The growing list of FREE ebooks

Photo: “Artists Ebooks” by James Bridle is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Each month, more authors, publishers, libraries, and promoters of books experiment with the free distribution of ebooks. I assume and hope the trend will encourage technology companies to develop better devices for reading ebooks. I also expect more writers to adopt the practice of publishing on the Web, because it’s quick and easy, and undiluted feedback is guaranteed. (The absence of feedback is one form of criticism.)

This month, well-publicized examples of strategic marketing with free ebook downloads were news. After Oprah Winfrey announced she would make Suze Orman’s Women & Money temporarily available as a free ebook, a million copies were reportedly downloaded from Oprah’s website.

Book publishers

Several more publishers recently began distributing free ebooks on their websites or via email.

(a subsidiary of News Corporation)
This major publisher’s online promotion, prominently advertised on its homepage, gives readers full access to a few ebook downloads for limited periods. Along with other authors’ books, one of Paulo Coelho’s titles will be made available each month during 2008.

No Starch Press
This publisher of books on computing is offering free downloads of Cult of Mac and Cult of iPod by Leander Kahney.
[Updated on March 28, 2008]

Random House
(a subsidiary of Bertelsmann)
For three days only (February 27, 28, and 29, 2008), this major publisher is giving away a free ebook version of the New York Times bestseller Beautiful Children by Charles Bock.
[Updated on February 27, 2008]

Tor and Forge Books
(subsidiaries of Macmillan and Holtzbrinck)
Lovers of science fiction and fantasy can register on this site for a weekly link to a free ebook download. The publisher has already given away John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn.

Berrett-Koehler Publishers
As an independent, this publisher is participating in the latest trend by offering Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes as a free download with a Creative Commons license.

Digital library collections

Digital library projects continue to develop, expand, and merge.

The Open Library
Aaron Swartz calls for volunteers to contribute to a free Web-based catalog of every book ever published.

The University of Adelaide Library website offers a collection of 1,200 works in digital format, including portions of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

Renascence Editions
The University of Oregon makes available “an online repository of works printed in English between the years 1477 and 1799.”

Representative Poetry Online
The Department of English at the University of Toronto and the University of Toronto Press make 3,162 English-language poems available online.

Authors and editors

Book editors and authors are distributing their digital works on the Web.

Lawrence Lessig
The Stanford law professor, Wired columnist, and chair of the Creative Commons project shares his work freely on the Web.

Disraeli Avenue
With the support of The Friday Project, readers can download a novella by Caroline Smailes in exchange for a donation to One in Four, a charity that provides support to people who have experienced sexual abuse and sexual violence.

Party-Directed Mediation: Helping Others Resolve Differences
This book by Gregorio Billikopf is available online as a PDF. I enjoyed working on the second edition as Billikopf’s copyeditor. His book is a great resource for employers and mediators.
[Updated on February 4, 2009]

No Chinook
K. Sawyer Paul’s novel, published through Lulu and bearing a Creative Commons license, can be downloaded for free from the author’s website, which also links to a video trailer for the book.
[Updated on February 25, 2008]

38 Poems by George Mattingly
The PDF ebook was created for a reading given at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California, and five audio poems in MP3 format were recorded at the Monterey County Free Libraries’ Seaside Branch.
[Updated on March 31, 2008]

Flash Fiction by Ian Hocking
A weekly flash fiction podcast, released with a Creative Commons license, is read by the author who blogs at This Writing Life.
[Updated on February 26, 2008]


Booksellers are also changing shape.

Ebooks are delivered in installments via email or RSS by this subscription-based service. More than 750 titles in the public domain, serialized in increments that can be read in five minutes, are available for free.

Exact Editions
This company sells magazines, books, and other documents as PDF files. Users can view free trial issues on its website.

Additional online resources

FREE ebooks

Sony Reader
Photo: “Sony Reader” by AZAdam is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In the rush to own or give the latest gadget (to wit: the Kindle ebook reader), how many people will stop to ask about its compatibility with titles that already exist in digital format, especially those offered for free on the Web? Many won’t inquire, because advertising is frighteningly influential and $9.99 for an Amazon ebook download is bargain enough.

Caveat emptor. Remember that devices not designed exclusively for ebook reading, including the iPhone and notebook computers, can serve the purpose at least for now.

WHERE are the free ebooks?

Across the Web, overlooked nooks and crannies conceal astonishingly good reading material. Free ebooks of interest will be easier to extract—that is, to locate quickly—when Web search algorithms become more refined and content is systematically tagged with keywords. In the meantime, human intervention is required. Within six months, someone will begin more aggressively aggregating links to the best ebooks published on the Web.

[Updated on January 20, 2009] Gizmo’s, a freeware advice site, listed “50 Places for Free Books Online” a few months ago.

[Updated on March 28, 2009] TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home now offers a free ebooks guide>.

Meanwhile, here are just a few of the many troves of freebies:

WOWIO is a Houston, Texas, startup “where readers can legally download high-quality copyrighted ebooks from leading publishers for free.” [On August 3, 2008, David Rothman blogged about the sale of Wowio to Platinum Studios, which changed Wowio’s advertising model.]

Live Search Books lets readers download PDF versions of thousands of titles. Look for the “100% viewable” notation in the list of results, which indicates the full text is available online. [On May 23, 2008, Microsoft announced its decision to shut down Live Search Books.]

Google Book Search offers the full text of books, including out-of-copyright classics, for download in PDF format. Choose the “Advanced Books Search” feature and limit the search to “Full view.”

New Writing International, formerly the Leicester Review of Books, is attempting to compile the definitive list of blog novels. The definitive list keeps moving, so if the link here is broken, try searching New Writing International for “blog novel.”

There are many other free ebook sources. Feel free to add the links to your favorites by posting a comment here. And take note of the best free ebooks’ digital formats before purchasing a device that might be incompatible with some of them.

WHY do authors or publishers give away ebooks?

Only the person or company that possesses the digital copyright can authorize the publication of a book on the Web. In many cases, the copyright has been sold licensed to the publisher.

Leo Babauta points out that ebook devices could reduce the need for agents, publishers, distributors, and sellers that currently convey traditionally published books from author to reader. He’s not the only one who recognizes digital formats’ potential to deliver content to readers rapidly and efficiently. HarperCollins is set to launch a Web service called Authonomy that will permit writers to publish their unsold work on the major publisher’s site in the hope of attracting readers and the attention of publishers. It’s not clear how readers will be involved, but if an online community gathers on its site, HarperCollins will be able to gauge the market for digital content as well as the growing popularity of genres that are given scant attention in traditional print media. The questions remain whether readers will object to the effort required to filter content and make recommendations to each other and whether the system will be easily gamed.

What HarperCollins proposes to do with authonomy, XOXOX Press has accomplished by serializing Reed Browning’s Trinity: A Haydn & Speaker Mystery on the Web in order to assess readers’ responses and determine whether to release the book in print.

Science fiction author Cory Doctorow, the outspoken advocate of Creative Commons licensing, claims distributing his books online for free has boosted sales of the print versions published by Tor>.

WHO else is giving away ebooks?

Tom Evslin’s mystery novel, about a tech executive imprisoned for fraud who subsequently launches an Internet security consulting firm, is available as a serialized ebook or podcast and in traditional print format. Evslin refers to ebooks distributed in blog format as blooks. He links to a number of them and explains that “readers find blogs without the help of traditional gatekeepers; blogs are ‘discovered’ and become successful (or don’t) in an interesting democratic way.”

J.A. Konrath not only blogs about making a living as a genre writer, the author gives some of his thrillers away as PDF downloads complete with Creative Commons licenses.

Chrysanthemum, an edgy serial novel by Sou MacMillan, is posted on

Big Head Press plans to serialize on its website Steven Grant’s graphic novel Odysseus the Rebel, illustrated by Scott Bieser, starting in January 2008 before releasing the trade paperback.

These examples are only the proverbial first waves. Expect a surge of new ebook titles when the public settles on its favorite user-friendly digital format.

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