Republishing an Old Cookbook with Expired Copyright

Republishing books with expired copyrights is usually the first idea every publisher who learns about print-on-demand thinks of trying. It seems like a no brainer, the content is both free and, to an extent, proven, but there is the little problem of it being so obsolete that it probably won't sell unless you choose and market the title very intelligently. But thinking about it, who doesn't have a relative who's holding onto their clothes from the 1950's, insisting that fashions repeat themselves? When it comes to cookbooks, whole foods and organic farming have become quite the craze in recent decades. Now it seems to me that whole foods and organic farming were the rule a hundred years ago, so republishing old cookbooks may make a lot of sense for both nostalgia and practical marketing purposes.

Before you republish a cookbook, you want to make sure it is indeed in the public domain, that the copyright has expired and hasn't been renewed. The rule of thumb is that copyright protection has expired for books published before 1923 in the U.S. Like all rules of thumb, I'd recommend that you research it further before putting your assets at risk! Books published after 1923 can fall into a number of categories, depending on how long the author lived and whether the copyright was renewed. The very fact that the book is in the public domain introduces a new difficulty for the publisher, namely, you can't copyright it yourself. If your Olde New England Cookbook starts to climb the bestseller charts, any number of large trade publishers with lower costs and better distribution can rush out their own versions and eat your lunch, both literally and literarily.

There may be a liability issue in terms of providing harmful recipes. "Take ye one Pound of lard, not rancid, add to skillet on well stoked stove. Next add ten Pound of well aged venison, taken after the Chestnut season for flavour. Finish with two measures of good corn whiskey aged in Oak." That recipe for "Deere Steak" is obviously off the top of my head, but I can imagine similar formulas in an old cookbook that could cause a heck of a kitchen fire if the reader lacks 19th century sensibilities.

One of the most attractive aspects of republishing old cookbooks from the print-on-demand publishers perspective is they are highly unlikely to contain any color illustrations. Old black and white line drawings can be scanned and reproduced, or you might do your own original artwork to have something in the book that's copyrightable. By the same token, notes and explanations that you add, like what temperature an electric stove should be set to when the cookbook calls for "exceedingly hot" are original and can be copyrighted. Likewise, you could edit up a collection of old recipes from a variety of cookbooks with expired copyrights.

Since today is exceedingly hot, and I'm just a ten minute walk from the Smith College Library, I'm going to stroll over there this afternoon and see what they have for old cookbooks. I used to think that republishing books with expired copyrights was the last refuge of a scoundrel. Maybe it is, but I haven't published a new book in two years now, so it's about time I tried something new just to keep in practice. Besides, I'm down to eating peanut butter sandwiches and tuna sandwiches on alternating days, so it's about time I read a cookbook. I'll be depressed if they all start out with, "First, buy ye some monosodium glutamate."

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