The internet and mobile devices have brought about more ways to read than ever before. While physical books still hold a healthy appeal for some readers, it’s not always a convenient way to consume a story. Now, numerous devices, apps, websites, and online stores offer up novels and other forms of fiction (and nonfiction) to readers, in formats ranging from print books to ebooks, audiobooks, and experimental platforms.
Let’s start with some of the bigger retailers that you might already be familiar with: Apple Books, Google Play Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart eBooks, most of which have their own dedicated ecosystem of apps and devices. If you’ve bought or read an ebook, there’s a good chance you’ve used one of these stores.
Bigger companies and their infrastructure come with some solid advantages for readers. Their storefronts are massive, with millions of books that you can buy with the click of a button, and immediately read on their associated devices or apps. Amazon — and to a lesser extent Barnes and Noble — also has its own imprints, which include everything from regular novels to packages of shorter stories, as well as a vibrant world of self-published reading material. Some of these companies also have special programs, such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service, which offers access to a big pool of free books that you can borrow.
Amazon also owns the well-known audiobook company Audible; Audible members get two free original productions a month. You can also sometimes find heavily discounted audiobooks when you buy a Kindle edition.
Big retailers aren’t the end-all and be-all when it comes to buying books. There are a number of other services out there that can facilitate your book-buying habits. These may be especially attractive if you, like some readers, aren’t comfortable with the types of data that sites like Amazon collect on their customers, or you simply want to support your local bookstores or independent companies. One place to look is the publisher’s website, which will sometimes sell ebooks directly to readers.
Big retailers aren’t the end-all and be-all when it comes to buying books
Scribd originally launched as a platform for shared documents, but the site has shifted to a focus on reading in various forms. Over the years, it’s offered up a huge library of books, audiobooks, and graphic novels, with subscribers paying $8.99 a month to borrow books on an unlimited basis (with some caveats — if they find that you’re abusing the system, you’ll get cut off). The site recently announced that it had more than a million paying subscribers.
Weightless Books is an online science fiction bookstore that sells DRM-free ebooks, which means that you can read them on whatever device you own. It also provides subscriptions to science fiction and fantasy magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld.
Like audiobooks, but dislike Amazon? Libro.fm is a company that partners with local, independent bookstores to sell audiobooks through a similar credit model as Audible’s, and any books you buy come DRM-free, meaning you can listen on a variety of devices. Another platform is RBdigital, part of audiobook publisher Recorded Books, which partners with libraries to offer up a catalog of audiobooks and ebooks. You need to create an account first with your library, however.
Free for the taking
There are also a number of other sources where you can get books that you might not know about otherwise — and that you can often get for free.
Publishers will often sell ebooks directly to readers through their websites, and sometimes, it’s worth signing up for their newsletters: HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster give you a book when you sign up, for example, while Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club is another example — members get a free copy of a book each month.
Others give things away for free: NASA has a large ebook portal with free books that delve into the agency’s history and missions, while Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination has a library of near-future science fiction anthologies, like its recently released The Weight of Light: A Collection of Solar Futures.
There are a couple of apps that are designed to interface with your local library, and let you borrow books from its digital holdings.
There are a couple of apps that let you borrow from your local library
First up, we have OverDrive. To use it, you sign up for an account and add a local library for which you have a library card. Once you register your library card number, you’ll have access to your library’s holdings, and it will allow you to borrow books and place them on hold — check with your local library system for specific numbers. The app will tell you what books are available, and you can add yourself to a wait list if your desired book is currently checked out by another borrower. You can also borrow and listen to audiobooks if one’s available. It’s available on a wide range of formats, including iOS and Android, Amazon’s Fire, Macs, and Windows PCs.
Another app, Libby, comes from the same company as OverDrive, but has some slightly different features and a different interface. It’s more limited when it comes to devices — it’s only available on iOS and Android, although Amazon functionality is coming soon. There are some useful features on Libby that OverDrive doesn’t have. For example, it will tell you how long you have to wait for a book to become available if it’s on hold, and users can tag books to make lists in the app. Still, there are some wonky elements to both; for example, searching isn’t always intuitive.
If you read a lot, and if you have a place online where you can blog about books, or if you’re a bookseller, educator, or librarian, or can be described as a “professional reader” in some form, NetGalley is a useful site to know about. It’s a portal that hundreds of publishers use to release advanced copies of forthcoming books.
NetGalley is a portal that hundreds of publishers use to release advanced copies of books
Helpfully, the site can send copies directly to your Kindle device. It can be a bit of a crapshoot, however. Some books are widely available to reviewers, but for others, you need to put yourself on a list to get approved by the publisher first, and that depends on your track record as a reviewer or advocate.
Finally, if you’re looking for older classics, there are sites like Project Gutenberg, Open Library, and Archive.org, which host public domain editions of ebooks and, in some cases, back issues of magazines.
If you’re looking for something a bit more experimental, there are a handful of apps out there that are playing with serialized fiction and storytelling online.
One publisher that comes to mind is Serial Box. The company has been steadily releasing its own brand of serial fiction: novel-length stories that have more in common with a season of television than a single book. Each story is broken up into around 15 installments (episodes) that tell their own story, which collectively make up a larger story arc over the course of a season.
Serial box releases novel-length stories that have more in common with a season of television
The company has a slick app that allows you to access your library and to jump between reading text and listening to the audio adaptation. It also recently announced that it had partnered with Marvel to produce a series of serials featuring Marvel characters. You can buy and read serials as individual episodes or by season, either online or via the company’s iOS and Android apps.
Another company experimenting with serialized and short fiction online is Radish. The app has a similar model as Serial Box’s, providing serialized, original stories through its app in a variety of genres, including YA and fantasy, but leaning more heavily toward romance and erotica. The company has also been experimenting with different types of storytelling. It hosts regular prose stories, but has also told stories through text message exchanges. It also has a higher release tempo and a larger pool of authors than that of Serial Box, with new episodes released every day. Radish is available via Android and iOS apps; there’s no web interface.
App-based storytelling is still in its infancy. Some aspiring sites, such as Great Jones Street, have already come and gone when they couldn’t find a sustainable business model.
Some authors will offer up their own stories as well. If you do a little research, you can sometimes find instances of known authors who have bought their backlist back from their publisher, or have simply self-published their latest on their own. Linda Nagata is one who comes to mind; she set up her own publishing imprint to release new titles. In addition, Karl Schroeder and Cory Doctorow have put up some of their books for free or pay-what-you-want on their sites.
Known authors have bought back and self-published their backlist works
Like short fiction? Last year, Y Combinator backed a new startup called Curious Fictions, which allows authors to create a profile and post their stories to the site for users to read. Users can follow and subscribe to author profiles, read or listen to the stories they upload, and support them monetarily. Authors can set prices for stories, and can track their stats to see views, likes, and subscribers.
Finally, while many self-publishers choose to market through the larger companies such as Amazon, there are several platforms that make it easy for people to self-publish their own fiction. WattPad is one of the larger such sites, which says it has around 70 million readers. It’s home to a huge range of fiction, with everything from original works to fan fiction. The company recently announced that it was launching its own dedicated book imprint, and has been working to develop stories for television and film.
Fan fiction has a long and distinguished history within fandom, with amateur, aspiring, and even professional authors writing up their own versions of their favorite characters and worlds. In addition to WattPad, you also have vibrant fan fiction sites like Archive of Our Own and FanFiction, which have stories from just about any franchise you can think of.
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