sign up for our

Home Shop Subscribe Advertise Articles Directories Classifieds Calendar FAQs Contact Us Login

How To Publish Your Own
'Public Domain' Audiobooks

January 30, 2014

By Karen Commins
Voice Talent & Audiobook Narrator/Publisher

During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, I started seeing that wonderful TV ad from Dell, titled "Beginnings."

Perhaps it caught my attention because I have my own story about the quiet beginnings for a new business:  
Date: 10/6/06
Time: 10:10am
Place: 10634, the cabin number of a cruise ship docked in Mykonos, Greece  
Becoming an audiobook publisher has been a rough road, full of potholes, downed trees, and diverging paths that didn’t necessarily lead me in the direction I wanted to go.

Only by trudging forward and refusing to give up was I able to eventually reach the destination. I offer this article as a road map for becoming an audiobook publisher on ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange) with a public domain book.  


Ideas love speed. And I did take several immediate actions 7.5 years ago when I had the idea to create an audiobook publishing company.

I read several books that hadn’t been made into audiobooks and contacted the authors about obtaining the audio rights. One author was interested, but the idea seemed to be squelched by her agent’s lawyers, who were reluctant to be involved with a start-up.

Another author wanted to narrate her book herself. It took her several more years, but I see on Audible that she did narrate her book.

A third author was someone rather famous. I didn’t receive a response to my inquiries, but I see that her book is now on Audible, too. Perhaps I gave her the idea.  


With the loss of my mother and changes on my day job, I put my dream of becoming an audiobook publisher on the shelf. While ideas love speed, some ideas can’t be implemented immediately and often take years to develop.  
All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come. – Victor Hugo  
With the advent of ACX, I knew that I could finally see this idea through to fruition!  

Rather than start with a book from a contemporary author, as I originally envisioned, I decided to start Jewel Audiobooks with what I thought would be a simpler project: a book from the public domain.  

On January 1, 2013, I decided to publish the audiobook of The Heart of the New Thought by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, originally published in 1903.

I wanted to produce a shorter work that would be new to audio, and also had a message I want to share.

I often find myself in conversations about the power of our thoughts and words, so this little volume seemed perfect.  


Then, detour. ACX states on its help page for rights holders:
Currently, ACX doesn’t accept Public Domain titles posted for production by third parties.
Even though Audible (parent company of ACX, and a division of Amazon) has countless public domain titles on its site, I didn’t realize that Amazon/Audible/ACX had created procedures to discourage people from using public domain titles to create audiobooks.  

They did have valid reasons for thwarting use of public domain texts.

First, Audible’s customers have complained about paying for titles that are available for free elsewhere, such as on LibriVox. Also, sales - and therefore your royalty payments - may not be as high for a public domain work where multiple audio editions exist.  


But my idea persisted. Here is an outline of the steps I followed to publish my public domain audiobook through ACX.  

1. Created publishers account

First, I created a publisher account on ACX and tried to claim the free Kindle edition of the book.  

ACX is set up with a connection to Amazon’s book database. The rights holder must have a print or ebook edition of the title already listed on Amazon.

When I asked ACX to associate the free Kindle copy of my public domain book with my publisher account so I could upload the audiobook, ACX support responded:
In order for us to accept your public domain title, you must upload your version of the book on Amazon. The title needs to be uploaded by you with a distinct introduction or dedication in order to make it your own.  
Since they are set up for this 1-to-1 match of print and audio editions between Audible and Amazon, I could see why they needed a different version.

In addition to the reasons stated above, Amazon and Audible are adding WhisperSync technology so that customers can switch between the Kindle and Audible editions of the text. Therefore, the editions have to match.  

2. Create New Edition

I then spent considerable time in creating a new ebook edition of Wheeler’s book with a personal introduction and linked table of contents to make it different from the existing free version.  

Formatting the ebook and choosing the cover are beyond the scope of this article. Plenty of resources exist to help you with those tasks.  

2A. Narrate the book!

I narrated the audiobook from my ebook before uploading it, so I could fix any typos in the text that I found in the course of narration.  

When I uploaded my perfect Kindle version to Kindle Direct Publishing, it was immediately rejected because it was not differentiated enough from the free version! The KDP form letter response stated:  
We offer our customers free editions of public domain titles in the Kindle Store. In order to provide an optimal customer experience, it’s our policy to only offer differentiated versions of these freely available books… We consider works to be differentiated when one or more of the following criteria are met:

• (Translated) – A unique translation
• (Annotated) – Contains annotations (unique, hand-crafted additional content including study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or detailed historical context) • (Illustrated) – Includes 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book ….

While it’s possible that other features may make books unique, we only consider the criteria noted above to be differentiated. Examples of some features we do not consider to be differentiated include a linked table of contents, formatting improvements, collections, sales rank, price, and freely available Internet content. Please note it is considered misleading to customers to have your title claim differentiation when your book is not sufficiently differentiated.     
3. Is there another way?

I wrote to both ACX and KDP multiple times asking for a fourth way to differentiate a text - as the companion to the audiobook. Neither organization offered any accommodation. I also suggested that ACX allow the first publisher to claim the free Kindle version. That suggestion wasn’t adopted, either.  

4. Purchased illustrations for book

I found and bought 10 (count ‘em, 10!) lovely vintage images from iStockPhoto to illustrate my ebook. 

It took some thought and time to find appropriate images that could be inserted throughout the book and in places where they logically should appear. Simply putting 10 images in one place would not differentiate the book.

I didn’t mind buying the images, as I will re-purpose these illustrations to create a video to promote the audiobook.  

5. New illustrated version

I uploaded my ILLUSTRATED Kindle edition to KDP and was thrilled when it was accepted for publication!  

I had to note the manner of differentiation from the free text in both the title and the first line of the description.

My ebook is now available for sale in the Kindle store. Yay!    

6. Claimed my book on ACX

I logged in to my ACX publisher account and claimed my edition, which was still flagged on ACX as being a known public domain book.  

I clicked the link to claim the book and wrote the message explaining that I had created a different Kindle version. If I had bought the audio rights to a contemporary book, I believe I would start with this step on ACX.

All of the steps before now to create and publish a Kindle version were required only because I published from a public domain text.  

7. Obtain ACX approval

Next, WAIT for the email from ACX stating that your edition has been added to ACX. This is very important!

I didn’t do this step and claimed my book as soon as I saw it on ACX. If I had waited, I would have known about the next step and saved myself some aggravation and a few days’ delay.  

8. Create title profile

Be sure to check the box for a NON-EXCLUSIVE distribution contract, because the text is still in the public domain.  

Since I jumped the gun, I had selected an exclusive contract. I had already uploaded my audio files before I learned I needed to change the contract type. ACX had to remove my title from the system and add it back, so, of course, everything I did had to be re-done, further delaying me by several days.  

You also will need to choose your territories of distribution and enter information such as the name of the narrator, name of the publisher, and print and production copyright dates.  

ACX provided some additional guidelines about public domain audiobooks: 
• You can’t post the title for audition or contract a narrator to create the audiobook. The audiobook must be recorded outside of ACX.
• You can upload the audiobook to ACX and use it for distribution as long as your audiobook meets the ACX Audio Submission Requirements.  
9. Upload audio files

Upload the audio files chapter by chapter in the ACX interface, and click "I’m Done” when you are satisfied.  

10. Start marketing!

Rejoice when you receive the email from ACX stating that your audiobook is now available on Audible, and start marketing it!  

For instance, see The Heart of the New Thought here.


Jewel Audiobooks doesn’t have a web site yet. It doesn’t have business cards. I imagine many of the companies profiled in the Dell ad also didn’t have those things when they started.

I look forward to the same sort of exponential growth in my publishing empire as Dell has had in computers!  

And now that Jewel Audiobooks is a dream come true, I’m already planning the publication of my next couple of public domain titles.

I’m also planning a follow-up contact about obtaining the audio rights to the first author in my previous search because I still would love to narrate her book. I think it’s another idea whose time has come!

Karen Commins is a voice actor based in Atlanta specializing in narrations, e-learning modules and audiobooks. With over two decades of experience as an information technology professional, she is a subject matter expert in performing technical scripts about computer-related topics. She records in a soundproof studio and writes A VOICE Above The Crowd, an insightful and entertaining blog about working and marketing oneself in the voice over profession.

Web & Blog:

Your Daily Resource For Voice-Over Success
Tell Us What YOU Think!
Please Note: Since we check for spam, there will be a slight delay in the actual posting of your comment.
Your Name:
Your Email Address (will not be published):
Your Comment:
Your Comment:
Security code:     
Comments (5)
8/31/2016 at 3:42 AM
Love this idea. There are some old important books that I think need to be known in this time. The idea came to me about making audio books with public domain works and earning some income with it. I've made a home studio for music, though I could use it for other applications as well.
Karen Commins
1/30/2014 at 11:54 PM
Greetings, Mike! Your question is neither dumb nor green.

Audiobooks are my passion, and I have long held the dream of starting my own audiobook publishing company.

Publishing THE HEART OF THE NEW THOUGHT was something I felt called to do. I undertook the process in my spare time in between my paying jobs, many of which are in narrating audiobooks.

Obviously, I didn't know when I started this project that so many obstacles would appear! However, I think that obstacles often show up just to test how badly we want something.

As I noted in a previous comment, I think it's important that we create our own work instead of always waiting for other people to hire us. By starting Jewel Audiobooks, I can always assure myself of an audiobook narration job! :)

I've been surprised and gratified by the sales of this audiobook in its first week. It is distributed on Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

The nice thing is that I WILL RECEIVE ROYALTIES on the sale of this book for 7 years, which definitely makes my time and energy expended worthwhile!

Thanks again for the great question. Best wishes for your continued success!

Karen Commins
Mike Elmore
1/30/2014 at 5:30 PM
Not being an AB narrator…and just a reader of the process my question may seem dumb (or green). But why would you want to expend time and energy on this rather than seeking addtl AB work?
Karen Commins
1/30/2014 at 3:50 PM
Greetings, Rebecca! Thanks so much for your kind words. I think it's very important that we create our own work instead of always waiting for others to hire us. I admire you for creating your wonderful podcast interviews and wish you continued health, prosperity, and success in 2014 and beyond!

Thanks again to John Florian for republishing my article and for your tireless efforts to help the entire voiceover community.

Karen Commins
Rebecca aka LoveThatRebecca
1/30/2014 at 8:12 AM
Karen - a hearty BRAVO to your journey and success! You continue to amaze, inspire and offer so much to everyone in the VO community. Thank you!
Back to Articles
For essential voice-over business strategies
On Michael Langsner's Voice-Over Roadmap Podcast
With Sean Daeley and Paul Stefano - check it out!
Inspiring interviews help your VO career