Thousands of E-books: Free

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You know e-books have arrived when the President of the Unites States is writing one.

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, President Obama’s third book debuts. But unlike his previous two, Dreams from My Father (1995) and Audacity of Hope ( 2006 ), this one will be also available as a digital download. Called Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, it’s a children’s book about “13 groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that have shaped our nation.”

But the book itself is part of a trend shaping our nation. E-books are no longer high-tech innovations for early adopters. This summer, announced that it started selling more e-books than hardcovers – 143 e-books for every 100 hardcovers. And by the end of 2011, Amazon says its e-books sales will eclipse paperbacks.

But e-books are not only reshaping the way we read – they’re also reshaping the way we use the library, not to mention how much we spend on books.

When you think about using the library now, you may think of getting in the car, driving to the nearest branch, finding the book you’re looking for – hopefully all the copies won’t be checked out – then waiting in line to borrow it. But what if all you had to do was log on to the library’s website, do a quick search, then click “download”?

That’s now happening with thousands of books at thousands of libraries around the country. It’s a whole new world of convenience – and one that may appeal to a whole new type of library card-holder: younger, tech-savvy readers who may not have considered the library before, but now see that free e-books and instant downloads make the library a better alternative than iTunes or Amazon.

Today there are two potential drawbacks when it comes to downloading e-books free from the library as opposed to paying for them from commercial sources. The first is that library e-books don’t work on all e-readers – notably the most popular e-reader, the Amazon Kindle.

Many libraries use a company called Overdrive to supply their down-loadable audio and e-books. Here’s a look at compatible devices for Overdrive – you’ll find a lot of devices that handle audio books, but not as many that handle e-books. Another big distributor of both e-books and audio books to libraries is Netlibrary: you can see their list of compatible hardware here.

In short, you can probably listen to audio books on most anything: most Apple devices, including the iPad and iPhone 4, as well as most other smart phones. You can read e-books on the Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble’s Nook and a few other readers – and of course on any computer, either PC or Mac – but you can’t read most library e-books on the Amazon Kindle.

The second potential problem when it comes to using your local library as a sole source for e-books is that they probably aren’t carrying a complete catalog – at least not yet. The reason? As I said in the video above, some publishers aren’t playing ball with libraries because there just isn’t enough money in it for them. The publisher of my latest book, Life or Debt 2010, Simon & Schuster, has thus far has refused to do digital deals with libraries. According to this article from the New York Times, MacMillan is another publisher not providing e-books to libraries.

But according to the librarian I interviewed, these problems will ultimately be ironed out as the demand for e-books continues to expand and publishers work out a profit model that works for all parties involved.

Bottom line? The best way to save more is to find ways to do it without sacrificing your quality of life. And here we have a text-book example: you can now download many of the same e-books free from your library that you’d have to pay for at an online bookstore.

And e-books aside, don’t forget that your library is a wonderful source for virtually every kind of entertainment, from books to music to movies. As I said in the video, you’ve already used your tax dollars to buy and store all this stuff – why would you go out and pay for it? Spend a few minutes today at your local library’s website and see what you’ve been missing.

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