In general, if you’re looking for free books, the best places to look are the following, in order of usefulness:
- The Online Books Page
A huge handmade database that aggregates freely available books in all formats, especially from major sites listed below like Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive. It is the most useful because you can find comprehensive lists arranged by author, although, for our favorite authors, listed above, we have compiled even better lists here.
Especially good for: Books organized by author
- The Internet Archive (archive.org)
A massive media archive based in San Francisco, housing mainly public domain materials. The Internet Archive includes digitized library resources, like Google Books, but also includes other media forms like video and audio. Many public domain books from Google Books have been re-uploaded on archive.org, but not nearly all. It is also sometimes prone to religious propaganda or spam, so you may have to tailor your searches.
Europe has more Internet restrictions and stricter copyright laws, so you will have the best luck if you are logged in from the United States or Canada.
Especially good for: Any book from 1850 to 1923
- Google Books
Google Books contains millions of digitized books, including both public domain and in copyright. Google Books often has the best collection of very old materials, i.e., before 1850. If you are looking for a rare Puritan work, a very rare hymn, or something from William Carey’s day, Google Books is often the best place to start.
I also have written a guide to hunting for rare quotes, which works best on Google Books for numerous reasons.
Especially good for: Magazines, periodicals, anything pre-1850
- Project Gutenberg
Project Gutenberg is the best place to find books in epub and mobi formats, as well as rich-text format or plain text files, all of which are kilobytes instead of megabytes, and have many advantages over reading PDFs.
Especially good for: Reflowable and searchable formats (epub, mobi, rtf, txt)
- LibriVox (for audiobooks only)
LibriVox is the best source for public domain audiobooks. Occasionally, there are public domain books on LibriVox that are not available in any of these other sites; but, usually, they are popular titles that are already on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. Often, I find that books that are free on Kindle will end up on LibriVox, so it is nice to switch back and forth, and use the Kindle to annotate or highlight the book as you listen.
Especially good for: Fiction and adventure
- HathiTrust Digital Library
HathiTrust is similar to Google Books and the Internet Archive, but, like Google Books, it also includes some books with use restrictions. So, sometimes you will find a newer book listed, but you won’t be able to access, or it will ask for an institutional (i.e. library or university) login, or perhaps the file will be read-only.
Like the Online Books Page, HathiTrust has wealth of metadata, like author’s birth and death date, which makes it easier to find out if you are looking at the right title or not.
Especially good for: Pamphlets
- Amazon’s Kindle Store
When the Kindle Store began, there was a huge selection of free ebooks; however, all of these were taken directly from Project Gutenberg, so there’s no unique free material. Amazon was also swarmed from 2013 to 2015 by piggybacking public domain publishers, which caused a number of problems when readers are searching for older books—there would be dozens of Kindle editions, with no available rationale for choosing between them. This debacle has unfortunately become the status quo for lovers of resurrected books, since Amazon has continued to change its indexing in ways that only mask the free editions and promote more expensive ones. You can type “free” in the search bar, but it won’t limit your search to free titles.
For the authors listed above, you will find that we have personally curated lists of Amazon’s free ebook editions, wherever available.
Especially good for: Quick access & syncing
- U-M Library Digital Collections
The University of Michigan has a fantastic collection of digitized books, but it’s not a good place to start looking. Usually, I end up on U-M’s digital collection because I am looking up a quote from poets and Puritans.
However, it belongs on this list because I frequently find very rare or very old books there that are not available anywhere else. They have digitized books in their collection that are virtually impossible to even read anywhere else.
Especially good for: Very old books, 17th and 18th century