If you're like me, books are a refuge. I don't discriminate when it comes to a good story, whether on my Nook, my Pixel 3 ($281 at eBay) or on the paper page. I love finding a good story and that stays with me long after I finish the last chapter. But when you're reading several books a month, getting new titles the easy way, from Amazon or the bookstore, gets to be an expensive hobby. That's where free digital libraries come in.
Thanks to the internet, the concept of a personal library is changing. It used to be that paper books lined endless shelves. With the rise of Amazon and its Kindle, the convenience of buying books to read on a device took over. Free-lending libraries, which are celebrating National Library Week in the US, have moved online, too, alongside brick-and-mortar libraries that are reinventing themselves to stay relevant in the digital age. Today, dozens of websites and apps offer everything from contemporary indie fiction to Elizabethan classics without charging you a penny.
Here are 10 good ways of getting books for free on your desktop, laptop, phone or tablet, without breaking copyright law (and we know you never would).
Which books can I read for free?
If you've looked for free books before, you might've noticed that most, though not all, are classics. Older works of literature, essays or plays are classified as public domain, which means the creative work isn't subject to copyright laws. When nobody owns a work, it can be offered for free.
What do I need to know before I download and read?
Reading a book online is easy, but downloading a book depends on what device you want to read it on. Apple users can install Apple Books (also known as iBooks) on their iPad, iPod Touch ($200 at Amazon) or iPhone ($899 at Amazon). Android users can check out Google Play Books. On both these apps, you can find cheap and free e-books.
Here are a few common formats you'll see as you explore and download your free books:
- EPUB - compatible on all devices except Kindle.
- HTML - usable if you're reading in your browser, though eReaders support the format too.
- MOBI - frequently used with Kindle.
- PDF - supported by e-book readers, iOS and Android devices.
- RTF - works with most e-book readers and iOS and Android devices.
- TXT - Basic text with no formatting and compatible with iOS and Android devices.
Authorama features hundreds of public domain works like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and more. Just tap the title to launch the book. While the website doesn't let you download to a device, you can read in your mobile or desktop browser.
The only downside with reading on your browser is that there's no way to mark your place. The websites we've compiled allow you to manually enter the page number or search by chapter, though.
Project Gutenberg has more than 58,000 free eBooks. Choose a novel to read online or download on your phone or PC. The book will save as an ePub, Kindle file or plain text in your Dropbox, Google Drive or One Drive. You can also choose to download the file with or without images to save space. If you don't want to download, just choose to read it in your browser in HTML.
Browse Project Gutenberg's extensive catalog by new additions, popular e-books and more. If you're a fan of audiobooks, Gutenberg links to LibriVox.
If you're on-the-go, check out LibriVox's free public domain audiobooks. Like Audible, you can search by author, title, genre or language to find the next book you'll to listen to.
Listen in your browser or download the book to your device or PC. You can subscribe on iTunes, through your RSS feed in a podcast app or through Torrent. Similarly, if you prefer to read, the site links back to Project Gutenberg.
Most of the books are read by other LibriVox users, and they're always looking for more voice actor volunteers.
ManyBooks offers a selection of classics and contemporary novels. Find the perfect title with dozens of genre filters, language and user ratings. Make a free account and fill out your book preferences.
Read the book online or download it. ManyBooks will ask which file you prefer to set as a default. You can change at any time, though.
For a one-time fee, ManyBooks also offers a place for self-publishing authors to house their work and introduce it to a community of avid readers. This is why you might see newer titles available alongside the public domain classics.
Create a free account and plug in your book preferences and reading habits to get started on BookBub. This website is packed with books. Many are free to download, and some are on sale for prices as low as 99 cents. Browse curated genres, follower recommendations, lists or search "free."
When you enter your digital reading preferences, make sure to tap which device you want to read e-books on -- Kindle, Apple Books, Nook, Kobo or Google Play. BookBub will filter available content based on your gadget.
The Goodreads app is a personal favorite of mine. It's a great site to organize your books, see what your favorite authors are reading and find new reads. If you're on the hunt for free e-books, Goodreads can help too.
The Goodreads community creates lists for almost any book need you could have. Finding free books isn't any different. You'll find curated lists of free e-books from indie and self-published authors, public domain classics, audiobooks from Librivox, books for kids, previews, samples and more.
Browse Smashwords' extensive catalog of contemporary and classic fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays and screenplays. Filter what you're looking for by price, special deals and word count. Find the book you want and choose your preferred file format to download it.
It's important to note that you might have to turn on the ability to upload a book if you're using Google Play Books or the iBooks app. If you don't, the files won't work. If you prefer, Smashwords offers the option to read the book on your browser.
Digilibraries has a similar layout to Project Gutenberg. You'll find mostly public domain classics in dozens of categories. Some titles date back to the 1700s, but you can find familiar names like Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens.
You can check out an excerpt, but you have to download to read the whole book. Formats include ePub, PDF or mobi file types.
In almost a dating app-style, BookLending "matches" users who can help out with someone else's literary needs. Create an account and either request to borrow a book or offer to lend a book. Almost every book is searchable, and it isn't just public domain material.
To borrow an e-book, search and find the title you want, and tap the orange Borrow button. Once the title becomes available, you'll have seven days to accept the loan and 14 days to read the book. After the 14 days, the e-book will automatically return to the lender. If no one has loaned the book or there is a long list of people who want the book, it could take longer to get the title.
Public Library apps
Getting books from your local library isn't old fashioned. If you want the book without leaving your couch or risking a late fee, public library apps are a good alternative. The apps, which often of what you borrow, are generally available for Android and iOS with e-books and audiobooks available for rent.
Major libraries like the New York Public Library, the San Diego Library and the Brooklyn Public Library have their own apps. You need to have a card with the library before you can take advantage of the app though. If you're in a smaller town, your local library might be partnered with Hoopla or OverDrive.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 8, 2019.