Free Books on the Internet: HarperCollins, Oprah, and Yale Join the Fray

Given our fondness for all things publishing here at Freakonomics, we’ve been following the development of e-books with particular interest. In the past few weeks, it appears that the free e-book movement has officially begun. Last week, publishing monolith HarperCollins (the publisher of Freakonomics) announced that it would offer free electronic editions of a group of its books on the company’s Web site. This week, Suze Orman‘s Women & Money made headlines when more than 1 million copies were downloaded after Oprah Winfrey announced the book’s Internet availability on her show.

Now, author and George Washington University associate law professor Dan Solove informs us that Yale University Press has allowed him to put the full text of his new book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, in free downloadable format on the book’s Web site. The publisher has also started releasing other their titles, such as Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, in full on the Internet.

It remains to be seen whether availability online will translate to higher sales for these books, though 1 million downloads in one day certainly bodes well for both Orman’s sales figures and e-books’ overall popularity. Whether this movement will lead to the rise of the Kindle remains to be seen.


You can get a lot of books on the Austrian school of economics from


@Manini - I'd be surprised if that were the case. The Web site for the Oprah download clearly indicated that it was a free download and that the offer would expire at a definite time (I believe it was February 15 at 7:00 central).


Lots of free books available on lots of sites across the internet. (some more than others) I found this pretty good list of lots of places to get them:

Alex W

In response to #6. People are already downloading books illegally. It's not as easy as ripping a CD but people do scan their books to PDFs to pirate them.


Kindle sounds really cool, in theory, but I'll never buy it until it comes down to about a quarter of its current asking price.

The idea that you can't share ebooks is a potential problem, too, but not a deal killer. The price is outrageous, end of story (note: perhaps it really does cost that much to make it. Tough! It's nowhere near worth it to me, and that's all that really matters).


You don't need a specialty book reader if you have a PDA. There's a lot of software out there already to read books on your Palm or similar.

Likewise, there are a lot of books out there to download in either Palm or plain text format, either classics which are out of copyright or things with a creative commons licence.

Cory Doctorow and Baen have both found that giving books away for free has actually increased real book sales. I suspect this is because reading books on anything electronic is now and always will be only about 10% as relaxing as reading a real book.


Eric Flint has posted at (click Prime Palaver) a speech delivered by Thomas Macaulay to the British House of Commons in 1841.

Macaulay's arguments against extending the term related to copyrights resonates with today's electronic issues; and is well worth the time to read and ponder.

One of the more savvy eBook offerings of Baen to date is the eARC. They allow the purchase of an electronic version of the Advanced Reader Copy for $15.

There are several authors that I have paid and will happily continue to pay Baen $15 in order to read a book months before it I would otherwise be able (in serialized form) through Webscriptions much less waiting for a print version. The list of authors from which I stand willing to purchase an eARC has continued to expand.

I often pick up filler books at $5 or $6 per from their back list when I purchase an eARC or a month of Webscriptions.



Bruce Eckel has written some of the best books on object oriented programming in C++ and Java. He has always offered his books for free on his website ( and, interestingly enough, the online editions have always been more up-to-date than the published ones.

This has not prevented him to be translated and published all over the world.


Erin K.

@9: While certainly a great business idea, imagine the outcry people would make when they found advertisements for McDonalds on page 37 of Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', or a 2-page spread for the DVD Box Set of LOST in the middle of 'The Great Gatsby'.
The problem with that idea is that, for many people, books are not meant to be time-pertinent. My mother gave me her copy of Albert Camus's 'The Plague', which she had read when she was in high school. Novelty aside, it seems entirely pointless to place advertisements in books, because books will long outlast their advertisements. Additionally, there's the issue of rate of consumption. Sure, new sellers will sell like hot cakes at first, and advertisements will be pertinent, but for books by authors like Jeanette Winterson, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan--truly talented writers whose writing is not nearly as popular out of their respective home countries--the advertisements could easily become outdated before the product even sold.


Matt P.

Why can't book publishers use the same business model that magazines use? Namely, inserting advertisements among the pages to offset the costs of production.

I for one, would gladly put up with some ads in favor of a lower price. Imagine paying $5 for a new release, rather than $30.

Its definitely something to consider. Could this work or do we consider books a sacred item that can't be sullied with advertising?

Alex W

Imagine if books went the route of music and charged something like 1 or 2 dollars per download. Hardly a cumbersome fee when you consider most books will be over 10$ in a brick and mortar. Now, if a free ebook can sell 1 million copies in 1 day after some publicity on Oprah, imagine how many copies a trivially priced edition could sell over the span of several months. Certainly a few million, I'd expect.

Money is saved on raw materials, processing, printing, distribution. The only costs would be for the content and the server to house the content and some for publicity. So, say the split goes something like 70/30 for author/distributor. That's still a great deal of income with extremely low overhead.

I know I'd be very likely to purchase a book for 1 or 2 dollars if it meant I could be reading it in a matter of minutes. Often I find myself not reading books because I don't want to get in my car and drive to the book store, or have to wait a week for it to ship from Amazon or Chapters online.

This could be a very interesting venture. Of course EBooks can't replace the romance of holding a book in your hands, but it provides a great way to provide the customer quick content.


Abdul-Aziz Muhammad-Shaw

I doubt that online books will increase the sales of book because like the book on Oprah's website, it was free. Also it will turn out like music, people will find a way to illegaly download the book.


There are thousands of free books available online via google as pdf's - primarily old public domain stuff, but lots of good stuff if you are researching American History for example. I have found important works for topics such as early business history, family history, revolutionary war, etc. I think you can upload unpublished manuscripts there as well.


Don't forget Wowio, they have a eclectic and fairly interesting selection of ebooks

Kent Bunn

Baen has been running their free library for years, successfully. Eric Flint originally convinced Jim Baen to try it, and it has grown since then. Everything they offer, is available in a variety of formats, including plain text file. So there's no DRM infesting it at all. I'm a perfect example of how successful it has been for them.

I downloaded 1632, and A Hymn Before Battle and read the first couple chapters of each. Once I read enough to realize I liked what I was reading, I went out and bought the dead tree versions of both. Along with every other book in both series. Additionally, David Weber co-authored some of the 1632 stuff, so I started picking up his books as well. And Tom Kratman has co-authored 2 of the AHBB series books. I'm now an avid reader of Tom's as well as participating in the online forums for his books at Baen. Because of the 2 "free" books I downloaded, I'd guess I've bought at least 15 hardcovers as they were released now. The freebies have more than paid for themselves to Baen. And I'm extremely happy with the purchases I've made.

From what I've read, Jim Baen was extremely pleased with how the "experiment" turned out as well, before he passed away last year.



Another idea: Book rentals. Books are more like movies than songs. We read most books just once.
So rent e-books out like movies. $5/book. The 24 hour rental period starts when you view the 10th to last page. Or you can have a Netflix-like model. You can take as long as you want reading the book. You just pay a monthly fee.


@13, I grew up when comic books had all kinds of advertising in them. We read old comic books years (even decades) after they were published and the advertisers (especially the classifieds) were long out of business. The 97 pound weakling ad was a classic. Ads didn't diminish the value of the comic at all, even after the ads were obsolete. We loved our comics.

Comic books were inexpensive, and had up to 100 pages. Now they are very expensive and have few or no ads, and maybe 24 pages. They are for collectors now, not kids.


From what I read on some blog, the Oprah free download was suspended after that many people got it for free. Perhaps it was a mistake and was never meant to be given away to so many people? Suze is not such a great personal finance guru anyway.


You missed a major publishing that has starting making some free e-books available: Tor

If you go to and put in your email address, they will send you a free ebook a week until their new site launches. No DRM, no strings attached - just sign up for their email newsletter, get a new free ebook each week.


Don't forget Baen! Lots of free science fiction at

I particularly recommend _1632_ and others in that series: alternate history in which modern West Virginia is transplanted to Germany during the Thirty Years War. Fun stuff, even if it does sound kinda silly when you describe it.