Thu, 10 Jun 2021

Where to Get (DRM-free) Ebooks

This post grew out of a comment I made on Reddit in response to someone who was frustrated with the Kindle walled garden and wanted more generally-usable books.

Context

I like to read. I have no idea how many books I've read in my lifetime, but I own hundreds and hundreds of physical books, at least half of which I've read; my digital library has around nine hundred books, most of which I have yet to read; and I've read many more books besides the ones I own. (When I was a teenager I'd walk out of the public library with a literal armful of books, read them, then return two weeks later to do the same thing all over again.) These days I prefer to read ebooks. It's easier to manage my ebook library and I can carry a lot more books around with me in ebook form as compared to physical form. (No more armfuls of physical books.) It really helps that I have a tablet that doubles as an excellent ebook reader.

But I also prefer to actually own the things I've nominally purchased. Many ebooks, including everything in Amazon's Kindle ecosystem, come with digital rights management, or DRM. DRM gives a book's publisher control over how you use your copies of their books. It's theoretically intended to impede piracy, but (a) it's not too hard to bypass if you're actually intent on pirating the material, and (b) it effectively means that you don't fully own things you've purchased unless you go out of your way to bypass it. It has enabled things like Amazon removing a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from a high school student's Kindle library.

As a matter of principle, I will not pay for DRM-encumbered digital media. If I buy something, I want to feel I actually own it, which means that I don't have to rely on someone else mediating my use of the media. So here's where I get my DRM-free ebooks.

The List

When I want to buy a particular book, my first stop is eBooks.com. They have a good selection of books, and they clearly indicate whether a given book has DRM or not.

Many book publishers or imprints have their own book stores, and some of those offer DRM-free copies of their books. Some of the ones I know of are:

I don't have a problem with digital watermarking like InformIT does. It doesn't prevent any personal use of the watermarked ebook; all it does is allow the publisher to take a copy shared online and track it back to the person who originally bought it. For the most part, digital watermarking doesn't restrict use of the book any more than copyright law restricts use of a physical book.

In addition to their eBook store linked above, Baen also has the Baen Free Library, which has a periodically-rotating selection of their books completely for free (and also without DRM).

Tor Books, another science fiction/fantasy publisher, doesn't have its own storefront (it sells through eBooks.com, among others, and appears to generally do DRM-free books), but it does have the eBook of the Month Club. Basically, you sign up for their newsletter and every month you get a link to download a free, DRM-free book from their catalog.

A good resource for out-of-copyright books is Standard Ebooks. It's a volunteer-run organization dedicated to turning existing books into high-quality ebooks. Because of the nature of their operation, they mostly focus on books that are no longer restricted by copyrights. Their books are all well-typeset, with a uniform appearance and consistent, well-curated metadata. (If you're so inclined, you can also contribute your own time and talents to their efforts.)

Standard Ebooks largely stands as as an alternative to Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg also has ebook versions of many out-of-copyright books, but Project Gutenberg focuses more on quantity than quality. (Also, they've been around a lot longer; Project Gutenberg will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.) In general, if a book is available from both Standard Ebooks and Project Gutenberg, get it from Standard Ebooks. But if Standard Ebooks doesn't have it and Project Gutenberg does, Project Gutenberg's copy will be serviceable, even if it's not necessarily formatted prettily and has occasional typos from the automated optical character recognition.

I also follow Humble Bundle. They periodically offer ebook bundles which are typically DRM-free and available in EPUB, PDF, and MOBI formats. (Their quality has been gradually declining over time, unfortunately; for example, some recent book bundles have not had all of the formats for every book.) Not all of Humble's partners have good books (looking at you, Packt), and I'm not always interested in the style, genre, or even just the particular selection of books in a bundle. But I have gotten some good books out of the bundles over the years, so I keep following them.

The FreeEBOOKS subreddit is more focused on ebooks that don't cost anything, as opposed to ebooks without DRM, and they don't restrict themselves by ereader compatibility. Nevertheless, many of the free books they link to are available as DRM-free EPUBs.

Dishonorable Mention

O'Reilly, a publisher of high-quality computer-related and technical books, used to sell DRM-free copies of their books. If you'd previously bought any of those, you can still access them through members.oreilly.com, but you can't buy new copies, as far as I can tell. O'Reilly seems to be moving instead to subscription-based access to their ebooks, while still selling the physical versions. They still have O'Reilly Open Books, which links to all of the books they've published under open licenses of various sorts, but very few of them are available in EPUBs. Most of the open book links go to webpage versions of the books, which aren't as easy to get into an ebook reader and a premade EPUB is.


Phil! Gold