Non-fiction e-books 2: for free and for sale

By Jon: First published in Online Currents 2003 – 18(5): 12-14

In a previous article I indicated that the fledgling e-book market has matured and settled down for some steady growth, largely driven by an increase in the use of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) with e-book display capabilities. Although fiction is by far the more popular, there are increasing amounts of non-fiction material finding their way into e-book format. In this article I look into sources for downloading non-fiction e-books, while the concluding article will describe e-book ‘libraries’ and CD distribution systems.

Why download a book?

One of the goals of the Internet was to eliminate duplicated information. Rather than many thousands of copies of a document – The Origin of Species, for instance – circulating around the world, one canonical copy could be made and stored in such a way that anyone could have access to it at any time.

Real life is messier, though. People like to own things, particularly things to which their access might otherwise be taken away. Unimportant items may be borrowed; important ones are bought. By ownership of a book a person gains certain rights over it; the right to scribble in the margins, for instance, to underline words or phrases, or to rewrite the ending. The right to pass a copy on to someone else, though disputed by copy-protectionists, also seems to be inherent in what we mean by owning a book: if I can’t safely and conveniently copy something, do I own it at all? So although what it actually means to ‘own’ an e-book is open to debate, the primary distribution model for both fiction and non-fiction e-books remains that of giving books away or selling them. But unlike a real bookshop, an electronic one never runs out of stock.

Public domain material

There is a long and distinguished history of out-of-copyright non-fiction being made available for free, beginning with and still dominated by the efforts of Project Gutenberg (PG). These public domain sites have many times more e-books available than any commercial non-fiction site, although these tend to lack scholarly apparatus and may contain many typographical errors.

Project Gutenberg (PG), founded by Michael Hart in 1971, now has over 7,000 works available. Perhaps 20% of this number are non-fiction, although as non-fiction books tend to be longer, the proportion in bytes or pages would be larger. PG is volunteer-driven and the selection of works for uploading is personal and quirky. The list of books shows, for instance, “A Defence of Poetry” by Shelley alongside “A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill”, by Alice Hegan Rice. Nonetheless, most classic works make their way on to PG sooner or later.

Books can be located on the PG site at, and then downloaded in text or ZIPped form from mirror sites around the world. No attempt is made to classify books by age or genre and only searches by title or author are possible. Carriage returns are embedded in the text at the end of every line, making it difficult to read the texts on PDAs unless they are reformatted; however, there are many utility programs available for this purpose (I use a freeware utility called InterParse). File names are constrained by the 8-character limit inherited from DOS, making it difficult to recognise the book you want after you’ve downloaded it; e.g. Edward Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life and Writings is in the text file gbnlw10.txt.  In the interests of easy access a librarian might want to reformat and rename PG texts before making them available to her clients.

A typical PG non-fiction work is the Gutenberg copy of The History of Modern Europe, 1792-1878, by C. A. Fyffe, first published in 1895. This is a book of 402,000 words, including a blurb for Gutenberg at the beginning and end of the file. It contains no index and the page numbers have been stripped from the table of contents. There are 555 footnotes collected at the end of the file and indicated in the text by a number in square brackets. (In Microsoft Word it is possible to see both text and footnotes at once, but no other display program I know of permits this.) Unlike some PG texts, typos are few and far between and the text appears to have kept some or all of its diacriticals. It represents an enormous amount of work by very dedicated volunteers, but there is nothing to indicate why this particular work was chosen or whether it has any special significance.

There is no cost for using the Project Gutenberg system but they appreciate donations and offers of help. Books from PG are also sold on CDs by value-added distributors like Samizdat and Blackmask, and these are discussed in my next article.

Project Bartleby ( makes a more disciplined attempt to preserve worthy volumes that are out of copyright. Their non-fiction section contains perhaps a hundred items, each broken into chapter-size chunks, apparently designed for reading online. There is no option to download a whole book as a unit, making it difficult for those who want to copy it to a PDA. The chapters are in HTML format, largely unformatted, but with line numbers.

Bootleg e-books

This is the ‘elephant in the room’; the unmentionable topic that plays a vital part in the activities and decisions of e-book readers and distributors. Many thousands of fiction and non-fiction books are available through the Internet, primarily on the newsgroup and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) systems, though they sometimes find their way on to FTP download sites. File-sharing systems like Kazaa, though widely used with music files, don’t appear to have caught on with e-book readers. Lists of downloadable books are readily available – though the definition of a ‘book’ may vary widely from one distributor to another – and these are often neatly organized and categorized, making it relatively easy to find and download items.

Examination of a list of downloadable books reveals that many of them come from PG or other public domain sources anyway. Of the bootleg copies, authors and genres tend to reflect the interests of the young, male, largely US-based bootleggers; there is lots of fantasy and SF, and in non-fiction Bill Bryson, Dave Barry, Alisteir Crowley and Carlos Castaneda are typical authors in the list.

Bootleg newsgroups tend to be ‘flooded’ by masses of material which remains available for a week or so before being taken off the list. Much of this is non-fiction and it may be anything from US Army field manuals to Tantric scriptures to cookbooks, sometimes including graphics and comprising dozens of megabytes at a time – clearly aimed at people with broadband connections. Formats vary, but .PDF is popular for books with tables and illustrations. There are also many repeat postings of popular works, so the amount of new interesting material is actually more of a trickle than a flood. Any material appearing in the newsgroups which has lasting value usually makes its way into more permanent storage on the IRC system.

IRC bootlegging requires users with large e-book collections to set their computers up as ‘servers’; IRC users can send commands to the servers to search for books by title or author and to download the books that they find. Filenames and storage locations on the servers are often haphazard – although things are improving – downloads may ‘hang’, and not all servers are available at all times, so obtaining a bootleg e-book is a hit-and-miss process. Like public domain books, it may also contain typographical errors introduced during scanning

While legitimate e-book distributors are usually critical of the bootleg system in public, its real implications for e-book distribution are not at all clear. By making users aware of authors it may boost their sales; and when the time comes to issue a legitimate e-book, then using a bootleg text can save publishers a lot of scanning and proofreading. From the public’s point of view bootleg e-books help to drive down legitimate e-book prices and to pressure e-book publishers towards a broader, better, cheaper system. And there is still a long way to go.

Commercial sites

An increasing number of e-books – both original and reproduced from paper works – are making their way on to the web via a variety of ‘e-publishers’ or distributors. Payment is usually by credit card or through Web-based payment systems such as PayPal. E-book distributors can be grouped into three main types, discussed below.

The main stumbling-block for a customer is the large number of  distributors and the relatively small numbers of books at each site. Although several guides to distributors can be found – for instance. the Directory of E-publishers (, there is no way of knowing in advance whether a particular book is available, or if so which distributor has it in stock. Most of the benefits of on-line shopping evaporate when you need to spend an hour or more looking for the item you want. Mind Like Water ( has attempted to compile a book-based listing of all e-books available on the Web, but the project appears to have floundered. Until you can locate an e-book as quickly and easily as you can locate a print book using, say, Amazon, the e-book market will continue to lag.

Niche marketers

Since the arrival of desktop publishing software nearly twenty years ago there have been plenty of individuals and organisations willing and able to produce their own publications and offer them for sale. With the advent of the Internet and standard HTML authoring packages, many of these books are finding their way into electronic format, speeding up the distribution process and allowing for a much wider audience.

Examples can be found at Interniche (, a self-promotional site by the author, and Standards Australia ( which offers e-books as an alternative to its paper publications.

Scholarly books

Cybereditions ( is a scholarly e-book publisher on a fairly small scale. It ‘specialises in publishing new editions of out-of-print books, revised and updated through the addition of new introductions, supplementary chapters, and fresh bibliographies’. Its advisory board includes Steven Pinker, Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, but its catalogue is small, with only 24 e-books currently available and 9 in development. A recent announcement on the site that the books will also be issued in paperback heralds a step backwards for technology.

Most of the books on the site would be classed under Humanities, with authors including Frederick Crews and Roger Kimball. The books are in .PDF format, making them impractical to read on a PDA; an extract from one of the books is shown below. Prices for an e-book are about 70% of the paperback editions; for Roger Kimball’sArt’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (204 pages) they are given as e-book $US12.95 and paperback $US17.95 respectively.

A PDF format e-book from Cybereditions

General books including non-fiction

Palm Digital Media ( is a mixed publisher offering both fiction and non-fiction, grouped (not always accurately) by genre. There appear to be about 200 non-fiction books on the site. These are conversions of existing books, not original e-publications, and the rationale behind their selection is not clear. Under ‘Biography/memoirs’, for instance, there are 15 books about Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson and the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, amongst others. A book on Franklin Roosevelt sells for $US7.19, with a 10% discount to site subscribers. A 321 Kb e-book on Reengineering the Corporation sells for $US10.39. These are not much below the prices of printed versions; for instance, Reengineering the Corporation on paper sells new for $US11.20 (plus shipping) from The e-books are only available in Palm (.PDB) format.

Franklin ( is a hardware company offering electronic versions of published books to complement their PDAs – although the Franklin PDA has now gone out of production. Their site lists about 100 non-fiction e-books in all. Prices are somewhat higher than Palm Digital Media, and I found several e-books selling for more than the current paperback price at Amazon.

Amazon itself ( has an e-book section with perhaps 1000 books in all. These are a mixed bag of titles and formats; again, prices are comparable to, and sometimes higher than, their paperback equivalents. Very few e-books have been added to the list since January 2002, indicating that this facility may be under review.

Barnes and Noble ( searching with the keywords ‘nonfiction ebooks’ brought up a total of 239 titles, as opposed to 170,000 or so for nonfiction print books. (One of these was Dracula, which hardly counts as non-fiction.) Most of these were in .LIT or .PDF format, and priced between $US10 and $US25.

In my next article I will look at two alternative distribution systems; e-book libraries, and e-books on CD.