Free Ebooks: An Embarrassment of Riches

March 23rd, 2020

Is it Risky to Read Print Books?

There’s a lot of coverage of the challenges facing book retail right now because of the coronavirus. The situation is shocking and sad. But it feels careless to forget that even if every bookstore in the world shut down for the next 12 months, people would still have over ten million different ebooks available for purchase, and at least another million available for immediate download for free, nada, nothing. Among their other benefits, these ebooks are, as Piotr Kowalczyk notes, a virus-free way of reading (assuming you’ve kept your phone clean!).

I know that you know that there are free ebooks out there. The people I talk to who haven’t paid close attention to what’s on offer assume that they are, as it’s said, “free for a good reason,” mostly stuff you wouldn’t want to read, perhaps some of Henry James’ lesser work (he wrote 22 novels in total, along with literary criticism, travel writing, biography and autobiography), or that of Alexandre Dumas (277 titles) or Voltaire (over 2,000).

The site many think of first when they think of free ebooks is Project Gutenberg. There’s much to be said in its favor. Launched in the 1970s, it was the first provider of free ebooks, and has over 60,000 titles available today, in multiple languages. Unfortunately, when it launched, the only reliably interoperable text encoding was plain old monospaced ASCII, lacking formatting even for bold or italics. And so “free ebooks” often conjures up images like this, an excerpt from Moby Dick:

The ASCII Problem

You can see how free ebooks got off to a bad start.

But things have changed in two major ways, quantity and quality. Project Gutenberg now routinely offers encoded HTML for online reading, and for download they provide EPUB (with or without images) and Kindle.

But there’s so much more.

It’s difficult to get a handle on the full range of sources today for free ebooks. The aforementioned Piotr Kowalczyk lists 25 sites for free public domain books. A Google search of “free ebooks” will lead you to many more. But these sites vary widely in both the quantity and quality of ebooks on offer.


Quantity is easier to classify than quality.

I might as well get the “semi-free” highlighted first: Overdrive. Overdrive is the premier supplier of ebooks to public libraries, offering “a growing catalog of millions of digital titles from over 30,000 publishers” (including just about every trade book publisher with more than a few titles in print). Nearly every North American public library has a deal with Overdrive. Just about anyone can get a library card. And so the current canon of English-language books is largely available to the public via Overdrive’s servers. The caveat: while the books are “free” to the library user, they’re paid for by the taxpayer, and the cost to the library systems is high.

Libraries curate their Overdrive selection: most offer just a fraction of the available titles. There’s another caveat: Bestsellers are encumbered with long wait lists — good luck finding a copy of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. But there are lots of other good books available at any one time, and the mid-to-large publishers do a good job with their ebook formatting: the ebooks look pretty good.

The catalog of catalogs for free ebooks is the Online Books Page, listing “over 3 million free books on the Web,” Hosted without charge by the University of Pennsylvania, it encompasses everything from “detective and mystery stories” to some thoroughly obscure academic titles from centuries past. I click on one title at random, hosted by the Internet Archive. It’s Experiments Upon Vegetables: Discovering their Great Power of Purifying the Common Air in the Sunshine, and of Injuring it in the Shade and at Night, written by John Ingen-Housz and published in 1779. Not every one of the 3 million free books will hold your attention.

An ongoing development in free ebooks are the COVID crisis specials: many vendors are providing unprecedented no-cost access to their catalogs while the going remains grim. For instance in March Scribd announced “we will be making Scribd’s library — which includes millions of ebooks, audiobooks, magazine articles, and more — available to anyone, free, for 30 days.” (A cynic might spot a touch of opportunism amidst the enthusiasm, and the offer expired after 30 days.)

I don’t want to forget free audiobooks. Many thousands are available. There would be millions if you could just use a computer-generated voice file. (And, for the sight-impaired, this is the only economical option for many public domain titles, once the text has been digitized.) But audiobooks have a quality threshold (not unlike video) where, below a certain quality, they’re unlistenable (for video, unwatchable). During the current crisis the big audiobook publishers and distributors, Audible, Apple, et al. are making some titles available for free, for registered users. A better choice is LibriVox, with over 60,000 public domain audiobooks read by volunteers from all over the world.


Ebook quality has two axes: quality of content and quality of presentation.

On a site such as Amazon there are a plethora of free ebooks available from contemporary authors. The URL changes, discoverable via a Google search of “Amazon free books.” Today the link is here.

A frequent marketing practice among authors of contemporary fiction series to offer the first book in the series for free on Amazon in the Kindle edition. So, for example, you can download at no cost Have My Baby, the first volume in the 9-part Crescent Cove series, which appears to be a set of romantic novels involving single fathers. The book may not be to your taste, but 466 ratings and reviews on Amazon give it an average of 4.5/5 stars.

Heart of Darkness book cover

You can also download from Amazon for free an edition of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (rated 4/5 by over 1, 000 readers!). But, as one review notes, “The formatting of this copy is simply terrible. There are whole lines with only four words, pages with block text (no paragraph formatting) not in the original text and the pages are abnormally large, making all the text more difficult to read.” There are a lot of poor quality renditions floating around of some very fine work.

But instead visit Planet eBook, where you’ll find a professionally-produced version of the book. Or the Standard Ebooks version, also very attractively formatted. On the other hand the Many Books edition is created from the Project Gutenberg text and looks terrible.

I’ll leave it there. The lesson: there are a vast number of free ebooks available. Much of it fiction. In every genre.

When it comes to the classics, do not accept poor typesetting: there are almost always better editions available via a brief Google search.

(A March 27 Publishers Weekly article, by Andrew Albanese, “Is the Covid-19 Crisis a Watershed Moment for Library E-books?” is an exploration of ebook trends in public libraries.)