How to Differentiate Public Domain Content to Sell on Amazon

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 photoOkay, so I had heard about publishing public domain books in the Kindle store a couple years ago, but I originally just dismissed the entire idea. Actually, I’m not sure my opinion on the concept has really changed much after looking into this option and doing a bit of research.

Public domain books are those for which the intellectual property rights have expired, which in the United States is typically 70 years following the death of the author.

Possibilities for Public Domain Content

So the cool thing about public domain content is that everyone is free to do with it whatever they please. There is no need to be concerned about copyright and attribution and all of those stuffy subjects.

Since there are no restrictions on the content, the possibilities are nearly endless. You could, in theory, do something as simple as have a spiffy cover designed and write a a half-ass introduction to a public domain book and then start selling it.

I’m not totally sure, but I think that would work much better if you’re selling through a print-on-demand company. It’s not going to work for Kindle books, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Public Domain Mashups

Not only can you repackage and sell public domain books, but you can also edit the content and add to it as well. In fact, if you take a public domain work and use it in combination with some of your own writing, you can create what is known as a mashup.

These can actually turn out to be wildly successful if done right. For example, the public domain mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies written by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith and released by Quirk Books in 2009 is solid proof that this can work.

Not only did it end up achieving #3 on the New York Times bestseller list, but it received mostly positive reviews from other big names and spawned a prequel to the first book and has even inspired plans for a film adaption.

According to one of the few reviewers who did not care too much for it, the book was about 85% Austen’s original text along with the inserted zombie scenes from Grahame-Smith. 

That means it doesn’t technically take much to change a public domain story and make it something almost completely different. 

However, it’s also important to take note that a deluxe version of the book was released with several full-color images. My assumption is that this adds a good deal of new value to the rendition, if we could call it that.

Amazon’s Problem With Public Domain

Okay, so what’s the problem with publishing public domain content in the Kindle store? Amazon has no need or desire to have the same exact book show up in search results when a customer searches for a title that is in the public domain.

This makes a lot of sense. Who wants to wade through all the bull shit just to try and figure out which one to buy? No one, I’m sure.

Which is why Amazon’s policies on publishing public domain works makes an incredible amount of sense. While they have not banned this in the Kindle Direct Publishing program, they have very specific requirements for doing so.

They first make it very clear that they do not accept works that are freely available on the web already. After all, they have tons of public domain books in the Kindle store already, albeit poorly formatted in many if not most cases.

So can you just simply find a public domain book that is not already available for Kindle or improve the formatting of an existing public domain book for sale there? 

No, you can’t. That isn’t going to cut it for Amazon, so don’t even try going that route.

How to Differentiate Public Domain Books

Quite simply, Amazon offers you three possible ways to publish what they consider “differentiated” public domain books.

  1. A translated version of the public domain content. If you’re bilingual (fluently so) and ambitions enough to take on the translation of an entire book, then I would encourage you to do so as you could make yourself a good amount of money by doing so, potentially.
  2. A uniquely annotated version. They suggest hand-crafted critiques or study guides in order to add unique annotations to a public domain book.
  3. Including at least 10 unique illustrations. If you’re an artist or know someone who would be willing to collaborate on something like this, I say go for it. 

As you can probably see, our example of the Jane Austen novel from earlier serves as a perfect example of how you can use public domain content in a way that Amazon finds acceptable and which adds value and newness to the already existing content.

What About Non-Copyrighted Works?

ccfi photoWhile I was researching the use of public domain books in Kindle publishing, I came across an interesting blog post by an author who had submitted a fiction story of their own which they had made available elsewhere on the web for free in more than one place.

This particular author had chosen to release their fiction under a CC0 license, which was something I had never heard of. I was familiar with Creative Commons, but that’s not quite the same. Authors who release their work using a CC0 license are effectively opting-out of all copyright and database laws that would otherwise protect their creative works.

By using this license, the original creator of the content is claiming “No rights reserved,” and is basically granting others permission to edit and build on their work freely, in the same way public domain materials are allowed to be used.

Interestingly, this particular author’s book was blocked when they did not include any copyright information in their book and Amazon asked them for documentation that they had the rights to sell the content. They wrote back explaining that it was available elsewhere for free because they had put it on those sites and were hoping for their fiction to be available on Kindle alongside the other public domain works available in the Kindle store. 

Fortunately, Amazon granted them their permission and asked her to resubmit the book and everything worked out. I do wonder though, like the author, how they will approach this type of situation with other authors who are unconcerned with copyright and attempt to follow suit.

You CAN Sell Books and Give Them Away

I also happened upon this interesting article from James Boyle, a professor of law at Duke University and both an expert and activist in the public domain arena. He points out that while his book The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind is sold in the Kindle store, it is also available as a free download from his website as a PDF file. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it is still selling relatively well on Amazon despite the fact that those same customers could download it free of charge.

He goes onto explain that paid and free digital content can actually work in the same space, citing the recent success of Nine Inch Nails new album which was released under a Creative Commons License and yet still managed to become the #1 best selling MP3 of the year.

My Advice on Publishing Public Domain

As far as Amazon is concerned, I wouldn’t recommend trying to publish public domain books in the Kindle store. As many others pointed out on other sites, they were far more willing to accept whatever was submitted early on when their goal was to get as much free and cheap content available to their customers for the Kindle platform. Now that it’s been flooded with stuff, much of it lacking in quality, they will naturally have to do some Spring cleaning in order to keep their selection navigable for their customers.

If you still want to give it a try, I highly recommend approaching it like a serious endeavor and not half-assing the project. It’s not the quick and easy shortcut to profiting from Kindle that some sites would lead you to believe. Don’t believe me? Just use this author’s experience as a good example of what could happen. He decided to publish A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, just as an experiment. He was steadily selling several copies a day for a while before Amazon swiftly removed it from the site and released their own version for Kindle.

My advice is to stay away and focus on original content unless you have plans to dramatically alter an existing book in the public domain.

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7 Responses to How to Differentiate Public Domain Content to Sell on Amazon

  1. Pingback: Professional eBook Creation: Vook Publishing Review

  2. ironMike says:

    Interesting post/article, thanks for it. I just found my thesis in the Kindle store for sale for 3 bucks. And I didn’t put it there. It is available free from the institution I went to (a military grad school, thus the work being public domain from day one). I’ve emailed amazon and will wait to see what their reply is.

    I’m not happy about it because the formatting is crap, and only my name is on the product. ;)

  3. Jerry Washington says:

    Ashly, I appreciate the information and I will be looking into titles that I’m interested in and can add meaning value and insight. I won’t be looking at changing original works since it can be difficult to add value to something that was in the author’s own mindset. I will keep your site handy since I benefit from your insight.

  4. Hugh Beaumont says:

    This is all fairly ridiculous. Do a book search on Amazon for Mark Twain – over 22,000 results. Do you think every one of these publishers has publishing rights? Even in the Kindle store there are over 2,000. Something is not adding up.

  5. Patrice says:

    I have 5 public domain images in a book that constitute less than 1% of the content, and KDP keeps calling it a public domain book and rejecting it. I’ve written three emails explaining the fact that it is NOT a public domain book but my unique content. Interesting that they had nothing to say about the two creative commons images I used. Hopefully the third time, a human being will actually read my email and provide a response that makes sense.

  6. Gabriel says:

    Thanks for this article.

    I have a public domain work which I have edited and added a lot of content to. In fact, i have removed a lot of obsolete information from that work.

    My questions is when I decide to submit to KDP, should I still state that it is a public domain work?

    Plan B is to rewrite the work completely in my own words. What is you opinion on this?

    I will appreciate your response.


  7. Brian says:

    Not to quibble, but just for the sake of clarity, “CC0″ IS a Creative Commons license type (namely, the most permissive) – it’s not something “different” from Creative Commons. Creative Commons encompasses a number of different license types and their related usage permissions.