You’d think Amazon would be more respectful of Public Domain (PD) books, since this is what they used to start their KDP operation. They had to have a lot of books people could put onto their brand-new Kindle ereaders, so they loaded up with a lot of (slightly) edited versions of free public domain books. (Kinda like when they had their own staff write reviews in order to get their weird review-cancer bootstrapped.)
These days, Amazon definitely doesn’t want you posting Public Domain on their site. Period. Sure, you still can, but you can’t get there from any established aggregator. Meaning that making a dependable income from PD books on KDP is nearly impossible. Even with a very thick hide to withstand the KDP Troll-Bots (who reply to all PD submissions with veiled threats.)
I’ve talked at length about this subject, and have a Blogger blog that only gets traffic from Google about this subject.
PD self-publishing is all back-burner to me these days, as my current research is in writing and publishing original fiction (seemingly more profitable by all the various reports.)
The Real Use of Public Domain – How to Add Value and Sales
The real use of PD books is in not having to re-invent the wheel. Especially since there are so many perfectly good wheels sitting around. Just insert axle and roll.
And for everyone except Amazon KDP and GooglePlay, PD books are perfectly acceptable. For aggregators, it’s a different story altogether.
Smashwords has banned both PD and Private Licensed Rights (PLR) since their beginning. Before KDP was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
Draft2Digital has also banned PD from their beginning.
Lulu (where I got my start) only banned PD from distribution after they got access to Amazon KDP. (A dumb move.)
Meanwhile, if you submit PD to iTunes, Kobo, and NookPress, you only have to declare that they are PD. One other book outlet out of several hundred independent book outlets doesn’t want PD. So there is no real stigma to re-publishing them – you only have to abide by the various copyright conventions, which few people really understand completely (especially European aggregators.)
The two main aggregators that will port your PD books to different book outlets are both European – PublishDrive (Hungary), and StreetLib (Italy.) They each allow you to opt-out of various countries and individual book outlets as you prefer.
Bottom line: you can still publish PD everywhere except Amazon, GooglePlay, and some aggregators.
How It Got Bad On Amazon – Their Own Foot-Shooting Habit
Since KDP has never allowed PD work into their Select (author-slavery) program, PD publishers have always published wide.
But Amazon KDP has always been able to be gamed, and PD book publishing used to be a fast way of doing it. The overall scene Amazon has is to promote recent releases over the earlier ones. So with the same title and author, a newly published version would get trumpeted up by Amazon and the other books would languish.
This is the point: there is consistent demand for perennially selling books. Not a huge amount, but consistent.
Enough that scammers would set up these bulk systems of simply republishing PD books under a new business name with different covers (all mass produced as well) and so grab the top income spot for 30 days. Then another “company” would come in and take the crown immediately after. Boom and bust, rinse, repeat.
Recently, Amazon has not allowed aggregators to publish PD, and is apparently cracking down on individuals as well. All because they have been burnt by the PD scammers. If there is something good out there, figure the Get Rich Quick guys will wreck it.
Amazon is shooting their foot on this to protect their backside – the one with the big “Kick Me” target stencilled on it.
(Just like they remove rankings and reviews from Kindle Unlimited books because some scammer runs ads on their books to make them look like they are scamming – and the victim’s accounts get cancelled. Their personal accounts, not the scammers. It costs the scammers little, since their established bot networks are already doing all the “reads” and “buys”. They just turn a part of their bot networks over to falsely inflate their competitor’s page reads. Amazon shoots the victim, and leaves the scammers alone.)
PD is just another area where Amazon would prefer to give up the small and steady profits from PD in order to preserve their larger profits. GooglePlay shut down their publishing program, other than through aggregators, who are then not allowed to send PD to them. Because criminals were gaming their system also, even ripping off original fiction other people were writing.
Where Income Can Be Made from PD Books
Everywhere but Amazon and GooglePlay.
The broad overview is from fiction, where the wide authors of original texts are finding (via anecdotal surveys) that they make 50% of their income from Amazon and the rest from everywhere else.
Wider than this, authors with courses and speaking gigs find that the ebook (and print/audio cousins) are almost loss leaders. Two people I chased down on this both said that courses built from their non-fiction book material made 100X more income than their books did.
In original fiction, most people are surprised how much more income they can make by adding print and audio versions out as well. Because the conventional wisdom has taught them that “cheap ebooks in volume can make their income all by themselves.”
In non-fiction, Leanpub has seen that their technical non-fiction books were never sold at less than $5 and so now require that to be the lowest price you can offer on their self-publishing platform. Most non-fiction is higher priced on Amazon as well. Because the market really expects that as a matter of quality. You’d never respect a .99 book to be worth anything, as it’s a throwaway. (And there is a market of simply publishing .99 ebooks as a lead magnet to get people to opt-in and give you their mailing address after they come to your site. Suckers are born every day and the ethically-poor will always be with us.)
What Readers Want
As covered, there is consistent demand for perennially-selling books. Because they were written well.
Then why don’t people simply get them from Gutenburg.org and free ebook sites like Internet Archives?
Well, they do, actually, in large numbers daily.
But you also get Gutenberg’s non-existent covers and poor descriptions, plus pages of licensing. On Internet Archives, you get machine OCR versions which have numerous typos.
Books sell by their cover, and by their description. (Reviews only really count on Amazon.) And people would rather be invited into a book instead of having to slog their way through a bunch of licenses, and added front matter. People would also rather not have to struggle over typos and missing text.
Quality books well presented are the bestselling versions. Feedbooks.com and ManyBooks.net are somewhere in between this. They don’t have the huge variety as Gutenberg and Internet Archives do, but they take the proofed copy from Gutenberg and work up some decent covers, often getting the description from Wikipedia (better than nothing, and usually better than the PD found on Amazon KDP.)
Where Your PD Still Sells on Amazon KDP
Mostly non-fiction paperbacks. And audiobooks. Because those take substantially more investment. So there is less competition. In paperbacks, Print on Demand (POD) is the low-cost answer. You upload a digital version and they print it out for people to buy. These are like ebooks as they never go out of print. But you start seriously competing with the short-press-run operations at about 200-250 pages. Above that page count and offset press will produce a cheaper book.
Now again we are ignoring CreateSpace when we talk about POD. While not as bad as KDP Trolls, they can still cancel your account with no warning for something that threatens their operation. Even when its their fault. Because they are owned and in bed with Amazon, their paperbacks sell more cheaply than anyone outside Amazon. And their books are then featured more than other paperbacks from outside that ecosystem. Meaning: they can be gamed like anything else on Amazon. And are, frequently. When they are gamed, you lose (not the gamer.)
CreateSpace is useless for distribution outside Amazon itself, as they 1) don’t allow returns – you’re stuck with what you buy, and 2) independent bookstores don’t want to stock Amazon imprints as they are the competition.
Lulu.com is the simplest and lowest cost alternative. IngramSpark is often touted, but they charge per book and for every revision. And alll POD publishers beyond that get even more expensive. Period. Lulu is free to publish. Always have been.
That figure on the 200/250 page rule takes into account that both you and the offset print companies have to pay for set up fees and the 55% raise in price to allow the book outlets to discount. You still get your same royalty amount (except in certain Amazon POD publishing arrangements) but you whenever you see Amazon touting a “50%” off discount, you know it’s being a loss-leader for them.
PD still sells on Amazon KDP if it’s in a genre/category where people still buy paperbacks. You aren’t going through Amazon and they can’t cancel your account if they don’t like the book.
The only study on print sales I’ve ever found on this was from K-Lytics. Alex Newton did a study of print book sales on Amazon and found out that (surprise) Amazon pushes their ebook bestsellers when you are there to find paperbacks. In fact, some print genres/categories almost only have ebooks in them (Romance, Gay/Lesbian.)
Mostly, the K-lytics summary came down to one screen:
Rolling down the list (and these are only the top 100 of the bestseller lists, not all categories) you can see that the bulk of these are non-fiction categories.
Overall, including the rest of the universe outside Amazon, print books sell over twice as much (something like a 70/30 ratio.)
You have to go to Author Earnings to see accurate statistics for print book sales. (Because traditional publishers only see their own small share of the total pie, and rely on Nielsen Book Scan, which doesn’t get everything.) In that presentation, you’ll see several slides that back up the graphic above, just not in specific categories.
POD publishing (through Lulu) is low risk as brick-and-mortar bookstores can order your books simply, returning non-sellers.
There is a huge discussion about making print books into a business. You’d have to find books that can effectively compete for the limited space they have, and then pitch those book to the distributors and to indie bookstores themselves. If you’re in the bookselling world as a business and want to get huge sales, that’s your ticket. (Or get someone to do it for you so you can get back to simply writing your stories – why ebooks are so popular.)
The rest of this article is on how to set up a simple PD publishing business and fulfill the highest demand with only online marketing efforts (as opposed to calling libraries and individual book stores to push your books.)
Look over the graphic above and you’ll see where you need to start discovering your books to re-publish. Lots of homework and best-guessing is ahead…
What’s a Content Publishing Business and Why You Should Start One
In order to deliver good content (ebooks) to people who want it, you’re going to need a back end. It’s called a business.
The handbook for this is Content Inc. by Joe Pulizzi.
You need a mailing list, and a site to send people to. We’ve covered this before in the early weekly reports of The Great Fiction Writing Challenge. (And in several books on the subject.)
The recent changes in Books2Read.com (B2R) – by the brilliant people at Draft2Digital.com – enable you to have author pages for every author and book pages for every book. Even if you didn’t publish it, or author it. I covered this in a recent post.
The hole in this is that B2R only works for ebooks, not print versions. (However you can generate generic search links for your print books for Amazon and other online print outlets, using their ISBN. Use a spreadsheet and scrape the text-link results. Try this online generator.)
If you have a bunch of PD books that would help your other non-fiction (or even fiction) books sell better, then you can set up Instafreebie giveaways to get your subscribers. These then send to B2R (you actually want to cross-link them with each other.) While I don’t see anyone doing this, it seems like a simple approach.
- Get your books published through PublishDrive and StreetLib so they show up everywhere. (Again, we are skipping Amazon and their KDP-Trolls.) Also publish them as print books on Lulu, same beautiful cover and engaging description.
- Set up a site where you can sell these books directly (with big discounts on Lulu, and 90% royalties through Gumroad.) Set this up as a no-charge membership to get additional opt-ins, as well as adding perceived value. Blog regularly so search engines attract traffic (hopefully) your way as well.
- Set up Instafreebie giveaways, both individual books and as part of your own group giveaways so people can get these books, and more like them. In addition to this, you can give them away for reviews (not that you can’t find tons of reviews for these, or that you even need to worry about reviews outside the Amazon walled garden.) The important part is that you are giving away welcome classics in high-quality versions. All to get more subscribers.
- Because you have a book page with B2R, the other titles by this PD author are also listed there. Have a landing page on your own site just for that author, which the B2R links for those author/titles, as well as your Lulu and Gumroad links. In the back of your book, you are able to put your own site’s links – which point to that landing page.
- The book you put up on Instafreebie as a giveaway has direct B2R links in it.
What will happen is that when they get the giveaway (digital) they will visit the other B2R links and possibly go to buy the print edition through their preferred online book outlet.
You’ll often also get their email and can tell them about your specials and latest releases.
Another way to get additional traffic is to record the descriptions and drop each into its own podcast episode. Set these up to come out once a week with a “review” of a different book each week. The show notes have the books B2R link as well as your Gumroad and Lulu links. Ads are run as part of the podcast to send people to your site to get more information. Produce 50 titles into these podcasts and then re-schedule those podcasts to run for the next year. Then start on another 50 books.
This is a project I’d like to try, since fiction PD books have high demand. 50 top Classic Romances, 50 top Classic Detective-Mysteries, 50 Classic Fantasy/Science Fiction books, etc. Other than re-scheduling the podcasts episodes, there is little work to do with this. After a few years, you have a substantial online bookstore with perennial-selling PD classics.
Of course, the show notes also have links where they can download the Librivox audio versions, and other data you can find on each book (plot summaries, character analysis, movie versions, mash-ups, etc.)
You’re adding value to every book as you offer it. The better you do this, the more of a resource you become. And your income rises.
Again, this is where you are re-publishing PD to supplement your other main interests. For example, right now I am studying short stories as a means of improving my craft as a writer. I re-published a sizeable set of short stories (example: Jack London‘s) and could simply extend this model out to all the authors and where to find their books. Making podcasts available would extend the idea of studying classics to improve your own craft. This is probably the model I’ll use for the subsequent years of The Great Fiction Writing Challenge. (You can probably hear my wheels turning from where you are reading this…)
On a broader scope, turning non-fiction books into courses (such as Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande) is also feasible. In some cases, you could split the book up into a podcast series, which would then pitch the book and the course it the podcast ads. Similarly, you could have a string of books by a non-fiction author where they are in the public domain (Napoleon Hill, for instance, had many more books than Think and Grow Rich and the majority are PD.) I have a series of classic books on copywriting that would work well both as courses and podcasts. Having those books recorded is an investment, but give you the raw material for all other uses.
In non-fiction, these books are supplemental to your main approach. As perennial-sellers, they actually give your own books more authority, particularly where you quote those books. In reading non-fiction books, look for where they reference another book. Often these, if available at all, are in the public domain as well.
Over to You
There’s the model and where you can take PD publishing from this point.
You need to run your publishing as a business. The days of slapping a ton of PD books up on Amazon are over. But I’ve listed the alternatives for you up above.
Amazon actually did us a favor. By being forced out of their walled garden, we can now learn just how we can grow our publishing into a powerhouse that lives independent of their foibles (and internal weaknesses.) When Amazon ultimately goes bust, it won’t affect you. Probably will increase your sales, actually.
This will take some work. But if you read this over carefully (along with the other published books and articles on this site) you’ll be able to get a nice residual passive income flow that only builds as you add more books to it.
Have fun with this…
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Also published on Medium.