Could I make money selling public domain books on Amazon?
June 5, 2023 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I was looking for a copy of the Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain on Amazon, and I noticed that there are a ton of low-quality self-published versions on there. I have master's in book design, and I design KDP books for a living, so I could easily do a lot better.

If I made my own versions of some popular public domain books with nice covers and good typesetting, would I be likely to sell some copies, or would they just get buried? I'm inclined to do it anyway, just as a design exercise, but it would be nice if I could make some money from it too.
posted by Chenko to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Just my own experience: my wife and I, back when print-on-demand was getting cheap and ebooks were pretty new, tried this idea with print-on-demand; we had a number of books which were public domain, so I designed covers and did layout and we got them in actual real book distributors and on Amazon -- and we made very, very little off them.

The reason: marketing. If you want people to read YOUR public domain book, you need to make sure that's what they're going to buy, particularly if the book is available in Project Gutenberg or other free places (where is almost certainly is). You have to find a way to make sure people know your edition is the artistically-best version out there, out of not just the same book, but all possible books they could want to read or buy.

Note that I did put some books up in digital editions on Amazon, and I get a KDP deposit of $0.43 cents every couple months.

That's not to say it's impossible: there are businesses making bank off of nice editions of public domain books, but they've got the dollars to spend getting in front of reader's eyeballs so their editions are the one that gets read. Easton Press goes with expensive materials; Dover goes with exclusive distribution with prime locations (spinner racks by the checkout counter, etc.) So, if you have a following somewhere or put the effort into making your editions something value-added that readers want to see, then it's possible, just probably a lot more work than just the typesetting and uploading to Amazon.

(Also, make sure you edit and edit and re-edit the public domain text -- even the original editions that got printed and sold often have mistakes and typesetting problems and other things you don't want to propogate in your copies.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:15 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]

There was a niche of "low effort" KDP books such as coloring books, blank notebooks, and so on and supposedly people do buy them, but I am not sure if they are viable, due to the crap-ton-load of them on Amazon nowadays. How would people find yours?
posted by kschang at 11:57 AM on June 5

Best answer: I agree that discovery is the hard part here. There's definitely a need for high-quality public domain books that aren't at traditional-publisher latest-edition prices...but that need is in the face of an overwhelming volume of very poor-quality efforts, so bad that it makes looking for the occasional classic ebook a dreadful, painful experience--as it sounds like you've already found out. (Even if you're willing to pay! Good grief, I cannot tell you the trouble I had, trying to get Amazon to sell me the Christine Donougher translation of Les Miserables as an ebook! Which I know isn't what you're talking about, but still!)

If you had some way of advertising to readers that did not involve relying on Amazon's search, you might have an easier time--but then, that will cost money, and quite possibly more than you would make on the deal. (Amazon's own ad services can get very expensive very quickly.)

But like...just to do it? To not worry about money and just do it as a labor of love? That would be a fantastic gift to ebook readers.
posted by mittens at 1:53 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]

I would also consider how you are going to get the necessary reviews when there are a hundred other rapacious would-be publishers of public domain books who would like to get to the top of the search results. I have found an author who has published 40 books in the last 90 days, clearly pure garbage of the AI-generated variety, and there are hundreds of five star reviews. For the person who is just looking for a cheap, readable copy, you'll need to have those reviews or otherwise your beautiful editions might as well not exist.
posted by wnissen at 1:57 PM on June 5

Best answer: Maybe try to find books that are less popular. I often search for old public domain books that don't have a nice looking option. There may be a "long tail" type of opportunity here.
posted by roaring beast at 2:07 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]

You might have an opportunity with the rise of a new platform. Meta recently announced their Quest 3, and Apple today announced their headset. Plus there's other manufacturers.

Design books to be read on headsets, and work with a developer to make an app. I could imagine having a choice of environments, like a fancy library, beach, cabin with a fireplace, etc and a few hundred books to choose from.
posted by Sophont at 3:47 PM on June 5

Best answer: Lost Art Press do this successfully for some of their titles (here's one that is well out of copyright and very easily available digitally). They do this by rigorously editing them, printing them at very good quality and then putting a heap of effort into maintaining a high and very respected profile in the wood working world. It's clearly their passion and I reckon it'd have to be or there's no way they could maintain the effort. Without that effort I doubt it would work for them.

They are running a Q & A session every Saturday at the moment and Chris is extremely generous with his knowledge. I can't see him knocking back a question or two about the book business.
posted by deadwax at 3:55 PM on June 5 [3 favorites]

Lindsay Technical Books used to do this with technology/machining/steam power types of books in physical printed form. They shut down a little while ago, so their niche may be open for a decent non-shovelware KDP replacement.
posted by aramaic at 4:08 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I have no actual relevant experience, but I have a thought, which is that it's easier to advertise to a target market than to the general public. I had an idea once for a website to be called Sea Stories Are Us.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:58 AM on June 6

Might be worth looking at Standard Ebooks, "a volunteer-driven effort to produce a collection of high quality, carefully formatted, accessible, open source, and free public domain ebooks that meet or exceed the quality of commercially produced ebooks." It would give you an idea of how one group of people is doing exactly this, only giving away the results.
posted by fabius at 5:27 AM on June 6

Dover has Thrift editions of classics and other open domain books. Your idea is not unique, sorry
posted by Enid Lareg at 8:57 AM on June 6

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