With the cost of living crisis hurting everybody’s finances right now, many are cutting back on entertainment. With the vast array of public domain ebooks and audiobooks that are free to download, it needn’t be the case that we deprive ourselves of something to read or listen to. With this list, I aim to point you to the very best websites for public domain literary content so you don’t have to start searching from scratch!
Before we proceed, most of the websites host books that are in the U.S. public domain. Public domain rules vary by country so be sure to check the rules in your country before downloading material so you don’t fall foul of the law. In the UK, for example, you would make sure the author and any translators or illustrators died more than 70 calendar years ago. Let’s say an author died in 1850 but the translator of the book only died in 1965, you would add 71 years (the extra year takes you to the end of the calendar) to check if the work is public domain yet; the result is 2036 so you’d have to wait until January 1, 2036, before downloading that title in the UK.
The first place worth checking out when looking for something to read is Standard Ebooks. It is a relatively new website only coming online in 2015, but as of this month, the website hosts over 680 well-made ebooks. The community sticks to “rigorous and modern” rules when designing their books to ensure they look professional and consistent.
Aside from nicely designed ebooks, the website has moderately powerful search tools to help you refine search results, it provides word counts and reading ease scores for books, offers a short description of the book, and makes downloads available in a range of formats including epub, azw3, kepub, and advanced epub. If you want to preview a book before downloading it, there’s an option to read it online. Visit Standard Ebooks.
While some people prefer to read their books, others would rather listen to an audiobook on their way to work or at the gym. Just as there are ebooks in the public domain freely available, there are also public domain audiobooks. The most popular place to find these is a website called LibriVox where you can volunteer to read books or just head into the catalog to find something to listen to.
To get started, you can browse the catalog by author, title, genre, or language. If you already know of a book you want to find, just type the title in the search bar. Once you have found something you’re interested in, you have multiple download options. You can download a zip file of the whole book via direct download or torrent, you can subscribe to the audiobook and listen to individual chapters on iTunes, or you can add the RSS feed to your preferred podcasting app. Alternatively, you can press the play button next to each of the chapters to listen inside your web browser.
As these audiobooks are contributed voluntarily by the LibriVox community members, the readings vary greatly, though, most are of acceptable quality. In the case of some books, especially more popular ones like Pride and Prejudice, there are several renderings available so you can find one that you like best. Visit LibriVox.
Next on the list is Project Gutenberg, named after the creator of the movable-type printing press, Johannes Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg has a huge library of over 60,000 free ebooks and you’ll find that many are styled well and will transfer over to your ereader without issue. Books on this website can be read online (and subsequently saved as a PDF) or downloaded in ebook formats including epub and mobi. Some titles are also available directly as a PDF or as plain text files.
The reason for including this site in the list is down to the amount of content available. If you’re not too bothered about the quality of the formatting this website is great. Unfortunately, not all of the books are well formatted so you could encounter quirks like chapters not being available or some parts of the text not using the best fonts for the job. Visit Project Gutenberg.
Another website that I like for its quantity over quality is Internet Archive. Most of you that are reading this will have heard of and used this website’s Wayback Machine to view websites how they looked in the past but it also hosts an enormous collection of books, videos, music, and software. These can be accessed by using the search feature. To restrict your search to books, make sure you tick ‘texts’ in the Media Type section of the sidebar.
The biggest downside to this website is that many of the books are PDFs rather than in ebook formats. Where there is an ebook format available to download, the quality may not be the best. Nevertheless, if the other recommendations do not have a book you’re looking for then Internet Archive may have a copy. Visit Internet Archive.
5. Global Grey
Getting back to websites with smaller, more high-quality collections, we arrive at Global Grey. This website – run by one woman – boasts 2,000 free ebooks that cover everything from classic literature, the occult, psychology, folklore, and much more. You can find books via categories, recently added, by author, by book series, and by reading list. Books on this site have custom covers similar to Standard Ebooks and can be downloaded as PDFs, epub, mobi, or azw3. If you don’t want to download them, you can read them online.
A nice bonus with this website is the ability to buy collections of books. The money you pay goes towards maintaining the website and the creator’s work and you receive various collections of books in all their formats. Some of the collections include the Ancient Civilisations Collection, the Children’s Literature Collection, the History Collection, the Poetry Collection, the Philosophy Collection, the Religion Collection, and several more. Visit Global Grey.
The final entry on this list is Sticmann Ink’s Homeschool collection of ebooks. To give a bit of context, these books appear in a homeschool curriculum called Ambleside Online. The person who has compiled these books has taken most of the titles from Gutenberg and tidied up the formatting so that they are more pleasant to read. I also recall at least one title in this list that was not available as an ebook elsewhere despite being in the public domain.
This list contains lots of amazing books in both azw3 and epub formats, they range from high-quality children’s books to those suitable for teenagers and adults. They are grouped by the school years that they appear in on Ambleside Online and this can be used to judge how difficult they are to read. As they were designed for an educational curriculum, these titles are particularly appropriate for children to read. Visit Sticmann Ink Homeschool collection.
Hopefully, you will find these websites a good place to start looking for public domain ebooks. The easiest way to read the titles in my opinion is to download the epub files and read them in Google Play Books or Apple’s iBooks. If you’d prefer to read them on your computer or ereader, then be sure to take a look at the very powerful book management software Calibre which is available on Windows, macOS, and Linux free of charge.
If you're not looking to pick up a classic right now, be sure to check out Neowin's sponsored ebook offers which are also available for free.