Marketing Angles You Might Not Have Thought Of
In good times, the tendency is to specialize; in bad, to diversify. If you've been selling books exclusively and have fallen on hard times - and I'm hearing that some of you have - it's possible that you've given some thought to selling other things as well to compensate for a loss of income. Or perhaps you already are doing this. If, like me, you shop sales regularly, it's no more difficult to pick up a piece of Roseville pottery than it is a good book.
As long as you know what you're doing. And can find one. And can find it at the right price.
But this is the problem, isn't it? It takes time to acquire the knowledge necessary to buy smart in what have become increasingly competitive venues, and think about all you don't know about books! If you start learning pottery, this becomes time spent not learning books, and your book learning will necessarily suffer for it.
But diversification doesn't have to mean getting out of the books biz. There are things you can do with books that are, well, different than things you've been doing. Today I'm going to talk about several bookselling angles that might not have occurred to you.
One: Project Gutenberg
Most of us know what Project Gutenberg is - an ongoing, volunteer-supported project to convert public domain books into etexts. To date, thousands of books have been converted and are now freely accessible via download to anybody who wants them.
But did you know that there's a market for Gutenberg-able books? Books that have yet to be converted? Yes, definitely, and on several occasions over the past few years I've bumped into Gutenberg volunteers at FOL sales who were actively buying books that they believed might meet the criteria of both being in the public domain and of sufficient interest to warrant the effort of conversion.
At a recent book sale of my own (something I do once a year to dump unproductive inventory), a Gutenberg volunteer purchased 41 books! What riveted my attention wasn't the number of books so much as the titles. Many of them were relatively obscure, some of them things I thought nobody would ever buy. When Project Gutenberg was first launched, the emphasis was on converting books that had, understandably, wide public appeal. But things have changed. As more and more classics have been converted and more volunteers have arrived, fewer and fewer unconverted ones remain. Volunteers have begun to turn their attention to books that attract narrower audiences. At this point in time, anything goes, and if a volunteer is interested in doing something, anything at all that catches his or her eye, a green light is given as long as public domain status can be subsequently established.
What does this mean for you? Probably not instant riches, but given that many of you have a chronic oversupply of marginal inventory, it might be productive to market some of it as "Gutenberg Eligible" or "Public Domain." Inserting one or both of these phrases in either the title or description of a listing could snag a buyer that would otherwise get away. If the listing is already in place and has long since been lapped in the relentless price race to the bottom, it might make sense to do this (and reduce the price) short of removing the listing altogether. If the book is scarce but not, in your opinion, collectible, it could still make sense to spend the time to create a from-scratch listing with this angle. Finally, public domain book lots, especially if grouped by some topical criteria, may also make good marketing sense.
What kinds of books are likely to work best? Most Gutenberg etexts fall into one of these three categories:
Light Literature (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, Peter Pan, Aesop's Fables, etc.
Heavy Literature (the Bible or other religious documents, Shakespeare, Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, etc.)
Reference (Roget's Thesaurus, almanacs, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.)
(Good news: I spoke to a Gutenberg representative recently, and the conversion of Encylopaedia Brittanica's 11th edition is considerably further along than I reported in the June 7 BookThinker article Immortal Encyclopedia?. Due largely to a format change in editing, three volumes have been completed to date, and the entire set should be ready in a few months.)
Establishing public domain status isn't a simple process, but there is a wealth of material both at the Gutenberg site and elsewhere to help you get close. Sometimes very close. Sometimes dead on. But close is all you need to be. Gutenberg volunteers don't always buy books on the basis of knowing that they're in the public domain; they often buy them on the basis of suspecting that they are. The good news is that it's relatively easy to narrow things down. Here are the criteria I recommend using for distribution inside the USA:
Before January 1, 1923
Publications with copyrights established before January 1, 1923 are almost always in the public domain. There are exceptions to this, but they're rare.
(Note that this does not mean that publications copyrighted in 1923 will enter the public domain next year - and so on. Due to subsequent copyright legislation, most publications - see exceptions below - with copyrights established during the period 1923 to 1977 will not enter the public domain until 95 years after publication date. 1923 + 95 = 2019. Under this rule, no new publications will become eligible until 2019. Efforts are underway to reverse this, but unfortunately this is what we're stuck with for the time being.)
Between 1923 and 1964
Some publications copyrighted between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain if their copyrights weren't renewed 28 years after their original copyright dates. Example: if a book was published in 1929 and its copyright wasn't renewed in 1957, it's drops into the public domain. I don't recommend marketing a publication as (potentially) public domain in this category unless you have more or less certain knowledge about its copyright status and/or have done competent copyright renewal research on it.
For more information on copyright renewal research:
Most government publications are ineligible for copyright protection no matter what year they were published in - that is, they fall into the public domain on the day of publication. There are a few exceptions, however, so look for copyright notices before making any assumptions.
For publications distributed outside the USA, the rules are somewhat different. For more information:
When marketing, be sure to include some sort of explanatory language in your descriptions. For example, if you aren't 100% certain of its status, state something like this: "This book meets basic criteria for public domain status but has not been definitively established as such. A potential Gutenberg e-text." This covers your ass, passes responsibility of validation onto your buyer, and states its strong potential for introduction to the Gutenberg database.
Obviously, to get your stuff sold, it will also be necessary to check current Gutenberg listings for e-texts that have been completed as well as those in process.
Gutenberg isn't the only game in town. It would also be a good idea to do a Google search with these or similar parameters: "[list of your titles] +etext [or] ebook."
Finally, if you're so inclined, Gutenberg happily accepts donations in the form of eligible books, hard cash and your time. If you have a favorite book that hasn't been converted, there are worse ways to spend a few weekends.
Two: Collectible Illustrators
Edmund Dulac, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham - works produced by these and many other legendary book illustrators are now in the public domain. Public domain books that contain clear, bright examples of collectible artists but are otherwise common or in degraded condition may be more successfully marketed on the basis of the artist alone. This is where knowledge pays dividends. There's no need to remove the illustrations; simply emphasize them and the artist who produced them. Again, it helps to use the phrase "Public Domain" and to include some explanatory text in the description. Also, it wouldn't hurt to suggest some uses for the illustrations (see below).
There are several reasons why this works. Some of your buyers, of course, will be collectors; some may want to frame the illustrations for personal display or resale - both of these are obvious - but some may be buying for other reasons, many of them commercial. For example, these images are often reproduced on t-shirts, tote bags, mugs, mouse pads and more.
Connie Kleinjans, who buys books for exactly this reason, sells her productions at Whimzical Enterprises.
Here's my favorite (Maxwell Parrish) image in her library:
For those of you who might be interested in trying this on your own, Connie graciously offered BookThink the following primer:
Plan for mistakes. The toughest thing is to get a good scan. When you work with an image, the image passes from the book to a scanner, from the scanner to a computer, the computer into Photoshop (where you see it on your monitor), and finally, from the computer to a printer. Each of these entities has a different idea of what color should be. There are people who have to be so careful about color that they surround themselves with neutral gray. There's a lot to learn. Expect to experiment and tweak.
Simple? For those of you who aren't feeling brave - well, buy a shirt from her!
Three: Commercial e-Books
If it costs a quarter to burn a CD and a seller can consistently get $4 or $5 bucks for it on eBay, it makes sense for this seller (or you, for that matter) to look for books in the public domain that can get this done. Obviously, content needs to be both difficult to come by and in reasonably high demand.
Two especially productive areas of interest include:
< to previous article
Questions or comments?