How would you like to get paid for someone else’s work?
Of course, I’m not talking about taking a person’s hard-earned credit. And I certainly don’t advocate stealing of any kind. Don’t worry — this income strategy is perfectly legal.
You will have to put in some time and effort, but you can focus your attention only on topics you enjoy. Plus, you can do it from the comfort and privacy of your own home — as often as you like.
And before you know it, you’ll have a passive income stream that makes you money even while you sleep.
Public Domain Publishing
If you’re a bona fide bookworm like me, then this is the strategy for you.
It boils down to this: Works without an exclusive copyright are considered “public domain.” In some cases, the copyright may have simply expired. In others, it may have been forfeited or waived. Or that particular piece may never have been eligible for a copyright in the first place.
Whatever the case, public domain (PD) works belong to the public — which means anyone can republish them for profit.
Why not you?
Moby Dick… Frankenstein… The Wonderful Wizard of Oz… Little Women… Adventures of Huckleberry Finn… These are just a few examples of PD books up for grabs.
Royalties range from 20–35% of the purchase price, depending on where you publish. That may not sound like a lot when the average book price is between $14–18, but the more you publish, the more it adds up.
That said, although this strategy is very easy, it’s certainly more than a simple copy/paste job. In fact, most sites will only accept a PD book if it contains something that sets it apart.
Original content will help boost sales as well. Because PD books are so widely available, if you do decide to publish them, you’ll want to make your editions stand out.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
- Find books that haven’t been digitized yet — Be the first to open up classic stories to a whole new audience.
- Create your own cover — Use your artistic talent to design eye-catching cover art. Readers will acknowledge the effort and may seek out books by the same publisher (you).
- Add a glossary or footnotes — Take the time to define difficult words, add interesting historical facts or bits of trivia and translate foreign phrases. It doesn’t take much to turn an arcane novel into an easy read.
- Illustrate it — Once again, if you’ve got a flair for the creative, you could have a lot of fun drawing your favorite scenes from iconic stories.
And remember that with any changes, you’ll also have to update the table of contents to ensure it aligns with your version.
When you publish a PD book, you will have to have a copyright page to show you are the creator of this specific edition. Be sure to include “Published by [Your Name] Ⓒ 2019,” along with the copyright information for the cover and illustrations (if applicable).
Now, before you start mocking up covers or researching context, you need to make sure whatever book you want to publish is actually in the public domain.
This is where things get sliiiiiightly tricky…
Sourcing Public Domain Works
There are some general rules that will clue you in to whether a particular book is eligible. For example, currently in the U.S., books published before 1923 are considered public domain, in addition to any book published in 1923 or later if the copyright was not renewed.
In 1998, Congress passed the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which extended copyright terms for all works created after 1978 — as well as works created before 1978, provided renewal extensions were filed.
Keep in mind that copyright laws vary from country to country. The onus is on you to verify a work is considered PD in all the countries in which you intend to publish.
Another important factor to consider is whether or not something was later included in a collection of works with its own copyright. This happens a lot with things like short stories, poems, cookbooks, etc.
Copyrights can also be passed down or sold. And someone other than the original author may have renewed the copyright.
I don’t say all this to frighten you — by the by. Merely because it’s important to respect intellectual property rights.
And there are plenty of places you can check to see if a book is in the public domain, including…
- The U.S. Copyright Office — This page offers search hints to help you find what you’re looking for
- Project Gutenberg — With over 60,000 public domain works available as e-books, you can research and download titles all in one place
- Europeana — This site will give you access to millions of pieces from European museums, libraries and archives, including public domain books and free images you might use for cover art
- Feedbooks — The public domain section of this French site includes thousands of fiction and nonfiction titles in five languages
- Classic Literature Library — If you want to start with the classics, this site organizes public domain works in collections by author.
All right, so you’ve selected your title, downloaded and reformatted the text, created a stunning cover and added some interesting footnotes… How do you sell it?
More specifically, where?
Let Someone Else Do the Work, Again
An obvious answer is Amazon, which, if you remember, started out as an online bookstore. However, to avoid clogging up their site with barely differentiated reproductions, there are some rules you’ll need to follow to publish there.
Unfortunately, Google Play Books only accepts public domain books from select partners and generally avoids duplicate titles on its site.
If you choose not to go with any of these established websites, you will have to create an online sales platform and market it yourself.
It’s not impossible — and if you have the skills and the inclination, go ahead (and please tell us how you do). It’s just a lot more work — work you can avoid if you want.
One final piece of advice… If you’re in this to make some money, be strategic with the titles you choose to publish.
Is there a historic event coming up on an anniversary? An old classic now being turned into a movie? A planned celebration to commemorate an author’s death? Anything that’s “trending” in our cultural consciousness is likely to drive sales.
In addition to bringing in a paycheck for promoting someone else’s work, I hope this moneymaking opportunity gives you the chance to revisit some of your favorite stories.
Because that’s really what Unconventional Wealth is all about… making doing the things you love.
Lucille St. John
Managing editor, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. Which book would you republish first? What’s your favorite book in the public domain — or one you’d love to jump on once it clears copyrights? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucille St. John
Lucille St. John is the managing editor of Unconventional Wealth. A gentlewoman and a scholar, Lucille never received much in the way of a financial education. But what she lacks in fiscal knowledge she makes up for in taste.
She’s going to take you with her on her unconventional wealth journey — starting from...