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Free and Cheap E-Books


Free E-books are not all they are cracked up to be, but cheap e-books are really much more available and prevalent than most people realize. Here's a deep dive into both free and inexpensive e-books.

You might find my previous article about e-book readers useful. I cover the various categories and things to consider when buying a reader.

Warning About E-book DRM and Formats

E-books normally encode layout specifications for different fonts and bold or italic fonts, tables of contents and special features like highlighting. The entire world agreed on an open format called EPUB. EPUB stands for Electronic Publishing.

However, Amazon has their own Kindle format. If you download a book from any bookstore besides Amazon, you won't be able to read it on your Kindle e-readers because they refuse to recognize EPUB books. So, EPUB books will work fine on Nooks, Kobo Readers, Adobe Digital Editions, Google Reader and most other E-Book readers, but will not open on Kindles. Furthermore, none of these readers will display Kindle books. Be careful to download the correct type of book for your reader.

PDF books are a special case. They use a page layout format that normally presents an 8 x 11 (letter size) sheet size image for each page. On a 6" reader, this can be too small to read. The various ways a reader attempts to deal with this problem, might not work. Whenever possible, avoid the PDF format unless you are sure you know what you are doing. I avoid PDF formats.

DRM is an acronym for Digital Rights Management. It is the way publishers protect their books from illicit copying. If we just buy from Kobo and use Kobo's reader, or buy from Amazon and use Amazon's reader, then we don't notice this. We have our books, we connect with the store and read them. But, what if you wanted to read a Google book on your Kobo reader? It won't "just work" because of the DRM protecting the book.

These concerns are resolved pretty well. Since everyone, except Amazon, uses Adobe's EPUB DRM system, you can open the book in your Adobe Digital Editions free program and then send the book to your reader as long as it isn't a Kindle. Adobe provides end users with this program for free, just as they provide a PDF reader for free. The Libby library program can now export to Kindles, in addition to EPUB readers, within the United States. If you borrow a book from the library, you use the Libby program to receive that book, and then you can send it to your Kindle reader as well as any other reader.

If the books are DRM free, it means the author or publisher decided to trust us not to copy the book. They wanted to allow us to make copies for our own use and read the book wherever and however we want to.

There are plugins for the wildly popular Calibre E-book Library Manager that strip out the DRM from books, allowing them to become DRM free. Calibre will also convert between various formats. This means you can convert books from Kindle to EPUB, for example. It also allows you to manage all your books and download information regarding the books.

Online Bookstores

Many online bookstores offer free or very cheap books and the ability to search for them. There are lots of excellent online bookstores, including these. Of course, these require an account. Smashwords specializes in DRM free books, so you can read those with any reader app. The stores all offer their own reader app for Android and iOS.
  • Amazon offers a top 100 here. They also offer many classics cleaned up and made properly presentable for under $3.
  • Kobo has a large select divided by category here. Many are the first book of a series, letting you read one and get hooked.
  • Smashwords has DRM free books, and you can filter by price and any of dozens of categories. So you can filter by Science Fiction and Free, or mystery and free for examples. These might be short stories or first books in a series. The price filtering is on top, the categories along the left column.
  • Ebooks.com is a big bookseller (2,334,776 books) and have many free books as well. You can use their reader all on Android or iOS, or download the free Adobe Digital Editions app and send the books to your device if it is not a Kindle. They also maintain an extensive DRM free collection.
  • Baen Books is a major Science Fiction book publisher. They have many free books, and additionally maintain a DRM free policy, so you can read their books on any reader. Some of my favorite authors use them as their publisher. Their free books are in the Free Library.

Your Library

Your library will probably allow you to check out books and download them from an app on your computer or, with Kobo, their own e-book reader. Get your library cards.

Promotional Book Sites / Services

Since E-books are so inexpensive to produce and deliver, it is often worthwhile for authors to advertise their books or a series by offering free or very low-cost books. This works well as advertising, and there are a few services that provide this service to publishers and us. Normally, you sign up for an account and list the authors you like and the categories of books you want. Then you'll get a newsletter with free and cheap books that match your specifications. These discounts are promotions from the publishers. Their websites, of course, also list those books. They are less likely to be classics out of copyright and more likely to be relatively modern book promotions. These newsletters of inexpensive books normally include links to Amazon, Kobo, Google and Barnes and Noble since they all offer most of the promotions.
  • Bookbub. This is the service I use, and I'm able to find many books I want for under $3.00. In the last month, I've picked up four books from $1.79 to $2.99.
  • Manybooks.net. Free and very cheap. From what I could see, these books are pretty clean. They require a free account and provide a newsletter like BookBub.
  • Free-Ebooks.net has completely free e-books if you become a member. I haven't tested this yet, but they seem ok. You can get five free books every month.

Reading Online

  • Authorama is a place you can read Public Domain books for free online with your computer. It links to purchasable versions of the books. I paid Amazon 32 cents for a nice edition of Abbott's Flatland linked from them after seeing how nicely it was laid out here. I don't like reading books on my computer.

Scanned Public Domain E-books

Why I don't like these

There are lots of public minded people who've been scanning old books into their computers, and running an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) program on them to convert the images to text and then uploading them. A scanned image is just a picture. It shows black dots on a white background, but doesn't have the faintest idea of what a letter is. OCR software tries to convert those dots into letters and words and sentences. If the original is good, and the OCR software is recent and has many improvements on the older software, and the scanner is excellent, and the fonts used are recognizable to the software, it can do a pretty good job. Otherwise, not so much. Given that: 
  • People have been scanning and uploading for 20 years
  • Most of the books were old and in poor shape 
  • They were scanned with bad software
  • They didn't have good scanners
I find these entirely useless and a waste of time. Your experience may vary. Newer uploads with better OCR software are likely to be better. Things get worse when there are multiple languages or transliterations. Here is a typical result from a section of Eric Hoffer's True Believer:

A r~- . : :nary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change. . j obvious is the fact that religious and nationalist n Tvements too can be vehicles of change. Some land of Irspread enthusiasm or excitement is apparently z^-ir: j for the realization of vast and rapid change, and o £:o>

As you can see, the OCR software wasn't really able to scan and convert the images with 100% accuracy from that copy from that book. However, it was up in the Internet Archive and available along with 8 other scanned images, none of which were acceptable to me. I paid $2.99 for a nice copy which was edited and had a table of contents that linked to the proper pages. I was happy to pay the money to have it cleaned up and presented properly.

Places, you can try these sites and see if you can find readable versions of books

The advantages of these two sources is that they have a large selection. However, if you want readable free public domain classics, the best place I've found is this.

  • Standardbooks.org A carefully curated collection, prepared by people to clean up all the imperfections you find with books from places like archives.org or Project Gutenberg. There are fewer books here, but they are good, clean copies.

Date: May 2024

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