Thursday, October 29, 2015

My new side-gig: converting books in the public domain to Kindle format, and publishing them on Amazon

I have a new side-gig now, which is taking old books that are now in the public domain, converting them to Kindle format, and then publishing them on Amazon.

My most recent book
What the heck is public domain, anyway? In a nutshell, books that are "in the public domain", are books that were published before 1923, and whose copyright has expired. This includes all the old classics such as Pride and Prejudice, and Tom Sawyer. However, there's hundreds of thousands of other books also in the public domain, that never got anywhere near as popular, and are not regarded as classics.  But they're are still interesting to read nowadayspartly for historical interest, and partly because good storytelling is timeless.

How did I come up with this idea? I was going through some forums on side businesses, and came across a post from someone who said she was making a small, but completely passive income just from some old books she'd converted to the Kindle format and uploaded to Amazon. The idea intrigued me because I've been a reader of old public domain books for a long time, usually from

My first experience with old books in the public domain was in college. When I was writing my senior honors thesis, I had a study carrel that was right next to a selection of Horatio Alger books. Alger was the original "Rags to Riches" writer, whose specialty was hard-working boys and young men who, through hard work, optimism, and perseverance managed rise up  from poverty tousually not riches, but middle class respectability. They're pretty formulaic, and the themes tend to repeat themselves. Still, I found them interesting enough to read—anything to procrastinate on my thesis. And ever since then, I've had a special interest in old books.

Back to the original forum post that got me interested in the possibility. She had gotten started via a job at her college, scanning a bunch of old books. Instead of just leaving it at that, she also formatted them for the Kindle, and put them up on Amazon. Most of them got no sales at all, but one of them regularly made about $100/month.

The idea intrigued me, partly because I love old books, and partly because there's a gambling aspect to it. Most of the time you make nothing, but every once in a while, you hit a chunk of gold—in her case, a popular book!

So far, I haven't hit any gold nuggets, but I have made a tiny bit of money—embarrassingly small, but it's very satisfying to make any money at all using new skills. And speaking of skills, the really fun part is that I've needed to develop expertise in many new areas. The main ones are image processing (mainly Gimp), Canva for creating book covers (very user friendly, somewhat limited in capabilities), and OCR software for "reading" the page images and converting them to text. Also copy-writing, for creating an attractive description for the book. That's the most gratifying part, and what I like the best—becoming competent in new areas for an immediate need.

Over the long term, I'm pretty sure that this isn't actually a viable business or side-gig. There's just too much of an initial time investment to get a book online in a salable condition, for a public domain book that you can't price very high, and which may not sell at all. Plus, Amazon takes a much larger chunk of the revenue for public domain books—75% instead of 35%. But as a fun hobby "business" that may lead to new ideas, this is very worthwhile.

Here are a few of the books I've put online:

The Finding of Jasper Holt - an old romance novel, so far my best-seller
Julius, the Street Boy - by Horatio Alger, the story of a street urchin from the New York City of the late 1800's who had an opportunity to improve himself by moving out west.
Max and Moritz - Here's what I wrote up for the description of this one:
The story of Max and Moritz is a never-to-be forgotten classic of German culture. This time-honored story has entertained children and adults for over 150 years, and has not lost any of its irreverent humor. The story is not for the squeamish —the two boys do come to a bad end, and are not mourned by anyone in the village—but the pranks, the delightful verse, and the illustrations together make a jewel of a tale. 
This particular edition is actually not in the public domain anymore, because I redid the original old translation (and improved it a lot, I like to think). So even though the illustrations are old, the text is mine.


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