Vintage Newspapers: Untapped Source for E-book Publishers (Part 1)

Do you publish e-books? Do you want to publish an e-book? If you’re not quite up to tackling that blockbuster novel you know you have inside you, there’s a ready source of public-domain material available to you to use as content for a possible book: old newspapers.

I’ve published several e-books through Amazon’s Kindle publishing platform, using stories I gathered from newspapers that our great grandparents may have read. Many of these old newspapers have been digitized and placed online, where they can be searched for free.

My main go-to site for newspaper content is the Library of Congress, but there are others. Here’s one I’ve used for North Carolina newspapers. Interestingly, there’s little overlap between the North Carolina titles that NC Digital holds and those that can be found in the LOC collection. I often search both when I’m compiling a book of historical and genealogical information pertaining, say, to a particular North Carolina locality.

What kinds of books can you create using content from these old newspapers? Virtually anything you can think of. I like to compile books on particular topics. Some of the other people I know who are doing this like to comb through papers looking for any random weird items they can find.

Here’s my most recent book which I published to Kindle as part of my Vintage Newspaper Mining Project (I’m the “Head Engineer,” don’t you know?). You may have seen articles about the fascination and craziness that gripped multitudes of people when Halley’s Comet came around in 1910. I thought, why not do a book consisting of some of the actual stories that ran in the papers at the time? So, I went to the LOC site, entered simply “comet” as my keyword, and used an advanced search to narrow my results to stories published in 1910. From these I was able to pick and choose from a huge amount of material, ranging from short news items of people behaving strangely, to opinion pieces predicting the end of the world, to scientific articles by learned astronomers.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries newspapers served a much different and more central role in people’s lives than they have since they had to start competing with other mass media (and today’s newspapers, sadly, are mere ghosts of what they once were). The larger ones had everything from children’s sections to women’s sections (yes, it was a different social world back then) to fiction supplements. Can you imagine looking to your daily newspaper to entertain you with short stories and even serialized novellas, as well as keep you informed about the news?

Two of my vintage newspaper books are built around articles and fiction stories about dogs, a perennial subject of interest for many. Again, all it took to find my content was a very simple search, in this case, “dog.” The default search on most of these newspaper repositories is relevance, which means in practice that headlines containing your keyword, as well as stories containing multiple instances of the word, will come up first in your results. This is good when you’re doing a book on a specific topic and don’t need to present things chronologically. In my case, the best or at least longest items about dogs clustered near the beginning of my search results, making it easy to select my material.

Another type of book I’ve had some success with, using old newspapers as my source, is aimed at genealogists and local history researchers. Basically, I go through newspapers searching for items related to a single county. Marriage announcements and obituaries are like gold, but anything mentioning people’s names — even crime reports, or, in the antebellum South, runaway slave notices — can be grist for this particular mill. In the pre-digital age there were publishing companies that specialized in such books of genealogical “gleanings.” Those printed books had to include name indexes to aid readers in finding information relevant to their own family research. As an e-book publisher I don’t have to mess with an index. My readers can just use the built-in search feature of their Kindle device or app to find the names they’re interested in. Warning, though: This is still one of the most tedious kinds of books to create, because you have to include a huge number of items to make it a useful resource.

I should note right here that I try to make my books as long as possible, within reason. Not only does this provide more value to the reader, but if someone borrows it for “free” through the Kindle Unlimited program, which pays me per number of pages read, I stand to make more than if that person buys it outright.

I mentioned that some individuals who are publishing old newspaper content are focusing less on specific topics and more on compiling miscellaneous odd, humorous or otherwise interesting items they find. One such publisher is Karen Ballentine, whose acquaintance I’ve made by email. Karen is really dedicated to her quest of uncovering and presenting such material in Kindle format. She’s also dedicated to quality work, as I found out when she emailed me a list of typos she found in one of my books! Actually, I was glad for the free editorial assistance, because I don’t like to put books out to the public with errors in them. One of the good things about e-book publishing is that you can always upload a clean (or at least more clean) copy of your text if you learn that your first one had mistakes needing correcting. Anyway, here is one of Karen’s several books of interesting stories taken from an old newspaper.

In looking over Karen’s current catalog of Kindle books, I see that she, too, has ventured into topic-specific projects in addition to her miscellaneous collections. For instance, she has this one on ghosts and graveyards, and I notice that she even has one on chickens in the news! Truly, if you can think of a subject or theme for your book, you can probably find scads of stories on it in those old newspapers. Now, since we’re talking about newspapers published up through 1922, for the most part, you’re not going to be able to make a book on the subject of computers, to give an obvious example. But what about one on early airplanes? Or the advent of the automotive age?

I’ve called these vintage newspapers an untapped source for e-books. Obviously, they’re not completely untouched; Karen and I, among a few others, are using them for this purpose. Still, there are so many of the old papers online now, containing so much material, that their contents remain largely unmined. This may be in part because many publishers and would-be publishers haven’t considered this resource before.

Have I aroused enthusiasm about the possibilities of e-book publishing using vintage newspapers? Good. Honesty compels me to now dampen the flame a bit. First, I can tell you from my own experience that this is not a fast way to riches. As a fairly simple way to find material you can use to make your own books, one that I consider fun as well, it can be satisfying, but mainly as a side project to other ventures. I do make more-or-less steady sales with these books, but as they say, don’t quit your day job!

There’s an even bigger reason I suspect more people aren’t doing this, though, and likely never will:

In many ways it’s a pain in the butt to create this kind of book.

The work involved is neither easy nor quick, as I will explain in Part 2 of this discussion. Also, publishing books drawn from material in the public domain that pass muster with Amazon is a whole topic in itself. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, which I will also get into in Part 2.

If these caveats don’t discourage you, and you think you would enjoy trying your hand at a vintage newspaper book, go right ahead. There’s some money to be made, and with luck, an interesting topic and the right kind of promotion, you might hit on a bestseller. If you do, I’ll be cheering you — and seeing what I can learn from your success.

Update: Part 2 and Part 3 are now available.