How free e-books could challenge the Kindle Store

Those who have bought in to the world of electronic books and got themselves a shiny new Kindle will quickly find that the surprisingly cheap hardware price belies an expensive habit: building a library of electronic books can cost a small fortune.

A buyer looking for books to fill his new Kindle will probably first head to Amazon's own on-line storefront - and they're in for a shock. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, to take but one example, has a 'Digital List Price' of a whopping £18.99 - the same as the hardback print edition's full RRP. Thankfully, Amazon has kindly discounted it down to £6.64 - about the same as you'd pay for a physical paperback book.

Looking at different authors, the story is the same: the digital edition often costs the same as the print version, despite a massively reduced cost in terms of production and distribution. In some cases, the digital edition can cost you even more: Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three Book 2 will set you back £8.79 for the 'discounted' Kindle edition, compared to a mere £5.56 for the same book in paperback.

But not all book sellers and publishers are choosing this route. Indeed, there's a revolution a-happening, and one which promises to cheer up owners of the Kindle, Sony's Reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook, the iPad, and all the multifarious eReaders that are on the market today: the rise of free e-books.

The grandfather of the free electronic book market is Project Gutenberg - named for Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith turned printer credited with the invention of the movable type printing press - which was set up to scan out-of-copyright books and turn them into electronic texts suitable for use on an eReader or similar device.

Founded by Micheal Hart to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books, Project Gutenberg is a treasure trove of older titles - it's the place to go if you're looking for a freely downloadable versions of classic science fiction stories, or the collected works of Charles Darwin. There are some true gems in there - and it's the source of many of the 'classic books' collections that are bundled with eReaders or even sold as stand-alone titles.

What you won't find much of, however, is modern content: concentrating instead on archiving older and rarer titles, Project Gutenberg isn't the best place to go for modern literature - although it does have some. For that, you have to look elsewhere.

Feedbooks describes itself as 'food for the mind', and has a large collection of public domain content on its site - much of it cribbed from Project Gutenberg's archives. Unlike rivals, however, Feedbooks offers something interesting: free e-books from modern, contemporary authors.

While you're not likely to find a JK Rowling or a Stephen King, you will come across modern-thinking authors such as noted blogger and technologist Cory Doctorow and a wide selection of new writers who haven't quite been able to land that big book deal just yet. All the books are available in formats specifically designed to work with the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and most other eReaders currently on the market.

The majority of such books are released under a Creative Commons licence. Designed to offer the same freedoms - and the same protections for the original creator - for creative artists as programmers are given by open source licences such as the GNU General Public Licence, the terms allow you to freely download, use, and even redistribute the books, as long as the original author is correctly credited and you don't attempt to profit from its sale.

But why would authors do this - give away their work for free on the Internet, especially when it's clear from Amazon's pricing structure that there's a lot of money to be made from e-books?

The answer is best summed up by Tim O'Reilly, publisher and open source advocate, who stated that for most authors "the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity." To put it another way: if nobody knows who you are, why would they buy your books?

It's not a problem faced by King, Pratchett, and Rowling - hence the high cost of the digital versions of their books - but for a new writer, getting your books read is far more important than gouging your readers for every penny they have.

That's not to say that authors don't deserve to be compensated for the blood, sweat, and tears that go into birthing their creations - but the free model can help with that, too.

When actor, blogger, and Lord of All Geekdom Wil Wheaton started selling an e-book version of his book Sunken Treasure without any DRM - meaning it was incredibly easy for someone to buy and copy, spreading the work through file sharing and peer-to-peer download sites without any compensation returning to the author - he found something interesting was happening: far from cutting in to the sales of the print edition, he found that releasing the digital edition meant that "the print sales, which had slowed to about 2 a day a month after release, suddenly picked up" - the release of a digital copy had driven sales of the physical product.

Cory Doctorow has experienced a similar effect with his books - each one of which he releases as a Creative Commons licensed free download. When asked why he gives his work away for free - as well as selling it in a traditional format via real-life bookstores and on-line retailers like Amazon - he stated that "by making my books available for free pass-along, I make it easy for people who love them to help other people love them," growing his audience and increasing sales of the paid-for versions along the way.

While it's not a format that all authors are going to be looking in to - and if you're after a free copy of something that's hit the Times' Best Sellers List you've probably got a wait on your hands - there is an increasing quantity of high-quality, free content available for eReaders, and to dismiss it out of hand is to deny yourself some very enjoyable reading.

In short: go ahead and pay £8-odd for the latest best-seller, but also see how much enjoyment you can get out of Creative Commons content without having to pay a penny.

You might be surprised at the result.