Profits in
Public Domain Publications

by Craig Stark

#22, 12 July, 2004

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:

          How Can I Tell Whether a Copyright Was Renewed?

          U.S. Catalog of Copyright Entries (Renewals)

Government Publications

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:

          How do I find out whether the book is in the public domain?

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.

          Search Project Gutenberg completed publications.

          Search Project Gutenberg in process publications.

Non-Gutenberg e-Texts

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:

  1. Supplies needed: an inkjet printer, transfer paper, and a heat press. Hobbyists can use a home iron, but it's harder to get good results. Many transfer papers include instructions for how to do transfers using an iron.

  2. Scan the image. I scan the image at 300 dpi - that is, make it larger than I need it to be since more image data is always good. I then open it Adobe PhotoShop, square it up, clean it, crop it, resize it to the size I want (it will need to fit on the transfer paper), and add annotation (title, artist and my URL).

  3. Print the image. Make sure you print the image flipped (or save it flipped). You may need to look for special settings on your printer, but they're there somewhere. This is important because, when you press the image, it comes out as a mirror image. (My very first mug is now a collector's item. I forgot to reverse it, and all the text is backwards.)

  4. Heat up your press. Follow the instructions included with your transfer paper. I heat up my heat press to between 350 and 365 degrees. This takes 10 to 15 minutes.

  5. Prepare the shirt. Before pressing the image, press the shirt without the transfer for 8 to 10 seconds in the area where you will place the image. This flattens the shirt and eliminates moisture. You should see steam coming out on rainy days.

  6. Place the image on the shirt. Carefully place the image face down on the shirt. I place it three or four finger widths below the neckline of a crew neck, but you should vary it depending on how big your image is. If you really need to center it, try this: fold the shirt in half lengthwise and press it briefly to get a center line. Next, bend the image in half lengthwise and gently crease only the top and bottom (not the whole thing) and align the creases with the shirt's center line. Honestly, I've never found anything simpler.

  7. Press the image on the shirt. If you have a Teflon sheet (recommended), place it over the transfer paper. Lower the upper platen and lock it on the shirt for about 12 to 16 seconds. Again, follow the recommendations of your manufacturer. Raise the upper platen.

  8. Remove the backing. Quickly, before the shirt has had time to cool, grab a top corner of the backing paper on the transfer sheet. You may need to use a nail to loosen it. Pull the backing paper diagonally, back over itself, and, in one sweep, remove it from the shirt. Try not to start and stop. This can leave faint lines on the image. Turn off your heat press.

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:

  1. Local history. Town and county histories that predate 1923 may be scarce in any condition. Demand for content, therefore, is usually keen. Marketing the item conventionally will probably work well, but interest can sometimes be ratcheted up a few notches by using the public domain angle as well.

  2. Period reproduction and restoration. Demand is consistently high for publications which contain information, illustrations, etc., which assist in the process of identifying, restoring or reproducing period pieces, decorative ornament, architecture, and so on. An otherwise hard-to-find e-book of house plans from the Arts & Crafts era, for example, will attract strong interest.

Enter Book Title or ISBN

Powered by FetchBook.Info
New & Used Books