Last updated in August 2013
Millions of book lovers have made the switch from printed pages to ebooks, and thousands more join them every day. If you’re already an ebooker, or thinking about switching to the digital reading team, in addition to saving trees you can save some cash—if you know where to look. Here are some (copyright-law-friendly) tips on how to eread for free.
Almost all libraries now buy ebook licenses from publishers and make them available for download by patrons, formatted for their device type, through services such as OverDrive. To borrow ebooks, you just need a library membership and a device to display them (e.g., ereaders and almost all tablets, smartphones, and computers). You can search for titles in your library’s online catalog, and check them out (or join the waitlist). Agreements between libraries and publishers vary, and not all authors and publishers allow their titles to be loaned, but most now do. We routinely find dozens of bestsellers, and mainstream nonfiction and fiction titles (including recent releases), available for library checkout.
At most libraries, many titles are available for download right away, but if you want to borrow an ebook that has landed on, say, the Oprah’s Book Club reading list, you can expect to spend some time on the waitlist before your book becomes available.
While libraries typically limit ebook loan periods to between seven and 21 days, for some titles you can specify a longer lending period. After the borrowing period expires, access to the ebook is removed from your device and it is available for loan to other patrons.
There’s actually a bit of procrastination wiggle room for the time limits imposed by libraries (and books available for loan via sellers, described below). Because the library or company can take back your borrowed ebook only if you are connected to the Internet, you can hang on to an overdue ebook by turning off your wireless connection. If the ebook is stored on your laptop or smartphone, keeping your device in the Digital Dark Ages for even a few days probably isn’t a reasonable strategy. But if you have the book on your Kindle, NOOK, iPad, etc., you could get a few more days to find out whodunit without going to the back of the line and waiting for the book’s license to become available to you again.
Books without Copyrights
Books in the public domain—which usually means they were published more than 100 years ago and are no longer protected by copyright—can be downloaded from several online resources, as can titles with “creative commons” and other special licensing. The big ebooksellers offer many classic titles for free. Other sites that list old freebies include:
Freebies from Big Sellers
In addition to offering free reads of ebooks in the public domain, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Books, and iBooks offer frequently changing lists of popular books for free download, as complimentary samples of sorts: Readers will bite on the free offer and, if they enjoy it, come back to buy the author’s other books. The search terms suggested below will help you find these giveaways. Another shortcut is to search each site for “0.00” to bring up books listed for $0, and from there refine your search.
- Barnes & Noble—Search for “free ebooks”.
- Amazon—Search for “free Kindle books”. Another site Kindle users may find useful is FreeBookSifter.com, which catalogs Amazon’s free offerings and links you directly to each title’s Amazon listing for downloading.
- Google Books—Search for “free”.
- Apple iBooks—Download and install iBooks and then search for “free books” within the iBooks store.
If you have an Amazon Prime membership and own a Kindle device, you can borrow one book at a time from Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. (Prime memberships cost $99 per year and, in addition to free Kindle ebooks, provide free two-day shipping for eligible merchandise, free streaming movies and other video, and access to discount programs such as Amazon Mom.) Amazon’s lending library has more than 180,000 book titles, and there’s no time limit on borrowed ebooks.
Some ebooks purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble are eligible for sharing with others:
- Amazon—You can share eligible ebooks purchased from Amazon for 14 days. If the recipient doesn’t own a Kindle device, the ebook can be viewed using a free download of Kindle’s reading app. Once you’ve shared a book, you won’t have access to it until the recipient “returns” it to you or the 14-day loan period has expired. Books can be shared only once.
- Barnes & Noble—BN’s Lend Me program lets you lend and borrow NOOK ebooks among your own non-NOOK devices and share them with others. As with Amazon, many books cannot be loaned, there is a 14-day lending period, and books can be shared only once.
- Lending websites—Want to borrow an ebook but don’t know anyone who has it to loan? Sites such as BookLending.com (which is for Kindle users only) are exchanges where readers can list books they own that they are willing to lend, and borrow other users’ titles. BookLending.com is free to join, and it costs nothing to borrow books (the site makes money off ads).
Many writers who self-publish, and some publishers, release titles for free download for promotional purposes. Websites such as obooko.com, Free-ebooks.net, and many others let you download these free reads. Be forewarned that there are a ton of titles to wade through, sometimes accompanied by scant information, and many of these books are offered for free because there’s no market for them—which is our diplomatic way of saying they may not be very good.