You Don't Need a Kindle 2 to Enjoy E-Books

Amazon's new Kindle 2, which shipped Tuesday , has created a huge public splash -- and not undeservedly. The $359 device offers a thin, portable, easy way to purchase and read books, magazines and other documents -- especially for those who have never been all that comfortable with technology or (on the other side of the spectrum) are eager to make sure they have the latest and sexiest tech toys in their personal arsenal.

It's possible that if I were to get my hands on a Kindle 2 , I might agree with the enthusiasts. If that should happen, I'll certainly let you know. Meanwhile, though, I'll let you in on a little secret -- or, at least, something that hasn't been a secret to any addicted reader who has owned a computer or any kind of portable tech for the past several years.

There are a lot of e-books out there, and you don't have to own a Kindle to read them. You can purchase them or download them free and legally -- from sites that offer books that are in the public domain, from advertising- or subscription-based sites that offer original literature, or from authors who are offering free samples of their work in the hope that you'll buy more.

(You should also check out your local library's Web site -- some libraries now offer downloads of books in their collections.)

What follows is a list of some of the sources I've used to put e-books on various mobile devices. They vary in the type of books they offer, whether they charge or not, and the formats they make their literature available in. But no matter what type of mobile device you carry around with you -- a netbook, an iPhone or even an old-fashioned PDA -- these sites can help you ensure that you'll never be caught without reading material again.

Project Gutenberg

The great-granddaddy of e-book sources, this site is beloved by many of us who have been reading books on-screen almost as long as there has been an Internet.

Started by Michael Hart as part of a student project in 1971 and rapidly expanded throughout the 1990s and beyond, Project Gutenberg now offers free access to thousands of e-books in a wide variety of text and audio formats, including plain text, HTML, PDF, Ogg Vorbis, Apple iTunes Audiobook and Plucker.

Project Gutenberg also represents a less commercial side of the Web -- it operates largely via the work of volunteers, who either submit the scanned documents or proofread them (comparing the scanned page image with the text produced by optical character recognition).

In short, I was a regular visitor to the site 10 years ago when I was downloading books to my Psion 3a handheld, and it's still one of my favorite sites.

Fictionwise

There are a lot of places to purchase e-books out there; this is the one that I usually go to first.

I was originally drawn to Fictionwise for two reasons: because it offers books in a variety of formats (such as MobiPocket) that work with relatively obscure devices and because it advertises free short stories and, occasionally, novels as a come-on for bibliophiles who want to try new authors. (In my case, it worked.)

In addition, once you buy a book, you can go back and download it as many times as you need to -- if you lose it, for example, or if you need it in a different format.

I'm sure there are other very good e-book sites out there (and I encourage anyone who has any recommendations to add them to our comment section ). Fictionwise just happens to be the one that I use.

Google Book Search

Google Inc. got into a bit of a wrangle with the Authors Guild , the Association of American Publishers and some other organizations when it first started scanning books into its database. Google felt it was publishing them online under "fair use." The organizations disagreed.

They came to an agreement in October 2008, and now Google is offering three types of books on its site: those that are in print and in copyright, which can be previewed and purchased; those that are in copyright but out of print, which can also be previewed and purchased; and those that are out of copyright, which can be downloaded and read for free.

Google has an advantage over many other book sites -- for one thing, it's Google, and so is a known and popular place for a lot of Web surfers. It also offers nicely formatted and readable images of the original books (rather than unillustrated texts). And it's portable -- owners of iPhones or other wireless mobile devices can navigate to the mobile version and find reading material that way.

Finally, there are quite a free public-domain books available -- you can either read a scan of the original online, download a PDF or get a text version that can then be saved to a separate file. For the most part, though, Google Book Search is a place to sample books online and then purchase them elsewhere.

Original Online Literature

If you aren't necessarily looking for something that's already available in print, there's a wide and interesting variety of original fiction out there. And I'm not talking about people who publish their otherwise-unpublishable fiction on their own Web sites; I'm talking about online magazines that solicit and make available short stories and other fiction by both known and unknown authors.

There are a large number of them out there; what you find depends largely on what you're looking for. Since I tend to read a lot of science fiction/fantasy stories, I can cite several samples in that genre. They include Strange Horizons , a professional-level speculative fiction magazine; Farrago's Wainscot , a compendium of weird tales; and Clarkesworld , which features some of today's best new authors.

And there are loads more. You like mysteries? Poetry? Horror? Straight literature? Google around -- they're there.

Dedicated e-book readers such as the Kindle 2 and Sony Corp.'s Reader Digital Book are highly useful and getting more and more popular daily. It's very likely, in fact, that these readers will soon become a normal part of most households, together with cell phones and computers.

But until then, those of us who don't want to pay for -- or, perhaps, carry around -- yet one more digital device can use our current mobile tech to have all the reading material we want. We just have to look a bit harder.

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