Last Updated on December 2, 2023 by Ava
How to publish public domain books on Amazon is one of the most popular pages on my entire website. It was long overdue for an update. I’ve removed the boring back story, so all you get here is the information you’re looking for. Thanks for stopping by.
I’ve seen marketers who push publishing from the public domain as a money-making method, and I want to be clear that is not what this post is about. Let’s start off with caution.
Problems with Publishing From the Public Domain
KDP is notorious for its inconsistencies, and I’ve seen more than one author get their account whacked for lesser offenses than dabbling with the public domain.
The simple truth is that you could lose your KDP account if you get a particularly pious associate who thinks you’ve done something wrong.
KDP bans are irrevocable.
Yes, it’s harsh, but Amazon has made a blatant decision to not waste their employee resources on arguing copyright. The bottom line is if you get a copyright complaint on your books, that book gets blocked…end of story.
If you do so repeatedly, you could get banned. I think the ban is an IP ban, so there are loopholes for creating a new account, but if Amazon finds you, they will ban you again even if you have not repeated the previous offense.
These are the risks you should understand as a self-publisher.
If you get thumped with a copyright dispute that goes to court, you could be charged with infringement like Moppet Books. They decided to create picture books for kids based on classics from Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, and more. They ended up with 9 counts of copyright infringement to be exact.
Publishing from the public domain has been promoted as a money-making scheme, and it’s been done over and over by companies with far better marketing platforms than you or I. To go into this thinking of it as a get-rich-quick scheme is the wrong mindset.
Let me put it in perspective for you. When Amazon launched Kindle in 2008, they imported tens of thousands of books from the public domain to be available for free on their platform. This was one of their key marketing strategies, and it worked!
There is NOTHING new under the sun, my friends.
Also, public domain books have lower royalty percentages by default. Amazon will only give you 35% royalty, Kobo is even less at 20%, and Apple comes in at the absolute bottom with only 9%.
There’s no real money in the public domain. It’s already been squeezed dry. So we should only consider publishing in the public domain as a passion project in reality.
What You Will Need to Publish Books from the Public Domain
You are going to need a particular set of skills and software to accomplish this feat or the means to hire someone who already has them. Here’s a non-comprehensive list:
- A KDP account so you can publish!
- A book selected from the public domain and information about that book’s history
- An editable file format of that work or the software to convert it if you can’t get an editable file
- Book formatting skills or the means to hire someone who has them
- Low expectations
My Experience with Publishing from the Public Domain
I chose to publish The University of Hard Knocks by Ralph Parlette. It’s a little-known classic that was included among the aforementioned works that Amazon published for Kindle as a free download. That’s how I discovered it after I got my first Kindle in 2010.
The book resonated with me, and I’ve read it 3 times and kept quotes from it. I did an episode of my podcast on it accompanied by a huge write-up if you’re interested. There are a couple of links at the bottom where you can grab it free.
I went on to publish a few other public domain works and you can view that work here – https://liberatedlit.com.
So how much did I make?
I’ve made exactly next to nothing publishing works from the public domain.
It’s important to note here that my efforts have included very little in the way of marketing. If you are gifted at marketing and have the time and money to throw at it, I’m sure these books could have performed much better than they have.
Selecting a Public Domain Work for Republishing
Depending upon where you get your public domain text from, you’ll most likely be working with a book that was scanned from an original hard copy.
In some cases, you will need software that can turn a PDF into a text or Word document. There are both free and paid options available online. These are not infallible. You will probably end up with a file that has some unknown characters in it. I can attest that it will be a mess!
Have a quick look on Amazon. If the book has already been republished by others and they are garnering sales and good reviews, choose a different book. If Amazon themselves has published the book, the readability will probably be subpar.
I got an eBook of The University of Hard Knocks and later purchased a hard copy someone else has republished.
Both versions of were not the most reader-friendly formats. The paperback had page numbers on the INSIDE of the left pages! I knew I could do better, and more importantly, I could give this work the stellar look it deserved.
I felt that I had something to offer here and an opportunity to add value to the book.
So, based on my passion for the book and my ability to produce a better product, I selected The University of Hard Knocks to publish from the public domain.
I hope you will use similar criteria in your selection.
Where to Find Public Domain Books to Publish on Amazon
There are resources galore online. You will never run out of options. Here is the most comprehensive list I can give you.
|Library of Congress
You’ll have to a little extra work to verify that books you find here are actually in the public domain.
- Enormous list of public domain resources – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_resources
- Public Domain works in audio format – https://librivox.org/ I like to offer this as a free download inside my public domain print versions and eBooks if it’s available. You might also consider reading a work as a volunteer if you want to hone your narrating skills.
- Digital Public Library of America – https://dp.la/
- Public Domain audiobooks from Europe – https://legamus.eu/
- The University of Pennsylvania Online Books Page – https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/
- Digital Book Index – Dig through specialized collections including from many major universities – http://www.digitalbookindex.org/about.htm
- Documenting the American South – https://docsouth.unc.edu/index.html
- Classic Chinese Literature – http://zhongwen.com/gudian.htm
- Wulne Lektury – Polish – https://wolnelektury.pl/
- Projekti Lönnrot – Finnish and Swedish – http://www.lonnrot.net/
When Do New Public Domain Works Drop?
If you want to be proactive, you can always jump on works when they first enter the public domain. On January 1st of each year, new works enter the public domain.
You will have to be diligent in searching the web for websites that announce what has entered the public domain after the first of the year as there is no centralized place to automatically see everything that’s been released.
NOTE: Be sure and check in your country. What’s public domain for you may not be in other areas. Copyrights are based on the country of origin. Don’t get in trouble because you didn’t do your due diligence.
Amazon’s Requirements for Publishing Public Domain Works
When I decided to do this, I researched how to publish the work on Amazon to find their requirements are pretty short and simple. In order to publish a public domain work, you must differentiate it in one or more of the following 3 ways:
- Annotate it
- Translate it
- Illustrate it
I went with the path of least resistance and decided to annotate The University of Hard Knocks.
I want to mention here that if you’re a self-publisher with the ability to translate or illustrate public domain works, then you absolutely should!
By translating or illustrating the work, you are enhancing the work and expanding its reach. That’s valuable!
I simply added some questions and activities to the end of each chapter to transform my version of The University of Hard Knocks into a workbook. This allows readers to skip my annotations or put them to good use. Either way, I’ve added value to the work by formatting it properly.
The Self-Publishing Process for Public Domain Works
The self-publishing process for public domain works is pretty much the same as what you would go through to self-publish your own work except you must acknowledge the work as coming from the public domain in KDP.
You won’t be able to participate in options like KDP Select and the Lending Library because the work is in the public domain.
Once you submit the book, you will most likely be contacted by KDP to verify some information about the work you are attempting to republish. I had to provide:
- The birth year of the author
- The death year of the author
- The print date of the First Edition
The review period was also significantly longer than usual. Normally, I’m given a 12-hour period in which my book will go live. With the public domain, it was 36 hours instead.
Once I provided the requested information, I had ZERO problems publishing the public domain work on Amazon in both ebook and paperback formats. Links will be in the show notes.
Public Domain Works on Other Platforms
Usually, when I publish books, I start out on Amazon and take advantage of KDP Select for the first 90 days. KDP Select allows you to run a couple promotions like a 5-day free promo and countdown deal. In exchange for that, you must let Amazon have exclusivity for 90 days.
After that, I usually opt out of KDP Select and publish to other booksellers via Draft2Digital. In the case of public domain works, I’m unable to do that because Draft2Digital doesn’t currently distribute books in the public domain.
If you’re interested in expanding your public domain work to a wider distribution, then PublishDrive is an option. Unlike Draft2Digital, they will consider distributing public domain works and their rules for doing so are pretty much the same as Amazon’s.
Benefits of Publishing Public Domain Books
The most obvious benefit is that you didn’t have to write the book.
Writing books is a process that can take a lot of time and effort. When you publish works from the public domain, you are able to circumnavigate that process.
Whether you have annotated, translated, or illustrated the book in order to differentiate it, you’ve still put in the work.
In my case, I was able to produce what I feel is a better product, and I put in the work to do that. The direct result and benefit of that work is being able to turn a profit from it through self-publishing. However, that was not my main objective.
My main objective and benefit for publishing a public domain work was furthering the reach and quality of a book that has touched my life in a positive way.
Public domain books are classics for a reason. They enhance any bookshelf, and if you truly can add to a work in a meaningful way, then you absolutely deserve to reap the benefits of publishing from the public domain.
So, that’s how to publish public domain books on Amazon. I’ve attempted to cover everything you need to know. If you have questions, leave a comment or contact me.
If you’re are new to book formatting and looking to hone your skills, this is a great way to get started. You can build and show your portfolio without disclosing sensitive client work.
I definitely encourage you to explore the public domain. There is much knowledge to be gleaned from the history it holds. It can make you a better and more well-rounded author.