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Passive Income (S.W.I.S.S. Dollars), Public Domain Books, and the Kindle

I am the father of four beautiful daughters. Our decision to homeschool means we are a one-income family. Therefore, I'm always on the lookout for income-earning opportunities which:

  • Are enjoyable
  • Can be done on my own schedule (we need time for reading and tea parties!)
  • Allow me to get paid multiple times for working once

You often hear the term "passive income." Dan Miller uses the phrase "SWISS Dollars" -- Sales While I Sleep Soundly.

In the past few months, I've started devoting a few hours each week to formatting public domain titles and making them available in the Amazon Kindle Store. I literally wake up each day to new sales and earnings without additional work. It's not "retire to an island" money, but it's certainly "this is making a difference in our budget" money.

This blog post is my first attempt to share what I'm doing. I'll provide a basic outline of the process, a few of the benefits and drawbacks, and a couple examples of the work I've done and income I'm earning.

Selling Public Domain Content -- Is That Even Legal?

Yes, it is legal. Copyright laws can be a bit confusing, and they vary from country to country. But here are the basic guidelines:

  • Books published in the US prior to 1923 are all in the public domain
  • Many books published in or after 1923 entered the public domain when their copyrights weren't renewed, but determining a book's copyright status can be a little complicated
  • A public domain book can be freely used, formatted, reprinted, and sold

Amazon's system for allowing individuals to publish works for the Kindle Store is called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP (http://kdp.amazon.com). In addition to allowing authors to publish their own works, KDP also allows and encourages the publishing of public domain works.

There are two royalty models for the Kindle Store. Authors can earn either 35% or 70% of a book's sale price, based on a few factors. However, public domain works only qualify for the 35% model. The seller can price a public domain book anywhere from $.99 to $200 and will earn 35% of each sale.

There are a few restrictions. For example, if a free version of a title already exists in Amazon's Kindle Store, you can't create a paid version without adding some type of differentiating value. You could add an author biography, annotations, an introduction with further research about the author or book, or original illustrations from the work.

From Public Domain to the Kindle Store

Now, a quick outline of the process.

Selecting a book - There are tens of thousands of books in the public domain. There are a lot to choose from, but many already have Kindle versions. Much of the "art" of this process is in selecting books that have a "demand." I've focused on books that I've personally enjoyed or that I have a real interest in. See my examples below.

Finding a source - There are dozens of sites on the Internet that feature the complete texts of public domain books. Typically, a quick Google search of a book's title along with the words "full text" will show you if there's a text available. One of the best sources is Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org).

Formatting the book - I review the book, checking for any major formatting errors. I also make sure each chapter heading is properly marked as a heading. I then use free tools to generate a linked table of contents.

Creating a cover - This may be my favorite part. In the Kindle store, you need a single image to serve as the front cover of your book. I'm a "rookie" graphic designer by professional standards but still love creating a cover. I create a cover that is eye-catching, following some simple rules for helping the cover succeed on Amazon.

Converting to Kindle formatting - Amazon provides a free tool called the Kindle Generator that converts the formatted text, table of contents, and cover into a completed book file (Amazon uses the .mobi file format).

Post to Amazon - Finally, I post the work to Amazon, complete with the book's cover image, author information, a well-written description, search keywords, and pricing information. Amazon typically makes the book available for sale with 24-48 hours.

Benefits and Drawbacks

I greatly enjoy this type of work and have found many benefits. It allows me to discover new books and authors that I wouldn't have previously known about. I also love the marketing and design practice it provides. The entire process helps me to think about the type of books people are looking for and how best to present and market them in the Kindle Store.

I have written and published one book of my own and plan to write more in the future. I see this "hobby" as helping to sharpen my skills.

There are of course some potential drawbacks. The process can be a bit technical, although with a little practice, a person without much technical expertise can be producing Kindle versions. Also, the income isn't guaranteed. It's providing good income right now, but changes by competing books or new Amazon policies could change things in a hurry.

Income and Examples

Finally, a little information about the income I've been able to generate. As I stated, I've been doing this as a hobby in my spare time for the past 2-3 months. I currently have just 6 public domain titles in the Kindle Store, although a couple of those are collections which include more than one book.

In the past month, I've had a couple of weeks where my "passive" income from the sales of those 6 books has exceeded $100. I currently have plans for a few more books in the coming weeks. I have the goal of getting my income from public domain books to the level that it can pay our mortgage within the next couple of months. Once again, for a family with four young children, this makes a big difference for us!

Finally, I'm including links to two book collections I've done, so you can get an idea of my work. Each of these collections is available for just 99 cents.

The Anne Stories - a collection of 8 Anne of Green Gables novels, p...

(I've also made an accompanying website for this collection at annebooks.com)

Charlotte Mason's Original Homeschooling Series - 6 books in one vo...

If you happen to check out the books or even purchase one, "likes" and reviews are GREATLY appreciated.

Further questions about the process? Please let me know in the comments. If there are others interested in learning more, I'd be happy to do additional follow-up posts that go into the process in greater detail.

Thanks so much for your time!

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Comment by Kristen Joyner on May 20, 2017 at 7:55pm

This is a great idea. Thank you for creating the Anne series. I suppose a spin off of this idea is to create an audio version of the book. 

Comment by Charlotte Jackson on August 14, 2015 at 5:39pm

OMG...such a timely blog...I just read a book indicating the use of public domain books as a source of income...I believe it was in Tim Ferris's 4-hour work week book...yes I would definitely like more info...for the same reasons as yours...but also to maybe reformat one and give away as a free e book with my products ...know tell me do you sell the books as the author or do you list the original author as the author...hope you understood that question...best of luck...keep us posted....

Comment by Dawn Blair on November 9, 2014 at 10:23am

Thank you, Aaron, for sharing all this wonderful information. 

I listened to the brainstorming session you did with Dan and decided to look at this further. My main question is: how much can the public domain work be edited? I love taking fiction and editing it to make the story better. So much of what I see in the public domain feels flat and really needs to be better written. Can I take a work in the public domain, edit it to make it more engaging for today's audiences, as say: story by The Author, edited by me? Or do I do something different at that point if I've made significant edits to the text.

I think of what William Goldman did with The Princess Bride (The Good Parts version). He lists himself as author, but also gives credit to S. Morgenstern who originally published the tale.

Any direction/resources would be very appreciated.

Comment by Aaron Kerr on October 25, 2014 at 6:34am

Vonna,

You do not need to create a publishing or business name. When I first published my Anne collection in the store, I just listed my name as the publisher. It wasn't until later that I decided to use the name Timeless Reads.

Aaron

Comment by Vonna Beam on October 24, 2014 at 12:01pm

Do you need a publishing label name before you can publish or can you just use your name as the publisher?

Comment by Vonna Beam on February 21, 2014 at 6:12pm

What is the name of a good and not too expensive html editor? I'm not getting the results I want in word. Thanks

Comment by Diana Hutchinson on November 25, 2013 at 1:21pm

Thanks, Aaron. I'll see what I can find out- it has been translated after 1922, so this one may be still copyrighted. 

-Diana

Comment by Aaron Kerr on November 25, 2013 at 1:14pm

Diana,

I haven't worked with foreign works yet, but here's my best understanding. Translation of a work is considered "creation" when it comes to copyright. So if the work was translated to English and then published before 1922, it is in the public domain. If it was translated and published in English after 1922, it is possibly still under copyright. I would suggest doing some further research of the translated version to determine its status. I hope that helps.

Aaron

Comment by Diana Hutchinson on November 25, 2013 at 8:43am

Hi Aaron,

Thank you so much for sharing your story! I am interested in republishing a book that was first published in the 1800's, but in a foreign country.  It has been translated and republished here in the US (and other countries) more recently. Do you know how the copyright rules apply to a book that was first published overseas?  Or is this getting way too complicated?  Any info or suggestions on where I might find further information would be appreciated. Thank you so much. -Diana

Comment by Aaron Kerr on July 21, 2013 at 6:56pm

Steve,

You are correct there is lots of competition. When I first looked at public domain publishing a couple years ago, I concluded there wasn't really a lot of space to compete. But when I revisited late last year, I started to reconsider. I believe there are still plenty of opportunities to earn good income and help readers discover new works.

When I'm working with a title that contains images, I download the images to my local computer and store them alongside the HTML text. The tool I use for automating the structure and table of contents is called ncxgen. You can Google it.

I hope this helps,

Aaron

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