Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

April 29th, 2011:

Ebooks and Adding Value to the Public Domain

I just got our first two Copperwood Press ebooks posted to the Kindle store, and they’re now available for sale: Drumlin Circus / On Gossamer Wings and “Whale Meat.” No DRM. I’m still working with Ingram’s Lightning Source to get the double mounted and sellable in its print edition. It won’t be available from Lulu, and over time I will be migrating my other print books from Lulu to Lightning. Learning their relatively unforgiving system the first time involves a little hair-tearing, but once learned it’s learned.

There’s certainly plenty to do in coming months to get the rest of my material converted to good ebooks and posted on the major retailers. One issue I’ve found troubling for some months now is the ambiguity regarding public domain material. Both B&N and Amazon make a big deal about whether a work is in the public domain. PD titles get lower royalty rates and just generally seem libri non grati on the retailer sites. This isn’t surprising in some ways. The retailers are trying to avoid having 2,774 versions of The War of the Worlds on their servers, taking up space and confusing the readership. The definition of “public domain” varies legally by country, and what may be free in Australia or Chile is not necessary free here. So they do have to be careful on the rights front.

The issue matters to me because of The Old Catholic Studies Series, a project that I’ve been tinkering for ten years now. The goal was to scan, OCR, edit, and lay out clean, indexed versions of the foundational texts of Old Catholicism so that people wouldn’t have to pay $200 to read yellowed, crumbly, scribbled-in books printed in 1874. I have two such texts currently available in print editions: The New Reformation and The Pope and the Council. They were a lot of work, but they’ve sold reasonably well, and I consider the effort worthwhile. (It was also damned good practice in making books.) Not a lot of people want them, but the people who do want them have been very happy with them. I would have done another two or three, but John Mabry’s Apocryphile Press got there ahead of me, and put out facsimile print editions of the other major works I had considered. I prefer new layouts to facsimile editions, but Apocryphile’s scans are fairly clean and I do recommend them.

It’s true that the source materials are long in the public domain (which at least in the US includes all books published before 1923) but technically, what I’m offering are derivative works. I scanned them, page by page, OCRed them to extract the text, and then went over the text character by character to eliminate OCR errors. (Some were a hoot: “The Frankish King Pepin…” became “The Prankish King Pepin…”) The books were not indexed, and I indexed them. I fixed a few typos (especially in The Pope and the Council, which was a hurried English translation of a work written originally in German) and Americanized the British spelling. Although I don’t claim to have done a copy edit on either book, I fixed a number of examples of what I consider regrettable diction. I wrote an introduction explaining what I did and how. I gave them nice covers. If I had another hundred years to live and no need to make a living, I would do a strong edit on both.

By any legal definition what I’ve produced are derivative works that are not themselves in the public domain. That said, anybody who took an OCR of The War of the Worlds and changed three words could make the same claim, and if enough people do that, the noise level at ebook retailer sites would go through the roof. Nobody’s PD ebooks would sell well enough for it to make anything like a reasonable new edition of any PD book worthwhile.

I don’t know precisely what the answer is. Vetting tens of thousands of $2.99 ebooks is a labor-intensive business, and what sorts of standards would apply? Refusing facsimile editions is obvious and easy, but I doubt anyone would even try to read 50MB page-image PDF facsimiles on a Kindle. (On the Nook Color it might be practical; grab something 1875-ish from Google Books and let me know!) A better suggestion might be to require an up-front payment from publishers for posting anything either fully in the public domain or significantly derived from the public domain. That would cut down on bothouse publications and allow people like me to genuinely add value to public domain material without drowning in unmodifed or barely modified PD books. I’d think $25 would be about right. My books would earn that back in a month or six weeks, and the bothouses couldn’t justify it.

It’s not often that I’d willingly ask to have my own costs raised, but publishing has always been a weird business, and sometimes, well, free is less than worthless.