Free reads: How to find no-cost fiction online

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A glitch in copyright law will make thousands of new books available

If you’re a dedicated reader, the internet can provide a treasure trove of free books, short stories, and other reading material. But where do you look? Especially if you want to find free reading material that doesn’t violate copyright?

In this article, we list a variety of sources where you can find novels, short stories, poetry, and more, both old and recent. But first, we’ve got an interesting bit of news for anyone looking for relatively recent books: thousands of works that were, until now, assumed to be copyrighted may not be.

Until recently, it could be safely assumed that anything written after 1924 was still copyrighted and not in the public domain. However, as reported by Vice, there may be thousands of books written between 1924 and 1964 that have actually fallen into the public domain.

(If details about copyright law make your eyes cross, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.)

Copyright laws are convoluted and have been continually changed and amended over the years. Basically, according to the Copyright Act of 1976, any work created on or after January 1st, 1978, is automatically copyrighted for the author’s lifetime plus an additional 70 years. (Yes, that is a very long time. You may or may not agree with how the act was written, but this is the current state of affairs.)

Immediately before that, however, copyrights had to be manually renewed after 28 years and then again after another 28 (for a total of 56 years). The result is that any books that were published before 1964 and did not have their copyright renewed — because their authors didn’t know they had to renew, didn’t care, or were no longer around — have fallen into the public domain. (Any books published before 1924 are already in the public domain, and any published after 1964 were still copyrighted when the Copyright Act of 1976 took effect, and so they were automatically renewed.)

As a result, according to the New York Public Library, there could now be upward of 480,000 books that are now out of copyright and should be available for readers to access completely free.

The NYPL has been working on a project to identify, verify and scan these books. The first step was to convert the Catalog of Copyright Entries (CCE), which lists all of the copyrights from that period, from scanned images to XML, making the process much easier. But that’s just the beginning of the process.

There are, as the NYPL explains, a lot of issues involved in determining which books are actually in the public domain. You have to first make sure the copyright wasn’t renewed. You have to make sure they weren’t published outside the US because, in that case, they may come under different copyright laws. You have to make sure that there isn’t material within the book — say, an edition with a more recently written introduction — that is still in copyright. And so forth and so on. Once all that is resolved, the qualifying books can be scanned for public consumption.

While you’re waiting for all of these new books to become available, there are already many resources online where you can find free books and stories to read.

NOVELS

As mentioned above, there are a lot of books published before 1924 that are available for avid readers. And don’t just look for the known classics. If you scout around some of these sites, you may find some hidden gems.

Project Gutenberg, free books
  • Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971, and, as of this writing, it boasts about 60,000 etexts in its collection, all of which are free for download. It is a crowdsourced project, and it includes texts in a variety of formats (such as TXT, HTML, ePub, Mobi, etc.).
  • Besides being the home to the Wayback Machine where you can find web captures from, well, way back, the Internet Archive offers registered users access to thousands of uploaded texts. It also has copies of ebooks that are not in the public domain; these can be borrowed for two weeks.
  • Most public libraries today allow their patrons to borrow ebooks. Three of the most popular apps used by libraries are LibbyOverDrive, and Hoopla. You can also often borrow books in Kindle format. The best thing to do is to inquire at your local library to find out which apps they support.
  • If you’re more into audio than print, LibriVox is a good resource to check out. This service offers audio versions of public domain books in MP3 format; you can also download the books directly into iTunes. The readers are all volunteers, so the quality of the readings can vary, but if you find a reader you like, you can always do a search to see what else they’ve produced.
  • Are you a blogger, reviewer, librarian, or other influencers? Head over to Netgalley, a site where many publishers give access to pre-publication copies of their books in the hopes that you will recommend the book.
  • If you’re a Prime member, you can get one or two free books a month via Amazon’s First Reads program and access others via the Prime Reading feature.

SHORT STORIES

There is a variety of publications online that offer well-written (and well-edited) short stories. Some provide free access to one or two of the stories in the latest issue, while others are entirely free.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, free stories
  • Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to find short story sources for mysteries and romances. While publications such as The Strand Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine offer online excerpts of their content, there are no complete stories available to non-subscribers. However, if you’re looking for classic and out-of-print fiction, Tales of Murder offers stories of varying length, many of which are fun to read just because they’re so old-fashioned. And you can find plenty of free online romances if you register with well-known publisher Harlequin.

SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS

We’ve come a long way from the days when self-published books were solely considered vanity projects. Online services and print-on-demand have made it possible for thousands of authors to bypass traditional publishing companies and publish their novels, short story collections, and other works on their own.

However, while there are many excellent self-published authors, there are also a lot out there who don’t bother with minor annoyances such as editors and grammatical accuracy. Be aware of that as you wade into these waters.

  • Smashwords offers access to thousands of self-published books — at the time this article was written, it had over 520,000 available — and many of them are free.
  • Bookbub is a site that helps self-published authors publicize their works. It also provides a place to market their books or make them available for free (in an attempt to gain a following).
  • Amazon has encouraged a lot of authors to self-publish through its various tools. Kindle Unlimited gives access to a vast library of books, many of them self-published. However, that program will cost you $9.99 per month.

FREE PRINT BOOKS

Finally, because many people still read print books, I didn’t want to neglect to mention two sources of free literature. First, of course, there’s your local public library. But there’s also a small phenomenon called the Little Free Library, which shows you how to share books out of a small box or other container set up in front of your home, store, or in another public place. The site includes a map of registered LFLs near you.

While it’s great to read free stories and novels, it’s not a bad idea to actually buy one now and again in order to support your favorite writers.

Update September 17th, 9:27PM ET: This article as been updated to correct the description of Amazon’s First Reads feature and to make a couple of minor additions.

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