Publishing Public Domain Books on Kindle

Is publishing public domain books something you should do? Is it worth it? By the end of this post, you will be able to make an informed decision for yourself.

For those who don’t know, books in the public domain are in the state of belonging or being available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright.

How To Tell if a Book is in the Public Domain

The date of the book and age of the author will tell you.

A book is copyrighted from the moment it is put in a fixed medium or expression for 70 years after the author’s death even if it’s not published.

New works enter the public domain every year on January 1, and currently, works from 1924 and before are in the public domain.

Where to Find Books in the Public Domain

If you happen to own a book that fits the criteria above, it is in the public domain. Most of the books we have available to us online are scanned copies of print works including most of the free classics available for Kindle on Amazon.

I will include a long list of websites where you can find and download public domain works in the resource box at the end of this post.

The Public Domain Stigma

publishing public domain books

There’s a sort of stigma surrounding public domain publishing because you are basically attempting to sell something that the people already own for free.

The truth of the matter is that these works are available to the public for us to utilize however we see fit. The original work will always be there for others to use even if we take it and make a derivative work from it.

Many individuals and companies over the years have realized the value in public domain works. Even Amazon grabbed thousands of public domain books when they released their Kindle device in 2008 to flesh out their Kindle Store. So, the stigma of using such works shouldn’t exist if you are adding value more than seeking profits.

I can tell you that publishing public domain works is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s a labor of love.

Most books in the public domain are scans of print books that have been done by volunteers over the last decade+. As one might imagine, these books aren’t always in the best format for digital reading.

To publish public domain works properly, you would need to utilize the normal Kindle publishing process with the exception of writing and editing.

You would still need to format the manuscript, create a book cover, and provide all of the metadata for the sales page.

How To Publish Public Domain Books on Amazon KDP

In order to be able to publish works from the public domain on Amazon, you must differentiate your version in one or more of the following 3 ways:

  1. Translation
  2. Annotation
  3. Illustration

Translation

We’re not talking about Google Translate here. If you’re not fluent in a second language, this probably isn’t the avenue you should take unless you are willing to invest in a translator.

An accepted translation would be unique and in a language the work doesn’t yet exist in.

Annotation

Annotation would include unique annotations such as study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies or historical context.

When I published my first public domain work, I created a workbook and included question and answer sections after each chapter of the work.

Later, I found out that annotation can be as little as a paragraph at the beginning of the book.

Illustration

If you choose to go the illustration route, then you’ll need to provide 10 or more unique illustrations that are relevant to the book.

What Doesn’t Qualify as Differentiation

While these attributes are certainly user-friendly add-ons for the digital version of these public domain works, Amazon doesn’t consider them enough to differentiate the book from its original form:

  • A clickable TOC
  • Improved formatting

While these things should certainly be included in a public domain work prepared for Kindle, they aren’t enough to set it apart from the original work.

Getting Started Publishing Public Domain Books

Once you have decided on which method(s) you want to use to differentiate your chosen public domain work, you’re ready to get started.

Most of these works are not going to be formatted. You will need skills to take scanned works and turn them into editable documents that you can then format for Kindle.

In my experience, most of the books have been scanned with an OCR scanner. OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. This means that the scanner has software to convert scanned images to text.

Needless to say, this isn’t infallible. There will be typos and weird things you will need to fix in the book. While you don’t need an editor, you do need to proofread the work to find these anomalies.

Most likely, you will end up with a mass of text to comb through and arrange in a way that makes it easy to read. 

Selecting and Formatting the Public Domain Work

Select the work you want to publish on Kindle. Some websites will have files in multiple formats available for download. Otherwise, you will need to transfer the text into a Word document by copying and pasting it.

If you’re translating, this is where you would get to work putting the manuscript into the second language. If you’re annotating, you would add in your notes as needed. Don’t go overboard. You can differentiate the text simply with a blurb as to why you are publishing the work.

For illustrations, you would need to prepare those and insert them in the manuscript.

Once you have the manuscript formatted, you can then go through the publishing process normally.

Keep in mind, you’ll need all of the regular metadata like the 7 keywords, description, and 2 BISAC categories.

Also worthy to note here, public domain works are only eligible for the 35% royalty option for Kindle eBooks, but retain the fixed 60% royalty for paperbacks.

Here’s the information on publishing public domain books directly from Amazon – https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200743940

Resources

Here’s a list of websites where you can find public domain books and more!

That’s a Wrap!

As you can see, there’s not a lot of money in the public domain.

Sure, you can make money with it, but it’s more for those of us who love books and want to see them reach the next iteration.

Scanned books are great, but getting these books into digital formats and available on e-readers like the Kindle are truly what will get them in the hands of the next generation.

That’s what books and public domain are all about!