When Amazon introduced its Kindle e-reader in 2007, I didn’t see the point. Why spend hundreds on a reading gadget when so many books cost a dollar or less at used bookstores and garage sales and are free at the library?
But the new e-book format grew on me. Apps can display e-books on smartphones and tablets, so no separate device needed. And there are advantages to downloading books instantly and accessing them from one gadget rather than adding weight to my bulging bookshelves.
But what really won me over was that digital books can be much cheaper than the printed kind. Not only can you buy e-books for as little as half the price of printed new releases, but there are also thousands that cost nothing. If you know where to look, you’ll find more cheap e-books than the most voracious reader can get through in a lifetime.
Best E-Book Download Sites
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. The best sites have thousands of titles to view or download for free.
A search for “free Kindle books” in the Kindle Store turns up more than 60,000 titles. Most are romance novels, but other popular categories include mystery, suspense, and family drama. Some 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 fee of $9.99 per month, you get unlimited reads from a catalog of more than 1 million Kindle e-books as well as thousands of audiobooks and various magazines.
But you can’t download and keep your selections. You only have access to them as long as you maintain your subscription.
If you already have a collection of Kindle books, Amazon’s lending program allows you to share them with others. You can lend 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 large selection of free e-books spanning a wide range of genres. You can find literary classics, history, romance, sports, children’s books, graphic novels, and even cookbooks.
In addition to its free books, Barnes & Noble offers many inexpensive selections. To find them, go to the main e-books page and look under “Special Values” in the left-hand column.
At Scribd, you can find not just e-books but also audiobooks, articles, podcasts, sheet music, and documentaries — not to buy, but to borrow. This online subscription service works much like Kindle Unlimited but with a plus: Your first month of the service is free. After that, it costs $9.99 per month.
Your membership allows you to read as many books as you like from Scribd’s e-book collection. It has over a million titles, including current bestsellers, new books by independent authors, and older titles. There’s fiction for all ages, biographies, celebrity memoirs, science, lifestyle, politics, self-improvement, and many books about money and careers.
But these books are for your personal use only. You aren’t allowed to share them or lend them to anyone else.
The entire collection at ManyBooks — over 50,000 titles — is 100% free. Selections span many genres, including public-domain classics, mystery, drama, poetry, nonfiction, and reference. There are even special sections devoted to niche categories like Canadian literature, banned books, and works published under Creative Commons licenses.
ManyBooks also serves as a platform for authors to self-publish. That makes the site an excellent place to find new works from little-known writers. But all texts on the site must comply with its editors’ quality standards.
You can search books by genre, author, or language and sort your selections based on the ratings they get from other users. You can download them or read online in your browser.
If your local public library is a member of an e-library, you can use your library card info to check out e-books from its collection for free. You get access to the e-book for a fixed period, during which no one else can download it.
When your time is up, the book returns itself 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 download free e-books through Open Library. Libraries all across the country make select books available through this digital library for anyone to borrow.
You can also use Open Library to access more than 20 million downloadable books and texts found at the Internet Archive. Many of these are digitized versions of historical documents and public-domain books that are freely available at any time. There are also over 2 million modern e-books available.
To borrow from the Open Library or directly from the Internet Archive, create a free Internet Archive account. To find a text, type the title or author’s name into the search bar. If the book is available, you’ll see various options for downloading it or reading it in your browser window.
6. Project Gutenberg
Many of the free works available on Open Library come from Project Gutenberg, a collection of more than 60,000 works in the public domain converted to digital form by volunteers. Project Gutenberg’s goal 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 both read them and use them any way you’d 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 numerous formats, including plain text and HTML to read online and ePub and Kindle files for download. You can save files to your hard drive or send them to Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive cloud storage. 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, out-of-copyright works with titles by such noted authors as Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. However, there are also newer pieces by modern authors like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, and Toni Morrison, which are free to read online.
OpenCulture doesn’t store the texts itself. Instead, it links to works available for free from other sources, including Project Gutenberg, the Kindle Store, magazines, university servers, and the authors’ blogs. You can also scroll down to the assorted texts section to find still more collections of free e-books online.
Books you read for pleasure are expensive enough, but prices for textbooks can be downright ludicrous. The founders of Bookboon are fighting back by making academic books available at no cost whatsoever.
It offers PDF versions of 1,000 textbooks by professors from top universities covering subjects like economics, engineering, and math.
Bookboon also offers a subscription service for business-related books. For $5.99 per month, you can read any of its 1,700 peer-reviewed business titles online. If you like a book so much you want to keep it, you can download it for an additional fee. Your first month is free.
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 various formats, including Kindle, ePub, PDF, and plain text.
Goodreads offers both classics and new works by little-known authors. Many of the reads here are fan fiction, such as the numerous 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.
10. 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.
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. These days, most e-books are in a format called 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 basically all e-readers and with all e-book apps.
But other e-book formats still exist. For example, some Kindle books are available in MOBI format, originally called Mobipocket. Texts in this format work on almost any e-reader except Barnes & Noble’s Nook.
Also, many free e-books are formatted as PDFs. You can read these on any computer with a PDF viewer like Adobe Reader or Mac’s Preview. Or you can read them right in most browsers.
E-readers and e-book apps include:
- Amazon Kindle. The Kindle is Amazon’s e-reader, and some older books formatted for Kindle don’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. Books sold for Barnes & Noble’s Nook are typically in ePub format, so you can read them on any device. The Nook can also read books in PDF format.
- Overdrive. The Overdrive app is designed specifically to work with e-libraries. It can read e-books in its own browser-based 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, Windows, and Kindle Fire HD.
- Kobo. The Kobo family of e-readers and tablets can read e-books in almost any format, including ePub, PDF, text, HTML, MOBI, and ePub3AV (for books with audio or video content). They also work with Overdrive to allow you to easily read library books. And the Kobo Reading app for desktop, iOS, or Android gives you access to Kobo’s features on your other devices.
- Apple Books. The Apple Books app comes bundled with all new Apple devices. For older Apple devices, you can download it from the iTunes store. Apple Books can be read in ePub and Multi-Touch, a format specifically designed for Apple devices. It can also play audiobooks (the only type that works on your Apple Watch).
- Google Play Books. The free Google Play Books app can display e-books in either PDF or ePub format. It can also play audiobooks. There are versions available for computers and Android or iOS devices.
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.