The Public Domain Project

by Kevin Barrett Kane


My only copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden has been in my family for three generations. Since its publication by Signet Classics and subsequent sale to my young-adult-novel-writing grandmother in 1960, it has been thoroughly annotated, highlighted, underlined, dog-eared, bookmarked, sticky-noted, torn, ripped, taped, and tossed by its many previous owners. Reading it now is as much an exercise of archaeology as it is of comprehension—many of the book’s pages near the point of palimpsest. When I was first assigned the book in the freshman year of my English degree at the University of Colorado, I questioned whether this weathered paperback copy still had any usefulness left in it.


But that’s the thing about books—the more battered they are, the better they are, and not for formalistic reasons. Pages hold a history, and in more ways than one. When reading Walden for my Transcendentalism class that semester, I gained as much knowledge from the scribbled notes and underlined passages as I did from my instructor. It was like owning a red-letter edition with parentheticals from half a dozen scholars filling its margins.

And so, when we decided to begin a public domain book design project in the first weeks of our new company, I knew that Walden would have to be the first book on the list. No, I didn’t want to replace my old copy, despite its tiny font and leading so small that the lines of text nearly overlap. Rather, I wanted to hit the reset button—to give some contemporary reader the chance to pass a cherished paperback classic down through the generations of his or her family. I wanted to design a book as beautiful as the words within it that could sit on the bookshelf next to my 1960 Signet Classics copy, eager to live out a 50+ year life in the hands of many loving readers. 

That simple idea was the impetus behind the Public Domain Book Design Project, and so far we have designed not just one, but two editions available for sale. But before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit more about public domain. For a book to enter the public domain, its intellectual property rights must expire or be forfeited. This can happen in several ways, and all depends on what country you’re in, and who filed property rights on the book. Once a copyright has expired, however, the text of a book becomes free-reign. In the case of Walden, the book entered the public domain on the 100th anniversary of its first publication in 1854. This is why, when you search for Walden on Amazon, there are about 50 pages of hits, all with different designs and published by different publishing houses all around the world.

So, if there are already hundreds of different versions available in print and online for an absurdly small price, why would we design our own version of this book? Certainly not for profit, but because Henry David himself visited us from the grave to tell us to do so, that’s why!

The second book we have available is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a book which will take me an entire separate blog post to discuss. I decided to design this whale of a book (210,000 words, no pun intended!) for many reasons that I will also address later. The exciting thing is that for this cover design, I enlisted the work of my best friend Shae Alexander Meyer for the cover art (read the chapter “The Spouter Inn” or see the excerpt on the back cover for an explanation of why his work belongs here).


Shae is a very recent graduate of the University of Colorado, and his artwork is awe-inspiring, to say the least. Featured on this cover is a painting entitled “Silent” that took over 3 months to create and features a complex maze of layered paint washes on a 50 square foot canvas. It is one of three such pieces featured in his recent BFA graduate show at the University of Colorado. If you want to buy a copy of Moby-Dick with Shae’s artwork on the cover, it’ll cost you $20. If you want to buy a Shae Meyer painting, it’ll cost you about $9,980 more. Not saying that you shouldn’t buy both…you totally should!

Our versions of Walden and Moby-Dick are available only in print (death be to EPUB!) on Amazon. In their current versions, they are printed by CreateSpace, the printing partner for Amazon. We are searching for alternative printing solutions to increase the quality of the books, but we simply cannot afford it at this point. Here’s the deal, though. The books are available at the same price on both websites, BUT, if you buy if from our website, we don’t have to give 95% of our proceeds to the true Leviathan: Amazon. I haven’t even linked to the Amazon page, so good luck searching through the hundreds of pages of Moby-Dick editions searching for our version!

As an alternative, we’ll be sending 100% of proceeds from Moby-Dick to the starving cover artist himself, Shae Meyer. Also in the not-available-on-Amazon category is the amazing bundle! Buy the two editions together and get 20% off!

See, we’re like a business now. Take us seriously. Soon we’ll have advertisements on the sides of busses and shit like that, and you’ll be saying things like “Man, I knew The Frontispiece before they were a multinational organization with billions of dollars in revenue and CEOs that spend most of their time in the Bahamas and avoiding taxes. If only I had bought that first edition Public Domain Project book they designed, I’d be rich and famous too!”

That’s right. We can dream.