Should We Flood the Market by Republishing Public Domain Content?

After hearing Alexis Romano’s insightful guest lecture about Amazon and print on demand self-publishing, I had mixed feelings and was curious about the idea of republishing public domain books. I was thoroughly engaged with Romano’s experience while being quite impressed by his flavourful business journey, but the idea that republishing already published content frustrated me. I understand that publishers republish content into different editions as an effective marketing tool, to increase print or digital sales because we live in an industry that is constantly threatened. Even so, publishing is a reflexive circulation of discourse, a public as Michael Warner suggests in “Publics and Counterpublics”. For the community to be a collaborative experience, publishers create any content that seems new and unread, even if it is producing a new edition to an already well-known classic like Pride and Prejudice by adding zombies as antagonists. However, I don’t believe that it is quite ethical to publish a new edition of a book by changing a book cover, to game the system and flood a market like Amazon. Thus, in the scope of this essay, I will be exploring my frustrations with republishing public domain content, to understand the reasons for such distribution, and why it is so much more important to produce new, original content in publishing today.

    In “Money Making Idea #20- Public Domain Publishing”, by Jason Cabler, Cabler states the following guidelines for publishing public domain content: “The author never obtained a copyright. The author dedicated their work to the public domain when it was originally published. It was never eligible for copyright in the first place. The copyright expired.” [Cabler, 2016] In a web FAQ article from Ryerson University, it is stated that the copyright duration is “the creator of the work’s lifetime, plus 50 years from the end of the calendar year that the creator died. In other countries copyright duration varies, for example in the US and the United Kingdom, copyright duration is the creator of the works lifetime, plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year that the creator died.” [Ryerson University] This suggests that there is a lot of freedom and space for public domain content to be explored, and perhaps one of the biggest driving forces that inspire self-publishing publishers to acquire projects to republish. New technological advances and systems are created to simplify this production process, especially the costs of producing a book. Through platforms like Ingram Spark or CreateSpace, it is very easy to digitally upload the revised content, attach a newly designed book cover, fill in the suggested online tip sheet, press the little green button, and watch PDF files become a book, all in the span of 10 seconds, as Romano jokes. There is so much content to work with, and especially if one is republishing well-known classics, there is no need for heavy brainstorming when acquiring titles. The business model is that the audience already knows the story. For example, Pride and Prejudice is a common title that many readers have read. When introducing a new translation, a new editor/ important historical figure to write a foreword or new annotations, the book instantly has a new element and reason to be republished. It can be done within the time frame of a month, in one of the examples Romano suggested during his lecture. I wonder if publishing becomes an assembly line for creating titles that produce money, regardless of the content, to just produce for the economics of the business. 

    Regardless of passion, publishing is still about business. One of the most crucial foundational values is that publishing is grounded by profitability because if there isn’t money after publishing a work, then why do it at all? As much as I’d like to view publishing more as passion projects, success stories like Romano’s demonstrate that republishing titles is a great way to have a sustainable publishing business. It’s as if one is building a publishing empire, creating a constant, mass benchmark of titles to flood the system. The importance is finding enough great content that attracts an audience frequently. Romano advises in his lecture that by rebranding a title, it can be republished onto Amazon as a different work as if a different channel of income if the title successfully attracts readers. Therefore, republishing titles can be seen as one of the easiest businesses, where the marginal revenue can be achieved through this minimal effort-high profit business model, and possibly one of the biggest reasons why republishing public domain content is a favourable business opportunity.

    While reading Romano’s project report, “A Lean Start-Up: Building Engage Books as a Publisher in the 21st Century”, Romano recommends that he started his start-up publishing company by choosing classic titles to publish, specifically around science fiction which was his passion. He states that “while the stories that Engage Books (his startup) has initially published have already been around for decades, they continue to remain popular among both experienced and new readers who have an interest in broadening their experience, and also among readers who wish to relive stories they might have read as a child.” [Romano, 2009] He continues that “classic titles tend to provide publishers with a steady flow of income”, and wanting to create titles that won’t stand against the test of time forever, but will have an impact on readers’ desire to read/purchase the title in the “distant and not so distant future”. Moreover, the foundation of Engage Books is to publish titles that provide a cultural service. Stephen Fishman quotes that “the need to add value to basic information represents a continuing opportunity for publishers. It is only constrained by the imagination and determination of publishers.” [Fisherman, 10] Perhaps republishing titles then signify the chance to “add value to classic works” [Romano, 2013], that despite it seeming like an economic contribution, it is actually a chance to better understand the value of the original text. To me, flooding the market seems like an eager, almost desperate way to get the audience’s attention, but perhaps it is a marketing tool that helps readers become familiar with the title and evidentially succumb to the captivating new edition and spend money.

    After researching the reasons for republishing public domain titles, I couldn’t help but still feel a little uncomfortable with the idea. There is nothing wrong with republishing titles, as long as it’s completed according to the copyright laws, but while I’m quite a traditionalist, I’d like to illustrate my thoughts of why I feel so uncomfortable with republishing public domain topics. To be fair, public domain titles means they are free for the public to use, but the very core of publishing is to establish copyright for individualism to exist. During the 18th-century book trade, the purpose of copyright was to get a monopoly from publishing a work. [Fielding and Rogers, 2014] This was to maximize the most profits a publisher could get in return. With public domain, there is no monopoly. Publishers today mostly republish classics because they know they are still popular works which would easily get an audience’s demand to buy. However, in this digital world that we live in, how much of an investment is there when there is so much competition? In a world where publishers fight to be authentic, how much individualism and authority can be found while reproducing copies of the same book? In Lora Mouammer’s essay, “What Cannot Be Found on Amazon”, she pinpoints that “customers are moving away from traditional ideas and looking for more personalized experiences.” [Mouammer, 2018] In order to achieve these personalized experiences, a publisher must look at producing original content. Repackaging the same story with a different book cover or movie tie-in does not make the new edition authentic. What’s authentic is the story, the content, the text that is read, understood, and analyzed by the reader. 

    James Boyle, in his book “The Public Domain”, illustrates that “of course there are problems. The market measures the value of a good by whether people have the ability and willingness to pay for it.” [Boyle, 2008] He continues that “copyright law is supposed to give us a self-regulating cultural policy in which the right to exclude others from one’s original expression fuels a vibrant public sphere.” [Boyle, 2008] Boyle makes me think that one of the traditional roles of a publisher was to act as if he/she is a banker who invests a big chunk of money into a project, replicate it so there are more chances of the title earning income, and create a backlist of income even if a publisher stops producing new titles. Since then, publishers have upheld a lot more different roles that showcase different areas of service, so they are not as industry controlling within textual publishing as before.

    Boyle highlights that the overall “goal of the system ought to be to give the monopoly only as long as necessary to provide an incentive. After that, we should let the work fall into the public domain where all of us can use it, transform it.” [Boyle, 2008] I wonder, who gets to decide when is the right time for this decision? Copyright law states that it’s after the death of an author plus 50 years, but who has such authority to make a drastic change to the original text, without the permission of the author? I ultimately believe that within creating originality in our texts, if we don’t continue circulating new and innovative ideas, then could we be stuck in the past? As publishers, the job is to create new discourse and conversations about social topics, the creativity of the minds, so how could it feel right flooding the market with old media? But I guess this is more of a social problem anyway, much like how I am bringing in old ideas to analyze in this hopeful, continual conversation.


Works Cited

Boyle, James. The Public Domain. 2008. Accessed on December 03, 2018. PDF.

Cabler, Jason. “Money Making Idea #20- Public Domain Publishing.” Celebrating Financial Freedom. November 05, 2017. Accessed December 06, 2018.

Fielding, David, and Shef Rogers. “Monopoly Power in the Eighteenth Century British Book Trade.” University of Otago Economics Discussion Papers, no. 1410 (December 2014). Accessed December 4, 2018.

Mouammer, Lora. “What Cannot Be Found On Amazon.” PUB800. October 24, 2018. Accessed December 03, 2018.

Romano, Alexis. A LEAN START-UP: Building Engage Books as a Publisher in the 21st Century. 2009. Accessed December 1, 2018. PDF.

Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413-25. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. < warnerPubCounterP.pdf>.

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