Have you ever gone to the grocery store and bought a box of store-brand Happy-Os cereal for half the price of the major name-brand version?
How can the store sell that cereal so cheaply? It tastes almost exactly like the name-brand, after all—the ingredients must be quality and they still have to pay the workers and factory costs.
You might have also wondered the same thing about some of the ebooks you see in the Kindle marketplace. How can anyone sell a book on, say, Pinterest marketing secrets for only 99 cents? Didn’t they have to put a ton of effort into writing it?
The answer to both questions is actually the same: private labeling.
Private Label Rights
Happy-Os cereal is a generic, or private label, version of another brand’s cereal. The company that makes it makes huge batches of cereal, then boxes it up and labels it differently for all its clients—one version goes to Price Chopper, one goes to Albertson’s, and one goes to Shaw’s.
The stores can sell the cereal for a low price because they didn’t actually put any work into developing or creating it—they just provided the package design and the name. They paid the cereal company for the right to sell the cereal, which is less expensive than actually manufacturing it.
Meanwhile, the cereal company makes money because it can work in bulk, selling the same cereal to lots of stores.
All those Kindle books you see that seem to cover the same topics, all sold at a low, low price by authors who also have 50 other books out on various topics?
Private label rights, or PLR, products are created by someone who then licenses most of their rights in the work to other people to resell.
The creator makes money from the license fees. The resellers make money from people buying the content they can provide inexpensively, packaged under their own brand just like a store-brand cereal.
PLR vs. Public Domain
PLR content is different from works in the public domain.
“Public domain” means that a work is available for anyone to use for free. In contrast, PLR content is created specifically for resale—you have to pay to get the file that you can then redistribute or sell under your own brand.
Public domain works may be older books for which the copyright has expired, or they might be books that were written before copyright laws came into effect. These are works like Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, or Dracula.
They might also be a creative work that someone has released to the public because they want to contribute to society. For instance, there are a lot of free images available on sites like Wikimedia Commons that have been released into the public domain by their creators.
Public domain works are widely available for free, although you might choose to pay for an edition of a public domain book that has beautiful illustrations or a great cover. That’s your choice, though—there’s free options out there for the taking.
PLR works are written by creators who want to license their work to create revenue. They’re often created to fit a certain trending topic or keyword string, like “Pinterest marketing,” “Crossfit fitness,” “Paleo diet,” or “dating for nerds.”
They’re original works, but they’re up for sale for anyone who wants to pay a few dollars to license them—some sites sell unlimited copies, some limit the number of licenses to 50 or so to create some small limits on how often the content turns up online.
PLR content is specifically made for resale or distribution, and most people who buy PLR content do so in order to make money off it in some way.
Why Use PLR?
In many cases, using PLR is part of a marketing strategy—it’s not a business in itself.
The most ethical, straightforward use of PLR is as part of a sales funnel. We’ve all heard that you have to provide valuable content to your readers, offering them lots of great insights and tips for free and getting them to move up to another product that might cost a little, then another that costs more (but each offering more value, too).
How can a busy author crank out that much content? You have books to write!
Well, that’s where PLR comes in. You might buy a PLR white paper, infographic, or worksheet template, then offer that for free to newsletter subscribers as a bonus for signing up.
The next thing you offer them might be a longer PLR ebook that you can sell for a low price because you didn’t spend much time writing or producing it; you just had to customize the packaging for your brand.
Then you transition interested followers into buying something that you’re really trying to sell—say, an online course. That’s where you put your time and energy: into developing a value-loaded, customized, totally unique online course that you can sell for $495 or more.
So PLR here is a way to get people in the door without much effort—you’re concentrating on creating value in the form of your course, and instead of diverting your time to make a few downloadable PDFs and an ebook, you’ve bought PLR versions to give away.
You’re still giving value to your followers, but you haven’t spent a lot of time on an area that doesn’t generate tons of revenue and show off your precise expertise. With this method, you can focus on what you want to be doing—creating your course and coaching your students—while still offering the kinds of content that get people in the door.
But there’s a darker side to PLR, too…
PLR ebooks surged in popularity on Amazon around 2010–2011. It seemed like every third book you clicked on was exactly the same as the first, just with a different cover and author.
How could that be?
People had heard about the ebook revolution and were eager to cash in, but didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing their own book. Or else they figured they could make a bundle by selling in volume—10,000 sales of a 99-cent ebook add up, and if you can sell 10,000 copies of 15 different 99-cent ebooks? Well, then, you’re golden!
Trouble is, that flood of relicensed books really cluttered up Amazon. Customers started having trouble finding new, unique books that really addressed their problems and began getting annoyed at all the duplicates. Especially when many of those duplicates were books that didn’t offer much value—they were very obviously written by grouping a bunch of popular keywords as a way to make sales, not to help educate a reader or solve a problem.
In 2011, Amazon started to crack down.
After customers complained about finding dozens of identical books, distinguished only by different covers and titles, in a huge range of categories, Amazon started deleting “spurious” or “spam” books.
It defined these as “undifferentiated or barely differentiated versions of ebooks” and simply removed them from sale through KDP.
Sellers were upset, but also a little sheepish. Most of them realized that it was too good to be true: listing 22 books in a weekend with just a little light formatting work felt like gaming the system. And Amazon agreed—it said copycat PLR books “diminished the experience” for customers.
Amazon says this on the subject:
Publishing Public Domain Content
Our program allows the selling of content that is in the public domain. However, we may ask you to provide proof that the content you submitted is in the public domain. We may refuse public domain content that’s already available through our program or other retail sites. To provide a better customer experience, we don’t publish undifferentiated versions of public domain titles if a free version is available in our store. Differentiated works are unique. They meet one or more of these requirements:
- Translated: Unique translations
- Annotated: Unique annotations (additional content like study guides, literary critiques, detailed biographies, or historical context)
- Illustrated: 10 or more unique illustrations relevant to the book
That policy is worded a little loosely, but for good reason.
Actual public domain works, like War and Peace, are allowed to go into the Kindle store—presuming you’ve taken the time to format them, design a brand-new cover, and specifically to add a study guide or brand-new material, explanations, or illustrations. You have to make your edition of the book different from every other edition on the market.
Amazon allows these editions of public domain works specifically because they’re different and they add value.
Remember, in this case, you’re not labeling War and Peace as being your own: it’s still War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, not War and Peace by Jake Kerblatz, and certainly not Conflict and Calm by Jake Kerblatz.
So in this case, you’re not creating confusion among Amazon’s customers about what they’re buying and whether what they’re buying is new and unique, or a clone of something someone else is selling.
PLR content, meanwhile, goes against this rule because it’s been purchased with the purpose of reselling it, often without making any changes to that content. That means it’s not unique by Amazon’s standards.
If the book you want to publish is “undifferentiated or barely differentiated from one or more other books,” Amazon can pull it down at any time.
There are other reasons to be wary of PLR content, too.
First, you never know if it really is legally available for repackaging. It’s possible that the PLR seller you bought it from plagiarized, or otherwise violated an original creator’s copyright to create the PLR package.
If that’s the case, and the original creator becomes aware of what’s happened, anyone who’s reselling that work and claiming it as their own (by putting their name on it), could find themselves in legal trouble.
Then there’s the issue of value to your reader. With dozens or even hundreds of people buying and distributing the same cheap PLR content, it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out that you’re distributing the exact same book they saw over on Jill Schmoe’s site…and both of you are claiming you wrote it.
Whoops. That doesn’t help you build relationships or happy fans!
And finally there’s the matter of quality. PLR sites are content mills: they make their money like the generic cereal manufacturers, by churning out product in bulk. Only in this case, their product is books and other content.
The tips, tricks, and techniques in those books aren’t likely to be very insightful or valuable when the authors are grinding out book after book on a range of topics every day.
Besides that, you can’t guarantee that the book is well-written and not loaded with grammatical and spelling errors. Do you really want to put your name on a book that reads like it was written by a dyslexic chimpanzee?
So always think twice before jumping on the PLR train, no matter how tempting.
How to Use PLR Right
If Amazon doesn’t want undifferentiated versions on its site, that means you can’t use PLR books on Amazon without risking having your sales shut down, right?
There is a way to use PLR content and publish it on Amazon that stays within the rules: change it.
Now, that doesn’t give you the instant income stream that PLR resellers promise—you can’t just slap on a cover and list it for sale.
But it does give you the opportunity to sell a whole bunch of titles with a lot less work than if you wrote them all from scratch.
The Cookie Model
Let’s go back to our grocery store metaphor, only now, instead of cereal, we’re talking cookies.
You want to raise money by having a bake sale. To make the most cash, you’ll need a lot of different products—not everyone loves snickerdoodles—but you don’t want to spend a ton of time baking everything from scratch.
So you go to the store and buy a cartload of boxed cookie mixes. When you get home, you decide to customize the mixes a little—you add sprinkles to one, chocolate chips to another, and walnuts to a third. Maybe you get creative with some espresso powder and cinnamon.
When the cookies are ready, you package them up with fun labels and nice boxes.
Now you’re ready for your sale!
Customizing PLR Content
That’s how you can legally, ethically, and properly use PLR content to generate money on Amazon: customize the content.
When you get the PLR content, you have to update it, rearrange it, remix it, add from your own experience, or otherwise change it in a fairly substantial way to make it your own.
Then you can add a cover and list it on KDP.
So you bought the box mix, and now you’re adding cinnamon and chocolate chips to make it your own.
This takes more time than simply posting what you found on a PLR site, but it also adds value for the reader—and keeps you on the right side of Amazon’s content policies. If you add your own insights and experience to the existing PLR content, your book won’t be “undifferentiated.” It’ll be yours.
Basically, you’re using PLR as a source (hopefully one of many), rather than a product.
How Much Is Enough?
Exactly how much customization is required?
Well, we don’t know. If you want to stick to the spirit of Amazon’s policy, you’d write a book from scratch, pouring out your collected wisdom and intuition onto blank pages.
If you want to make a buck starting tomorrow morning, you might choose PLR content as a starting place.
If you’re intimidated about writing a complete book all on your own, PLR might help you get your confidence up. You can insert your own perspective into the licensed content, starting to get a feel for how tone and pacing work and how to develop a writing voice.
Used like that, or used as a source to jumpstart your research and writing process, PLR is a handy tool.
But when used to simply dump 300 books into Amazon, expecting to sit back and rake in profits, it’s little more than spam, and Amazon treats it that way. You might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later, the algorithms will catch up with you.
It’s the old computer programmer saying: junk in, junk out.
Take the time to add value to whatever you do and you’ll be rewarded. It might take longer to write a book that comes from your heart, displaying your passions and helping your readers, but at the end of the day, your dedication will pay off.
And isn’t that worth it?
Have you used PLR content? Do you think it has a place in an author’s lineup?
To learn about marketing your book so you can earn a full-time income from your writing, read on!