Free and Easy

How material in the public domain can be turned into your own private revenue stream.

By Paul Sloan, Business 2.0 Magazine editor-at-large

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Judging by the e-books listed on Matt LaClear's website, he seems to be both a real estate expert and a prolific writer. He's cranked out four titles in the past eight months, including his first and best seller, No Holds Barred: Mugging Tactics for Today's Real Estate Agent. At $50 a pop, that book made LaClear $15,000 in its first month.

But here's the rub: He didn't even write it. "This is like making money with my eyes closed," LaClear says.

It's yet another odd and innovative way that people have discovered to profit using the power of the Web: selling digital versions of works no longer bound by copyright laws. One guy sells century-old crochet patterns that he scans into digital format. Another one sells images he gets free from NASA. Yet another sells an old manual about wrestling techniques.

Any creative work that's fallen into the public domain - images, sheet music, or books published before 1923 and in some cases more recently - is fair game. How-to books, such as those LaClear "writes," are hot. LaClear, 37 years old, chose real estate because he had an e-mail list of agents from a previous marketing job and figured that would give him a head start. He perused, an online used-book seller that allows searches by year of publication. The first book he picked up was Closing the Sale, a 1925 title by J.C. Aspley that includes interviews with salesmen around the country.

He scanned the book and began his work. Unlike some sellers of public-domain books, LaClear does more than just write a pitch and resell the original text under the author's name. He reworks the manuscript slightly and calls it his own. In the case of Closing the Sale, for example, he made a story about selling Model Ts into one about selling Lexuses. He turned "cash register salesmen" into "computer salespeople." And he changed the title. "I just try to modernize it," LaClear says.

He added some in-your-face ad copy - "How can someone like you ever dare to thrive as a real estate agent?" is one line - and slapped the whole thing on his plain-Jane website, The site includes an author photo of a rugged-looking man who, fittingly, is not LaClear. ("My picture didn't generate as many sales," he admits.) He sent out e-mail pitches, and the money began rolling in. Today, he says, all "his" products are earning him $25,000 a month.

The work is harder if you don't have an e-mail list to start with, but not much, according to Yanik Silver, who was LaClear's mentor. Silver has turned old how-to books about drawing and growing houseplants into steady cash. He advises beginning by hunting in used-book stores and on the Web. Once you land on a little-known title that you suspect is marketable, check the U.S. Copyright Office website to make sure the work is in the clear; better yet, hire a lawyer.

Silver and LaClear use Wordtracker, a pay service for tracking what people are searching, as well as Yahoo's free search-marketing site. There, you can see how many people search for a given term - "drawing," say, or "growing houseplants" - and how much advertisers are paying for those keywords.

Then, Silver recommends, check out the competition. If no one is advertising similar products on Google, that's probably because the market is too small. Also check out how books on the same topic rank at If the work looks promising, digitize it and put it up on a website. Silver sometimes spends $50 or so to buy ads on Google to lure traffic. "Just put it up and see if it sells," Silver says. "This is the easiest thing out there."

Easy - but what about sleazy?

The J.C. Aspleys of the world might bristle at content resellers basically plagiarizing their work for profit. The resellers don't see it that way, of course. "Is it fair to mankind that good, helpful manuals are lost forever?" LaClear asks. "I view myself as a recycler."

THE ANGLE: Reselling Free Content

1 Home in on a topic of wide appeal, like real estate, or a niche topic with devoted followers.

2 Hunt down related books or other material for which copyrights have expired.

3 Repackage or modify the free content, slap a price on it, and sell it over the Web. Top of page

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