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How to find free e-books for your iPad

The iPad's an excellent universal e-reader, but it can be a bit of a hassle looking for freebies. Here are our tips.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read

Finding free iBooks can be a challenge depending on what search term you use. Scott Stein/CNET

There are a lot of advantages to the iPad as an e-reader, chief among them its capability to be a true multiformat product supporting Kindle, ePubs, PDFs, and others.

One little difficulty remains: finding ways to get free books.

Sure, Apple and others don't exactly want you to stock up on free literature if they can help it, especially in the case of books that aren't public domain. Still, we have to try, don't we? Here are the best (legal) ways not to pay.

  • The iBooks Store does have over 30,000 free books, mostly from Project Gutenberg, and many of them with surprisingly decent formatting. There is a trick, though: you'll have to be fastidious. Searching for an author in the iBooks Store will often bring up only for-pay versions of many books, whereas entering their specific titles will brings up free versions, too. It's extremely odd, but we discovered the bug when looking for many titles, including "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse and Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan."
  • The Kindle App has free books galore, if you can find them. Amazon offers a large selection of free books in its Kindle store, but you'll need to browse online or check out Amazon's Kindle blog for the most recent freebies. They're downloaded directly via the Kindle app; right now, there's no way to import files from a computer via USB. To help matters, check constantly updated free Kindle book sites such as jungle-search.com (Read how to find free books on your Kindle for more details).
  • Import ePub books via iTunes: You can download or convert your own ePub books from any source (including Google's large collection) and import them into Apple's iBooks app, but you'll need to go through iTunes on a computer using iTunes 9.1. Dragging the file in will put the book in your sync queue, but you can't directly drop the book onto your iPad. As for where you get those ePub books from...well, that's your decision.
  • For PDFs, use GoodReader. For $.99, GoodReader reads .doc, PDF, HTML, and TXT files, can import docs and PDFs from any Web page or even directly from the Google Docs server, and it also allows wireless drag-and-drop of files from a nearby computer without syncing. A clever trick: visit Google Books on GoodReader and download the "PDF" link for free books directly into the reader app. Its page-turning system is a little awkward, but it's a great tool to have (and PDFs retain color-coding for those using it for revisions). It's a shame it can't read ePub as well.
  • Check other apps: Free Books and Kobo are two other iPad book apps that have their own slightly different supplies of titles. We've found luck getting a free book on one that we couldn't get on another. It's a hassle to swap back and forth, but it might be the only way to get what you're looking for.
And, of course, there's always good old-fashioned Web browsing if you're online, or Instapaper Pro ($4.99, also a free version) for downloading any HTML page for easy offline reading.

Any other tips? Let us know in the comments.