me holding the necessary rights or label it as a public domain work?

    They have these two options in Amazon….public domain or i hold the necessary rights..

    Reply

    Walt Shiel November 4, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    According to the Project Gutenberg notice contained in their downloadable books, para 1.C:

    “If an individual work is in the public domain in the United States and you are
    located in the United States, we do not claim a right to prevent you from
    copying, distributing, performing, displaying or creating derivative
    works based on the work as long as all references to Project Gutenberg
    are removed.”

    The other restrictions are subsequently listed in para 1.E under this heading:

    “1.E. Unless you have removed all references to Project Gutenberg:”

    This includes para 1.E.8: “You may charge a reasonable fee for copies of or providing access to or distributing Project Gutenberg-tm electronic works provided that” (after which it lists the 20% royalty, among other things).

    In other words, by my non-lawyer reading of this notice, you cannot sell the eBook files downloaded from PG. But, since the text itself is public domain, I see nothing that would prevent you from designing a layout and typesetting a PG file for print and then selling it.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander May 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Hamish,

    Thanks, that’s a really good piece of information for anyone considering using Project Gutenberg texts. Of course, if you can locate an original book that is clearly out of copyright, you can certainly do your own scanning or re-photographing to create a new edition. Thanks for your contribution, Hamish.

    Reply

    Hamish MacDonald May 21, 2010 at 1:11 am

    One heads-up for anyone searching for this sort of content to publish: Project Gutenberg books are not public domain material.

    I discovered this when doing some background research for a young would-be publisher who’d contacted me, saying he was thinking about publishing some public domain books as part of his platform, but he couldn’t decipher the legal-ese at the start of the Project Gutenberg texts.

    Taking a look at it, I discovered that the project — quite rightly — demands a percentage of any profits (20%) for the work they’ve done in scanning and cleaning up the text. You must also acknowledge that it’s a Project Gutenberg text and include the header information in your book.

    There are other conditions, but those are the two main ones that caught my attention — just to highlight that “old” or “available” doesn’t necessarily equate with “yours to use as you like”.

    So, as you did with the Zen koan and Russian parapsychology books, publishers should still check out the rights of any work they intend to invest time into — even if it’s more than 50 years old!

    Reply

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