Sunday, April 15, 2007

Free Ebooks: Part One

Electronic text isn't new to any of us. You're reading it right now. Paper books have a lot of advantages over electronic text, though. Paper books are usually easier to read, with higher contrast and less glare issues than etext, making them better suited for longer works such as novels. Power isn't much of an issue. Anywhere there's light, you can read. And they are sturdier and cost less than any electronic device you own. Drop a book, no big deal. Drop your Palm, well, that'll be a few bucks to replace it. Get your book wet, well, it sucks, but at least you can let it dry out and keep reading. Get your laptop wet, time to buy a new laptop. Even just the physical act of holding a book, flipping the pages, admiring the cover art, is better than reading text from an LCD screen.

Where ebooks have a large advantage over traditional paper books is portability. I used to have to go out of town a lot on business, and read a lot in the evening at the hotel (I don't watch much TV) and, let's face it, at work when it was slow. Instead of lugging around a number of books in my suitcase I was able to take literally dozens of novels with me in my Palm. My Palm is also something I have with me most of the time, so when it looks like I'm going to be waiting for a while I can take it out and read any time I want to. I tend not to have a book with me when going places simply because of lack of space. Maybe if I carried a purse...

In part one I'm going to point out some places where you can find free ebooks, and in part two you'll find some tools for converting files into a format your Palm can read. If you don't have a Palm, or don't want to read on it, that's fine. You can still find out where to do some great reading.

While reading this, you will find that I tend to point out science fiction books and authors more than other genres. This is for two reasons: I read a lot of science fiction, so I have a preference for it, and the science fiction and fantasy community has embraced the concept of free ebooks more so than others. That's not to say other genres aren't available, especially in the public domain, but for some reason science fiction and fantasy authors are in the forefront of experimenting with giving away their products.

I'll point out the granddaddy of ebooks first: Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg has over 20,000 free ebooks that have fallen into the public domain. This means that most of them are older titles, but they're not all Shakespeare or H. G. Wells. You can find stories from authors like Cory Doctorow,E. E. "Doc" Smith, John W. Campbell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. I also enjoyed a couple of non-fiction books on real life hackers by Bruce Sterling and Suelette Dreyfuss. Browsing through the Gutenberg Project's collection is like wandering through a second hand book store, finding classics that you had forgotten about or always meant to read. The frustrating thing is that you will never have the time to read everything you find interesting here.

The Baen Free Library offers free science fiction and fantasy ebooks by contemporary authors such as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, Andre Norton, Harry Turtledove, Fred Saberhagen, Mercedes Lackey, and more. There is also an excellent essay on the front page by Eric Flint, First Librarian, on the rationale behind the Baen Free Library. Keep in mind that while the books are available online for free, they are not public domain. The copyrights still belong to the authors. contains many of the same public domain books as the Gutenberg Project, but also has many Creative Commons licensed ebooks available for free as well. You'll see science fiction authors Charles Stross and James Patrick Kelly here, along with many others. Creative Commons licenses vary, but they generally allow free distribution with restrictions on how the content can be used. You can read more about Creative Commons licenses here.

In part two of this article I'll show you how to make your own ebooks by converting web pages into a format that can be read by your Palm. While almost any web page can be converted, I'll show you some of my favourite sites for reading fiction. Please feel free to share your own favourites in the comments, or email me with suggestions.

Flurb is Rudy Rucker's free online magazine showcasing short stories by him and other authors. Many of the stories are hard to classify although they are generally of a science fiction or fantasy bent. Rucker's almost random, but fantastic, photographs accompany them. There are currently two issues published, with stories by John Shirley, Terry Bisson, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and others.

Strange Horizons is published weekly, concentrating on speculative fiction. Art, fiction, columns, poetry, and reviews make this site a great place for entertainment and information.

While not regularly updated anymore, The Infinite Matrix still has a great archive of original science fiction. The last issue was in January, 2007, and the site has been in and out of limbo before that. Hope it comes back, as it is an excellent example of what an online magazine can be.

In part two of this article I'll show you what to use to read ebooks on your Palm device.

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