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 perhaps seven million different ebooks available for purchase, and at least another million available for immediate download for free, nada, nothing. These ebooks are, among their other benefits, as Piotr Kowalczyk notes, the most virus-free way of reading.

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 books in all) 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 (with or without images).

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

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. There are two caveats: 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, they encompass 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. So, as you can see, not every one of the 3 million free books will hold your attention.

An ongoing development is free ebooks are the crisis specials: many vendors are providing unprecedented no-cost access to their catalogs while the going remains grim. For instance last week 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, but the offer stands.

I don’t want to forget free audiobooks. 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, provided the text has been digitized.) But audiobooks have a quality threshold (not unlike video) where, below a certain quality, they’re unlistenable (or, 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. The better choice is LibriVox, with over 60,000 public domain audiobooks read by volunteers from all over the world.

Quality

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

That will be the topic of the next entry in this two-part series.