How Public Domain Publishing Can Grow Your Business

POSTED ON May 21, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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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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Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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