Yes, Virginia There are Legal Free eBooks

300-thumb-lifestyleIf this is Tuesday, there must be a new controversy about eBooks. Recently, the Technology section of the Washington Post reported that both Amazon was selling Project Gutenberg titles in their eBook stores. This was picked up by other sources, including the Huffington Post. Amazon bashing ensued. People quickly found similar titles available on Barnes and Noble. Of course, B&N bashing ensued as well.

As usual, the blame, if there should be any, was misplaced. Many people were pointing fingers at  Amazon and B&N, forgetting that in most of these cases, they aren’t the publishers. These titles were put up by people selling PG titles through CreateSpace at Amazon or PubIt at B&N. Just copy the text from Project Gutenberg, reformat it, and upload it for sale at Amazon and B&N. Presto, you’re a publisher. It’s not illegal, and it is allowed by the Project Gutenberg license, but some argue that it’s unethical. After all, the PG volunteers put a lot of effort into scanning and proofreading the eBooks, only to see someone selling the very same editions.

Many eBook fans are upset at the practice. One of the complaints is that it’s hard to find new books if over 100 copies of Pride and Prejudice or Dracula crop up in searches, often in the wrong categories. But the biggest complaint is that customers are being ripped off. If they knew they could download those books for free, surely they wouldn’t pay for them. Right? Not necessarily. While I have lots of free eBooks on my Nook, sometimes I’d rather pay a nominal amount (often as low as 99 cents) to buy a good copy, and I’m not alone. Also, both Amazon and B&N offer loads of public domain titles for free. Despite that, the controversy continues. Don’t they always?

Controversy aside, this brought up something I hadn’t thought about. Although Project Gutenberg was established in 1971 (that’s about 700 years in Internet years), many readers don’t know they can go there to download everything from the complete works of Shakespeare to Dracula. Even people who know about PG might not realize that the site, which used to offer only plain text files, now supports newer formats such as Mobipocket and EPUB, or that they offer some books in illustrated editions and even as audiobooks. Also, eBook fans might not know about similar sites or about publishers giving away copies of current novels.

So we’re asking fans of AAR about their experience with free eBook sites – the legal ones, that is. Did you know about sites such as Project Gutenberg, and if so, do you use these sites on a regular basis? Even if you know about these sites, do you still find yourself paying for a public domain novel because of the convenience?

If you haven’t visited them before, sites like PG are like a giant Redbox without a fee. For years, I wanted to read the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, but it was available only in a huge volume that cost nearly a hundred dollars. Along came the Internet, and I was able to download the entire book in minutes. While I was at it, I also downloaded a couple of Ann Radcliffe novels, some Dickens, some Norse mythology. Before anyone starts getting worried about piracy, the only pirates on these sites are Long John Silver and his friends. These sites only provide eBooks that are out of copyright in their country.

So what sites are out there? With apologies to Julie Andrews, here are a few of my favorite sites. All of them provide their titles in a number of formats. Many offer titles in numerous languages. Also, all of these titles are available without that nasty DRM (digital rights management) that frustrates eBook readers everywhere. This means you can easily copy, convert, and even share the books.

  • Project Gutenberg: This is the granddaddy of them all. If you used PG in the past and were frustrated by the search functions, try it again. You can find many books by category using  the Bookshelf page. For example, if you want to read an adventure novel, click the Adventure Bookshelf link to go to a listing of authors ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Baroness Orczy. Be patient — keep in mind that you are searching over 33,000 titles. Kindle users can download The Magic Catalog of Project Gutenberg E-Books  in Mobi format. You can also volunteer to proofread for PG at Distributed Proofreaders.
  • ManyBooks.net: While it’s not as well-known as PG, I often find ManyBooks.net easier to use because of the organization and interface. Want to look for an author? Click the Author link on the first page to navigate by author. The genre listings here are easier to use than they are on PG. With nearly 60 categories, from Pirate Stories to Banned Books, you will be sucked into this site. ManyBooks also allows readers to upload their own books, so you can find newer books licensed under the Creative Commons. With over 29,000 eBooks, this site lives up to its name.
  • Munsey’s: With over 20,000 titles, the site formerly known as Blackmask.com, can be overwhelming. You can browse by category, search by author or title, or even search by user tags. This was one of the first sites that sucked me in with its free copies of old Gothic novels and ghost fiction that I couldn’t find in bookstores.
  • Online Books Page: This site is great because it lets you search for free eBooks across multiple sites — from PG to Project Gutenberg Australia to GoogleBooks. I find their list of categories harder to use, however, because it goes by Library of Congress categories, and I haven’t used those since college. If you are looking for old periodicals online, check out their listing of serials.  They also link to specialty listings of online resources.
  • HorrorMasters.com: If you want to go straight to the ghost and vampire stories, try this site. The subjects in the Horror Library section will give you delicious shivers. You’ll find spooky stories on everything from haunted houses and mummies to weddings. One warning for visitors to this haunted domain – unlike other sites, most of the HorrorMasters eBooks are only available as PDFs, which often can’t be read on eBook readers. Also, the site looks like it hasn’t been updated in a while.
  • Feedbooks: Feedbooks has just started selling eBooks, but they started out with an extensive selection of public domain eBooks, as well as free eBooks from newer authors.
  • Baen Free Library: OK, I’m going to babble here. Baen Books is a print publisher, specializing in SF and fantasy. It was created in 2000 because of controversy about the dangers (or not) about online piracy of eBooks. They made a bold move and started the Baen Free Library, providing downloads of books by some of their most popular authors. Some of their authors became popular because they were featured in the Free Library. Featured authors include Eric Flint (he started the whole thing), David Weber, David Drake, John Ringo, Mercedes Lackey, and Lois McMaster Bujold, among others. Many others. There is a lot of military science fiction, but also softer SF and fantasy. Baen sometimes includes CDs full of eBooks with select hardbacks, and they allow fans to make the contents available for download as long as they don’t charge for the free books.

What about other publishers? There are so many free eBooks offered on any one day that you need a scorecard to keep track of them all. Amazon is always offering free Kindle eBooks, but if you don’t strike while the iron is hot, you often miss out on the freebies. My favorite place for learning about the freebies (and bargains) is Mobileread’s Deals, Freebies, and Resources forum. You can also use InkMesh to find free eBooks. Want free Kindle books? Just click the Free Kindle Book link. There are also links for Free Sony Books and Free Nook Books, as well as free books from indie publishing site Smashwords.

But what if you can’t find the book in the format you want? Because these books are DRM-free, you can convert them into your preferred format. Just use a program like Calibre to do so.

- Anne AAR

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7 Responses to “Yes, Virginia There are Legal Free eBooks”

  1. I’ve found some obscure primary texts I couldn’t get elsewhere at the Internet Archive.

  2. Pat says:

    Excellent list, Anne! For those who want daily lists of free or inexpensive Kindle books, there’s also Daily Cheap Reads at http://www.dailycheapreads.com.

  3. JulieR says:

    I was absolutely floored to find that the hardcover of Lois McMaster Bujold’s new book, “Cryoburn,” came with a CD that included every book in LMB’s Vorkosigan series, in multiple formats! Yes, I’d already bought them all in paperback or hardcover, but now I always have them with me and can read them whenever the mood strikes. The CD also contained extras like The Vorkosigan Companion. Long live Baen!

    I picked up several free books at manybooks.com, such as some Lousia May Alcotts, Owen Wister’s “The Virginian”, and H. Rider Haggard’s “Allan Quatermain.” I’ve also picked up freebies from Kindle, notably “Outlander.”

  4. Mark says:

    Google book search gives access to lots of older books, but when I checked months ago the ebook versions were the output of uncorrected OCR, so whether you want to use them depends on your tolerance for glitchy text.
    The recently announced Google eBookstore also gives access to the free side.

  5. Nik says:

    Mills and Boon offers 12 free Romance e-books at their http://www.everyonesreading.com/ site.

  6. Ludmilla says:

    Gutenberg also offers ebooks in Kindle format now. i actually prefer Gutenberg’s organization over ManyBooks — maybe that’s a matter of what I am used to and what I’m looking for.