There are a number of excellent resources through which you can acquire free electronic books on the Internet. Ever since Project Gutenberg founder Michael S. Hart digitized the first eBook (a copy of the “United States Declaration of Independence”) in 1971, people have been scanning public domain titles, converting them into eBooks, and uploading them to databases. We are truly in debt to all of the volunteers and project organizers who have helped to archive some of our most important cultural materials. In the past, literature was only available to a select few, but now anyone who can borrow some time on a computer has access to the complete works of Dickens, Tolstoy, Blake, and Milton. With eBooks, the “five foot shelf of knowledge” can now fit on a fifteen millimeter MicroSD card.
Public domain books are usually books published before 1923, whose copyright has expired. Willa Cather, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and D.H. Lawrence are just a few of the notable authors whose works can be had for free. Some modern writers have chosen to release their works into the public domain, but these titles are often obscure. The quality of these eBooks can vary; the OCR (optical character recognition) software used to scan physical book pages into a computer can sometimes misrecognize words or punctuation, leading to some annoying errors within a file. Teams of editors at Project Gutenberg work tirelessly to compare the original scan with the encoded file, but mistakes sometimes slip through. The following websites contain the largest collections of desirable public domain titles, and the best edited editions:
ManyBooks.net – An incredible collection of eBooks, available for download in 24 different formats! This feature definitely sets ManyBooks apart from the rest. Just click the drop-down menu and select to download in large print PDF, epub, or mobi format. The large print PDFs are professionally formatted and look great on tablets.
Project Gutenberg – The original eBooks archive. Hosts over 40,000 eBooks available for download in epub and mobi formats, plus others.
Project Gutenberg Australia – The Project’s Australian counterpart.
eBooks@Adelaide – This is one of my favorite sites because all of their eBooks are beautifully formatted and available for easy online reading, and downloading in multiple formats of course.
LibriVox – A truly unique phenomena of the Internet, LibriVox is a collaborative effort of volunteers from around the world who read and release public domain audiobooks. The quality of these books varies a bit, but there are some amazing recordings read by professionals (like Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). Besides, these audiobooks are free!
Feedbooks – If the “plain vanilla” look of Project Gutenberg eBooks gets you down, than give Feedbooks a try. As a digital publishing service, they offer both paid eBooks and free public domain titles, but every title they release features high-quality typesetting and text formatting. You can download in ePub, Kindle, and PDF formats. Their PDFs look amazing on tablets and 9.7″ eReaders.
Munseys – This site used to go by the name of Blackmask Online, one of the first and best websites to amass and offer public domain e-texts. They put together a really sweet compilation of 10,000 PDFs that included a fully searchable table of contents on html documents. The formatting and OCR might not have been the best, but most of their classics were quality PDF and eBook editions. Aside from your typical public domain texts, Blackmask offered a variety of early 20th century pulp and genre fiction and made efforts to digitize early comics and graphic novels. This got them into a bit of trouble over copyright claims against pulp novels like The Shadow series and Doc Savage. The site is now operating under the name Munseys, and their non-contested database is still available. I’m interested in learning more about Blackmask as it was one of the first major free eBook websites. Maybe I will write a post about it. It is a great site where you can find old, out-of-print pulp classics with titles like The Marijuhana Fiend or Alley Girl.
There you have it. These sites are the best. Start downloading.