Vintage Newspapers: Untapped Source for E-book Publishers (Part 2)

Old newspapers are a good resource for public-domain material that can be turned into e-books. I previously discussed this in a general way and showed some examples of books I and others have published on Amazon’s Kindle platform (see Part 1). Now I want to talk about the public domain a bit more and why it’s tricky trying to publish PD content on Amazon nowadays, at least the way some people go about it.

Fortunately, most of the obstacles to using public domain on Amazon don’t apply to the type of e-book we’re discussing — compilations of articles and news items from vintage newspapers.

By the way, I talk about Amazon exclusively because it has the largest market share of e-books, including e-books from independent publishers. Also, if you enroll your books in Amazon’s KDP Select program — which I’ve done with all of my titles — you can’t publish them in digital format elsewhere.

KDP vs. KDP Select

This confuses newbies to Kindle publishing, so let’s clear it up:

Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP, is the name of Amazon’s platform where anyone may publish an e-book and receive royalties from sales of it. So long as you own the rights to that book, you’re free to publish it digitally anywhere else you want to as well, such as Barnes & Noble, iTunes or Kobo.

KDP Select is an optional program within KDP. If you choose to enroll your book in Select, you can take advantage of promotional tools not available in the basic KDP program. Also, your book becomes available through Kindle Unlimited (KU); someone may then borrow it rather than buying it outright, and you will get paid for each page read. (The rate is tiny, less than half a cent per page at this writing, but if you publish longish books, or books that many people like to borrow, it can add up.)

The catch with KDP Select is that you have to agree to make your e-book exclusive to Amazon. This only applies to digital versions, though; you may still sell a hard-copy version elsewhere, if you have one.

In the Kindle publishing forums you’ll find endless debate over the pros and cons of being in Select. Some author-publishers prefer to “go wide” with their books, that is, publish them on all possible platforms. They can’t do that and be in Select.

Some people dislike being locked into an exclusivity deal with big, powerful Amazon. Others try to calculate the potential lost sales from not being on other platforms vs. the extra visibility and promotional options provided by Select.

Some folks reject being in Select because they don’t want readers being able to borrow their book (through the KU program) instead of purchasing it; that half-cent per page read doesn’t seem worth it. On the other hand, how many of those borrowers would have actually bought the book? It’s a difficult thing to figure, or even to guess at!

Note: If you decide you’d like to go wide with your e-book, check out the publishing service Draft2Digital. It will do the grunt work of converting and formatting your manuscript and will publish your book to all the major platforms, including Amazon. Although I’ve not used it, those who do praise it highly.

Back to public domain …

As I said, I have all of my books in KDP Select. It seems a good choice especially for my vintage newspaper compilations.

Newspapers published in the U.S. before 1923 are considered in the public domain. This means you’re free to take whatever you want from them, to use however you wish. Most of the online newspaper repositories only go through 1922, which makes searching them for usable material a snap. However, there are some (example: the California Digital Newspaper Collection) that have runs of certain papers published well after that time.

If you want to use content from a newspaper published after 1922, it might not be in copyright, but you should read the terms of use carefully. This is usually stated somewhere on the website or below the newspaper’s image pages. Me, I stick with the pre-1923 stuff, as there’s about a million times more material there than I’ll ever get to.

Amazon’s PD problem

When Amazon started its Kindle Direct Publishing program, some people immediately started figuring out ways to game it. One way was with public domain books. It was easy to grab the text of a Project Gutenberg book and throw it up as an e-book on Amazon. They probably figured, “So what if there already are a hundred e-books of Huckleberry Finn on Amazon? It costs me virtually nothing time-wise to put up one more. My copy might not get many downloads, but any it does get will be easy money in my pocket.”

Amazon was soon flooded with multiple copies of public domain titles. Many of these were junk versions, poorly formatted or riddled with errors because of the haste with which they were published. A crackdown was inevitable.

Today, in 2017, you can still publish a public domain book as an Amazon e-book, but you have to jump through some hoops. First, it can’t be a book that’s already freely available on the web. If it is available elsewhere in digital format, Amazon will only consider it if you add original content that significantly enhances its value.

Whether your version of a PD book can be said to add value to what’s already out there is subjective. In the end, Amazon is the decider. However, here is the Zon’s official statement on PD:

Our program allows the selling of content that is in the public domain. However, we may ask you to provide proof that the content you submitted is in the public domain. We may refuse public domain content that’s already available through our program or other retail sites. To provide a better customer experience, we don’t publish undifferentiated versions of public domain titles if a free version is available in our store. Differentiated works are unique. They meet one or more of these requirements:

  • Translated: Unique translations
  • Annotated: Unique annotations (additional content like study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or historical context)
  • Illustrated: 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book

Books that meet these requirements must include (Translated), (Annotated), or (Illustrated) in the title field. For example, “Pride and Prejudice (Annotated)” is acceptable; “Pride and Prejudice (with an Introduction by Tiffany Gordon)” is not. The product description must also include a summary of how the book is unique in bullet point format at the beginning of the product description (maximum 80 characters).

It’s possible that other features make books unique. However, we only consider public domain titles that meet the requirements listed above to be differentiated. Examples of features we don’t consider to be differentiated include:

  • A linked table of contents
  • Formatting improvements
  • Collections
  • Sales rank
  • Price
  • Freely available Internet content

There you have it. Personally, I wouldn’t bother trying to publish an e-book of a title in the public domain, unless it’s one of the rare ones for which no digital copy seems to exist.  The only other circumstance would be if I had some unique insight into the book or its author, and could add a substantial amount of useful supplementary material. The potential hassle of getting it approved by Amazon, and then of trying to make sales from a book competing with other versions of itself, isn’t worth it.

Vintage newspapers

The vintage newspaper books that I and some others are publishing are a different creature from the public-domain e-books that have caused problems on Amazon before.

I dipped my toe into the vintage newspaper world with the Kindle book you see here. It’s not my best one; it isn’t very long and I still had a few things to learn about formatting when I made it. I published it mainly as a test, or “proof of concept” if you will.

Here’s why I think this kind of public domain-based book is perfectly acceptable to Amazon (disclaimer: this is my own guesswork here). When you excerpt material from different issues of a newspaper (or newspapers, plural), and compile it into a book, you’re creating something brand new in the universe — to be a bit grandiose about it.

You’re creating a book that has never existed before, even though its content may be found in scattered bits and pieces in the newspapers you’re pulling from. It’s your baby. You can even copyright it if you want. (Another disclaimer: this is only my personal interpretation.)

Some publishers of vintage newspaper books merely gather interesting items from the papers and arrange them in some order, usually chronologically. That’s fine, but I like to go further, both to deliver more value to my readers and to differentiate my books even more from the raw source material.

Sometimes I will do a web search on people mentioned in an article, and one on the writer if there is a byline. The names may be obscure to us now, but it’s surprising how often I’ll find additional information that I can include in an editor’s note. For my Halley’s Comet book, I wrote capsule biographies of the famous astronomers of the day who were quoted in many of the articles. I also found public-domain photos of them, and those also went into the book.

The easiest way to think of it is this: Huckleberry Finn is a public-domain book. My Dogs! Read All About ‘Em books are non-public domain books with content that happens to be drawn from the public domain. That’s a huge and important difference. This statement that I put in the front of my books makes it even clearer:

The selection and arrangement of stories, articles and illustrations in this book, along with the introduction, appendix and afterword, and the additional notes and discussions found throughout, make this a new and original work.

In summary:

Old newspapers are fascinating to pore through, and they can also provide a wealth of free, public-domain content which you can use to create your book. Because the content you choose and the way you compile it will be different from anything that already exists, your book will be unique. Amazon will almost certainly accept it without a hiccup, and then you can start making money from it — a little, anyway, but maybe a lot if it strikes a chord with readers and you promote it well.

The main thing that will stop many would-be publishers of this kind of book is probably the work involved. I won’t kid you, it’s a lot (I hope you love typing!). I promised that I would go into that some, but this post is long enough. I’ll save it for Part 3 instead.

Update: Part 3 is now available, as well as Part 1.