We all know it’s wrong to plagiarize someone else’s work. Ever since High School English, we’ve been taught that copying is bad and in professional cases can lead to a cease-and-desist letter if you’re lucky, and a lawsuit if you’re not.
But what if I told you there’s a whole wealth of material out there that you can use, you won’t get sued, you won’t have to pay anything, and you can make money doing it. This allows you to diversify your income so you can focus on writing more books.
I’m talking about public domain content. Now, doing this well takes a lot more than just selecting public domain works and publishing. There are guidelines to follow, and certain restrictions to understand.
Luckily, I've got all that covered in this article.
- What is considered public domain in the United States and throughout the world
- Amazon’s policies for publishing public domain content
- A step-by-step process for publishing public domain books
Table of contents
- What is a Public Domain Book?
- Is it Legal to Make Money from Public Domain Books?
- Amazon’s Restrictions on Public Domain Publishing
- Step 1: Finding Public Domain Material
- Step 2: Differentiate to Add Value
- Step 3: Format Using Atticus
- Step 4: Develop Your Cover
- Step 5: Launch Your Public Domain Book
Disclaimer: Kindlepreneur is not a legal entity and cannot give legal advice. Before publishing a public domain title, make sure to do your research to make sure it is public domain, or consult a lawyer. Also as a heads up, some of the links in this article are affiliate links, but this costs you nothing extra and every bit of money we make from that goes into the coffee fund.
What is a Public Domain Book?
A public domain book is a book that has no copyright. It was either created without a copyright license, or the copyright has expired. Most countries have a copyright that protects the book for 70 years following the death of the authors.
When a book no longer has a copyright, it can be copied, sold, adapted, etc. by anyone who so chooses.
Copyright law can be complicated, and it varies from one country to another. That said, copyright law for written content tends to follow a few easy-to-remember rules.
Copyright in the U.S.
Originally, copyright in the U.S. lasted for 28 years after the work was written, and an author had the opportunity to renew that copyright for another 28 years.
In 1978, that law was amended to 75 years or the life of the author plus 50 years. In 1998 this was further extended to 95 years after publication or the life of the author plus 70 years.
Basically, if I die tomorrow, you’ll be able to use my books in 2091.
What this means is that anything published 95 years ago is fair game. As of this writing, that means anything published before January 1, 1926 is public domain in the United States. That date shifts at the beginning of every year.
There are some books published after 1925 that are also in the public domain, if the publishers did not extend the copyright after the initial 28 year period. But proof of the public domain status of these books is sometimes hard to find, and you will need it in order to publish on a platform like Amazon.
Every country has their own rules for the expiration of copyright, and you’ll want to check the individual copyright laws before publishing in any country.
That said, most countries go by the “life plus 70 years” rule.
But here’s where it gets complicated. What happens when your book is public domain in one country and not another?
This can happen if you have an author who published a work before 1926, but died after 1951. In that case, the copyright would extend for most countries until after 70 years past the author’s death, but not in the United States if the work was published before 1926.
In short, you need to do your research. Not all books will be publishable in all countries.
Is it Legal to Make Money from Public Domain Books?
Once a book has entered public domain status, you can do anything you want with it. You can:
Make derivative works: These are works you produce that are inspired or derived from public domain content. This is the equivalent of Disney taking fairy tales, turning them into animated films, and running them through their merchandise machine. Derivative works are great because you can copyright what you create. So while Pride and Prejudice is public domain, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not.
Copy the language directly: When something is public domain, you can quote from and use the language in whatever way you choose.
Sell your own copies: You can even take the entire public domain book, make copies and sell it as is, no questions asked.
There are basically no restrictions when it comes to your use of fully public domain material.
Note: while we’re speaking specifically about books and published material here, the same is generally true of art, music, and other media as well.
Amazon’s Restrictions on Public Domain Publishing
Even though you can legally do anything you want with public domain books, Amazon does have some additional restrictions for those who wish to publish these books online using Kindle Direct Publishing.
Amazon’s policy officially states:
“To provide a better customer experience, we don't publish undifferentiated versions of public domain titles if a free version is available in our store. Differentiated works are unique.”
This means that for any public domain work that is freely available in the Amazon store or online (which is a sizeable amount of content), then you can’t simply copy and paste that into a Word document and expect to sell it on the Kindle store.
Note: keep in mind that this is only true of the Kindle store. If you publish a paperback book using KDP Print, that does not have the same restrictions. However, you will still need to prove that the book is in the public domain.
So how do we “differentiate” enough to be considered unique? Amazon provides three different options.
- Translations: If you are proficient enough in a second language to translate a book from one language to another, that will qualify as a unique work. This is perhaps the most difficult on the list, as a simple Google Translate will not do. You need to actually know the two languages you’re using, and a full translation can sometimes be harder than writing the book in the first place.
- Annotations: These can be anything from chapter summaries, to historical background, to an author’s biography, to explanations of unfamiliar words, usually a mixture of all these things. Think of adding your own CliffNotes to the text. For some, this will be the easiest way to differentiate.
- Illustrations: If you’re an artist, all you have to do is add ten original illustrations to the text to be considered unique. These must be your own work and cannot be copied from other public domain sources.
When you upload a book to KDP, keep in mind that you will want to include its unique qualifier in the title. Example: “Pride and Prejudice [Illustrated]”
There are a number of techniques that Amazon specifically doesn’t consider unique. These include:
- A linked table of contents
- Formatting improvements
- Sales rank
- Freely available Internet content
Collections are one popular way of presenting public domain content in order to add value to the reader. However, while it might be nice to be able to buy the complete works of Jane Austen, doing so will not be considered “unique” in Amazon’s eyes.
Can You Copyright Differentiated Public Domain Books?
The short answer to this is yes and no.
You can copyright any unique contributions to your specific version of public domain content. For example, you can copyright any original illustrations that you created for the story.
However, you cannot copyright anything that was previously in the public domain. In the opening of your copy, you might want to include a copyright disclaimer such as:
“Pride and Prejudice is in the public domain. All original additions, including illustrations and chapter summaries, are copyright 2021….”
Step 1: Finding Public Domain Material
So you’ve finally decided you want to try your hand at publishing your own public domain books, maybe because you think you can do better than a lot of other publishers out there, or because you simply want to make them your own.
But where do you even find something to publish?
There are a number of terrific resources out there that provide public domain content. Consider the following:
- Project Gutenberg: This site has over 60,000 public domain ebooks. And it is by far the best resource on this list. If you can't find the public domain title here, there is a much lesser chance of finding it elsewhere, with a few exceptions. It's also where I get most of my public domain books.
- Archive.org: Another great resource with tens of thousands of public domain books, as well as a lot of other material, including magazine scans, films, audio, and more. This is where I have gotten a lot of things like original scans of a book or magazine.
- Sacred Texts: This is a site that specializes in religious works of a wide variety of religions. It's one of the best resources for public domain works that are religiously based.
- LibriVox: This isn't for ebooks or print, but does contain audiobooks of a lot of classic public domain books. While you can't go and upload these to ACX, you can include them as bonus material on your website, or in other creative ways.
- Authorama: Authorama is a site that focuses on the greatest authors throughout history. It's a good place to get the classics.
- Classic Literature Library: This site partners with Project Gutenberg but is notable for having great collections of public domain works, particularly by the more popular authors.
- Google Search: You’re likely to find what you’re looking for with the above resources, but if not, there are many other, sometimes genre specific, resources that are a Google search away. To do this well, I recommend searching for the work you're looking for, then adding something like “full text” or “PDF” to the end of your search. If you don't see it come up anywhere, then it likely doesn't exist in a digitized form. But don't necessarily let that stop you. If there's demand for the work, you could have it transcribed and make it available yourself!
But how do you even know what you want to publish in the first place? There are 60K publishable works on Project Gutenberg alone, and none of us can possibly publish it all.
Chances are you probably already have something you’re interested in. Start there. Sometimes asking yourself what you’d like to see is the best way to go. Because if it’s something you would be interested in, chances are someone else feels the same way.
You can also look at upcoming films based on public domain books to see what might be popular in the future.
Pro Tip: In my experience, publishing public domain books that are already very popular often result in lower sales because people can get it from more established sources. On the flip side, publishing something too obscure can have the same effect. Look for books that have potential audiences but not too many versions on Amazon, there’s a sweet spot to shoot for there. That said, if you provide enough value to the reader it doesn’t matter how popular the public domain book already is. You can still do it, but you will have a lot more competition.
Once you have a text in mind, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Step 2: Differentiate to Add Value
This is the part where you make your freely available book unique. Not only is this required by Amazon, but it’s a good idea for you. Since everyone is capable of publishing the same book, the differentiation you add is what will set it apart.
As mentioned above, you have to differentiate either by translating, annotating, or illustrating the public domain title.
We recommend either annotating or illustration the work. But here are a few specific ideas to do so:
- Create a “Modern Text” translation with more contemporary language
- Add a glossary of terms to the end of the book
- Provide chapter summaries at the beginning or end of each chapter
- Create footnotes with explanations of difficult to understand words or phrases
- Hire someone on Fiverr to create 10 simple (but professional) illustrations
This is just a list of ideas. Just remember that is must align with Amazon's guidelines to be translated, annotated, or illustrated to qualify.
Collections are another great way to add value. Even though a collection alone will not be considered unique by Amazon, it’s still a great way to entice readers. Add some annotations or illustrations and you’ve got a winner.
Note: remember that you want to add value for the reader. While slapping together some half-hearted summaries or illustrations that look like a child drew them is technically within Amazon’s terms, they will likely lead to bad reviews.
Step 3: Format Using Atticus
Most public domain texts that you can get online will be formatted for HTML or .txt, which means they look horrible if converted to an ebook or PDF. A little formatting is necessary.
There are a lot of formatting tools out there, but none make this process easier than Atticus.
The affordable package comes with every tool you need for beautiful public domain books, including:
- Print formatting that takes care of all the margins, trim sizes, gutter layout, and more
- A ton of chapter header themes to make your book look professional and stand out from the crowd
- A custom chapter header theme builder to make it 100% your own
- An easy way to copy and paste your public domain text into a variety of chapter elements
- All for the price of $147, which is more than $100 less (and with more features) than the leading alternative, Vellum
Here is how you format a public domain book in Atticus:
- Create a new book
- Upload your public domain text (and images if applicable), chapter by chapter
- Add any front or back matter that you want to personalize it (recommended)
- Add your differentiated material such as footnotes, annotations, or illustrations
- Select your chapter theme and style using the pre-made themes or custom theme builder
- Export your ebook or print PDF
It's a simple and easy process, and can take less than 30 minutes for your standard public domain book.
Atticus is the all-purpose solution for people who want to format a lot of public domain books in a quick and efficient way. And Atticus is the only one that provides all the solutions authors need on all platforms, including Windows, Mac, and Chromebooks.
Step 4: Develop Your Cover
A cover is another area where you can really set your book apart from the rest.
In this, we recommend taking the same approach as you would any book: understand the genre and design accordingly.
What this grants is the opportunity to take an old book and “update” it from a design perspective for modern audiences.
Where to Get a Cover
If you have design skills, you can do this yourself. But if not, we recommend hiring someone to create your cover.
Since too many covers can hurt your wallet, one of the strategies we recommend for cutting down on the expense is to create a templated cover.
With a template and minimal skills in Photoshop, Canva, or similar software, all you need do is swap out a stock photo or two and change the title. A template has the added benefit of branding each of the public domain texts you want to sell, giving you a consistent look.
This won’t work all the time. Certain genres will require different looks. I wouldn’t use the same template for Pride and Prejudice as I would for Frankenstein, for example. But this should give you a general idea of what to look for. Covers don’t have to break the bank in order to be quality.
Some great places to get covers include:
See our Cover Design section for more information on how to create a quality cover.
Step 5: Launch Your Public Domain Book
Once you have your book, you’ve differentiated it, formatted it, and added a sweet cover, you’re ready to publish.
The publishing process is virtually identical to publishing a regular book on KDP, with one small exception. During the process, you’ll see this come up:
Select “This is a public domain work” and then proceed normally from there. See our Book Publishing area for more on this process.
Pro Tip: when selecting your price, you’ll notice that only the 35% royalty option is available. That’s because Amazon doesn’t provide the 70% option for public domain books. That is why we recommend pricing at $.99 in order to maximize the number of sales and provide the most value to the reader. Chances are most of the competition will be doing the same.
Once your book is submitted, you will likely receive an email from Amazon asking you for proof that your book is in the public domain. This will typically require the author and/or translator’s name and date of death. For very old works (aka older than 1900) this is usually not an issue, but be careful of newer translations, authors that died less than 70 years ago, or rare instances where the author’s date of death is unknown. While you still have a chance of publishing these texts if they are truly in the public domain, it’s possibly you might have some back and forth with Amazon until they’re convinced.
In some instances, you may need to adjust small details of your release, as Amazon takes the legality of what they publish very seriously.
Case Study: Letters to Cicero
In preparation for the launch of Atticus, we actually took a public domain text, formatted, and made it live on Amazon. And guess what? With no marketing whatsoever, the text already had several sales within just a few days of the publication date. Within a few more months it had already recouped the cost of Atticus, and that's just with 3 books and no marketing. Imagine what would happen if you had a whole library of public domain books?
If you're worried about the price, don't be. Not only is Atticus nearly half the price of Vellum, but you can easily make the money back by publishing a few public domain books using Atticus.
As someone who has published a handful of public domain titles (formatted in Atticus), I can tell you that I easily make the price of Atticus back monthly with my own library of public domain books. In my case, and in the case of Cicero's books that we published, it took zero marketing to make those sales.
That could be you.
The Bottom Line: Publishing Public Domain Content
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a classic book in possession of a good audience, must be in want of a publisher.-See what I did there?
For many authors, publishing public domain content is yet another way to diversify income and create something fun on the side.
While public domain publishing is unlikely to provide you with enough cash to retire, it is true that there are literally tens of thousands of books you could publish. There is still some work involved in preparing these texts for publishing, but the hardest step (that of writing the actual book) has already been done.
And even if you don't make a ton of cash from this, there's a good chance you might make enough to pay back what you spent on Atticus, and maybe even some book covers!