When Amazon first introduced its Kindle e-reader back in 2007, I didn’t see the point. Why would I spend hundreds of dollars on a book-reading gadget when I could find so many books for a dollar or less at used bookstores and garage sales? Or check them out for free at the library?
But over the years, the new e-book format grew on me. For one thing, with the development of apps to display e-books on smartphones and tablets, it was no longer necessary to have a separate machine for reading them. Also, there are definite advantages of being able to download books instantly and access a whole collection from one little device, rather than adding yet more weight to my bulging bookshelves.
But what really won me over was the discovery that these new digital books are often much cheaper than the printed kind. Not only can you buy a new e-book for as little as half the price of the same book on paper, but there are also thousands of e-books online that cost nothing at all.
Here’s how you can access more bargain-priced e-books than the most voracious reader can get through in a lifetime.
Tools for Reading E-Books
If you still had to buy a special device just to read e-books, the savings on the books would likely not be enough to pay for it. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. There are now free apps that can display just about any e-book right on your computer, tablet, or phone.
Of course, if you already have a dedicated e-reader, you can still use it to read any e-book that’s formatted for it. However, not every e-book works with every reader. E-books come in a wide range of formats, including:
- Kindle. The Kindle is Amazon’s e-reader, and books in Kindle format won’t work on other types of readers. However, the free Kindle app — available for Android, iOS, PC, and Mac — lets you read Kindle-formatted books on any computer or mobile device.
- Nook. The Nook e-reader is Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle. To read Nook books on other devices, download the Nook app. It’s available for iOS, Android, and Windows. However, there is no Mac version.
- Apple Books. The< Apple Books app comes bundled with new Apple devices, including Mac computers. If you have an older Apple device, you can download the app from the iTunes store. Apple Books can read books in ePub and PDF format and also play audiobooks.
- Google Play Books. The free Google Play Books app can display e-books in either PDF or ePub format. There are versions available for Android or iOS.
- Overdrive. The Overdrive app is designed specifically to work with e-libraries — collections of digital books and media that library users can download for a limited time. It can read e-books in its own Overdrive Read format, as well as ePub, Kindle, PDF, and MediaDo Reader, a format specifically for graphic novels and text that doesn’t read left-to-right. It can also play audiobooks and videos. There are versions of Overdrive for Android, Chromebook, iPhone, iPad, Kindle Fire HD, Mac, Windows Phone, and Windows desktops.
- ePub. The ePub format is an open standard — a publicly available format that’s free to use with any type of software. It works on most e-readers and apps, including Nook, Apple Books, Google Books, and Overdrive. You can also read ePub books on a Windows or Mac computer with a free program called Adobe Digital Editions. However, you can’t read ePub books on a Kindle unless you use Calibre, a free, open-source program. It can convert nearly any e-book format to any other format. With this program, you can convert books formatted for other readers to work on a Kindle — and vice versa.
- PDF. Many e-books are formatted as PDFs. You can read these on any computer with Adobe Acrobat. Most Web browsers can also read these files right in the browser window.
Best Places to Find E-Books
Once you start hunting for e-books online, it’s amazing how many sources you can come up with. Major bookstores, e-libraries, and other collections all offer e-books at little or no cost.
A search for “free Kindle books” in the Kindle Store turns up more than 90,000 titles. This total includes large collections of fiction, nonfiction, and Kindle Short Reads — selections you can read in anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. Many of these are short stories or novels that serve as introductions to longer series.
If you want even more choices, you can sign up for Kindle Unlimited. For a flat monthly fee, you get “all you can read” e-books from a catalog of more than one million Kindle e-books, as well as thousands of audiobooks and various magazines. However, you do not get to download and keep the selections you read. You only have access to them as long as you maintain your subscription.
If you already have a library of Kindle books, Amazon’s lending program allows you to share them with others. It works thanks to a built-in feature in Kindle books that makes them loanable. You can lend out each Kindle book you own for a period of up to two weeks, during which you can’t read it on your own machine. At the end of the two weeks, the book returns to your collection. You can also read other users’ Kindle books this way.
2. Barnes & Noble
Rival bookseller Barnes & Noble offers a selection of free e-books nearly as large as Amazon’s. There are more than 77,000 titles here, spanning a wide range of genres. You can find literary classics, history, romance, sports, children’s books, graphic novels, and even cookbooks. All selections are Nook books, which can be read with any ePub reader.
In addition to its free books, Barnes & Noble offers many inexpensive selections. To find them, go to the main Nook Books page and scroll down to the bottom, where it lists “Prices” in the left column. You can then select the price range that interests you.
Although iTunes is best known as a music store, it also sells e-books in Apple Books format. Go into the iTunes store, select Books from the “Explore” menu, and then click on “free books” to find a variety of titles. There are classic works and newer ones, selections for kids and for adults, fiction and nonfiction. You can read your selections on any Apple device with the Apple Books app.
At Scribd, you can find not just e-books but also audiobooks and magazines — not to buy, but to borrow. This online subscription service works much like Kindle Unlimited but for a slightly lower monthly fee. Better still, your first month of the service is free.
Your membership allows you to read as many books as you like from Scribd’s e-book collection, which includes both current bestsellers and older titles in a variety of categories. There’s fiction for all ages, biographies, celebrity memoirs, health and fitness, science, lifestyle, politics, personal growth, and a wide assortment of books about money and careers. However, these books are for your personal use only. You aren’t allowed to share them or lend them to anyone else.
If your local public library is a member of an e-library, you can check out e-books from its collection for free. You get access to the e-book for a fixed period of time, during which no one else can download it. When your time is up, the book is returned automatically, and you can’t read it anymore until you check it out again. To find out if your library offers this feature, consult its website or do an online search for “e-library” plus the name of your state.
If it turns out you’re not part of an e-library system, you can still check out free books through Open Library. Libraries all across the country have made books from their collections available through this site. It offers more than 44,000 e-books that anyone can borrow by signing up for a free account. The site also provides access to more than 1.7 million books in the public domain that are freely available at any time.
The Open Library is a project of the Internet Archive, an even larger collection of over 20 million downloadable books and texts. Many of these are digitized versions of historical documents, but there are also 1.3 million modern e-books available to borrow. To find a text, type the title or author’s name into the search bar. If the book is available, you’ll see a variety of options for downloading it.
6. Project Gutenberg
Many of the free works available on Open Library were contributed through Project Gutenberg, a collection of more than 60,000 works in the public domain converted to digital form by volunteers. The goal of Project Gutenberg is to make these works available to anyone with a computer, anywhere in the world.
Since the works on Project Gutenberg are no longer under copyright, you can not only read them but also use them in any way you like. Users have taught these works in the classroom, adapted them for the stage, and used their text in linguistics projects.
The books at Project Gutenberg are in a variety of formats, including ePub, Kindle, plain text, and HTML. Use the search bar to look for a title you want, or browse the collection by category.
There’s a much smaller selection of free e-books — about 800 total — at OpenCulture. However, this modest collection includes a surprising variety of titles and genres. Many of them are older works that are out of copyright, with titles by such noted authors as Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. However, there are also newer pieces by modern authors such as Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, and Toni Morrison, which are free to read online.
The texts on OpenCulture aren’t stored on the site itself. Instead, they’re links to works available for free from other sources, including Project Gutenberg, the Kindle Store, magazines, university servers, and the authors’ own blogs. Some are HTML text or PDFs, while others are available in iTunes or Kindle formats. You can also click the “Free eBooks” links in the right margin to find still more collections of free e-books online.
The book-review site Goodreads has a collection of 2,500 e-books you can read online or download. Some are full-length books, while others are short excerpts or “teasers” for longer works. The files come in a variety of formats, including Kindle, ePub, PDF, and plain text.
Goodreads offers both classics and new works by little-known authors. Many of the works here are fan fiction, such as the nearly 300 books based on J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. There are also many foreign-language books.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to search the downloadable books on GoodReads. Typing a title or author into the search bar searches the entire site, not just the free section. If you’re looking for a specific book or type of book, you’ll have to scroll through the 50-plus pages of listings until you find it.
9. Google Books
Google Books is a collection of more than 25 million books that have been scanned and converted to searchable files. Not all those books are available to read in full, however. With most books, all you can do is search the text and view a preview — from a few lines to several pages — containing your search term.
However, if you find a book you like on Google Books, the site can help you find a copy of it. If the book is in the public domain, you can view the full text on the screen or download a PDF copy. If it’s not, you can click on the links for “Borrow this book” to find an e-library that has it or “Buy this book” to find a copy for sale.
My newfound taste for e-books doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the old-fashioned printed kind. E-books are an excellent addition to an existing book collection, not a replacement for it. My bookshelves are as full as ever, and I haven’t stopped visiting my local library or haunting used bookstores.
But now, when I can’t find a book I want in either of these places, I have more options than ever before. I can check out my local e-library, consult Project Gutenberg, and see what various e-book vendors have to offer. With so many choices, it’s become easier than ever to satisfy my book habit on the cheap.
Are you a fan of e-books? What are your favorite places to find e-books?