How to Get Free Books on Your iPad

You’ll have to pay for the latest and greatest books at the iBookstore, Amazon, and elsewhere. But there are literally millions of free eBooks and documents available on the Internet, already formatted for your iPad — if you know where to find them.

There are three basic things to know about this process. The first is knowing a little about file formats for eBooks, the second is knowing where to find the free eBooks, and the third is managing your eBook files. I’ll start with the file formats, because they dictate how we manage the eBook files. (Note: Where I say “iPad” for convenience, I really mean your iOS device of choice. Also, my thanks to Tonya Engst who contributed to this article.)

Winnie the Pooh

Recognizing modern eBook standards, most free books are made available in several formats:

  • Mobipocket - This is the format used by Amazon’s Kindle. It’s proprietary, but if you have a Kindle reader for a device, you can read any book in the .mobi format. There is a Kindle app for the iOS family and Mac OS X and other products as well: BlackBerry and Windows.
  • EPUB - This is an open and developing standard, and it’s the one that, for example, Apple’s iBooks and the Barnes & Noble Nook use. If you download a free book in EPUB format, you can rest assured that your book will have a good chance to migrate well into the future. Note however, that Apple overlays its FairPlay DRM on EPUB books you purchase from the iBookstore, so those books can only be read with the iBooks app. As of this writing, there is no iBooks app for the Mac.
  • PDF - This is a well-known standard document format from Adobe. It has a few problems, however, in support of eBooks as we know them. First, the font size isn’t adjustable. That’s good for authors/publishers who want to preserve the look and feel of their creation, but not so great for readers who may want to adjust the font size in a book for clarity*. Second, it doesn’t flow well, that is, it doesn’t adjust well to varying screen sizes and shapes. However, the offset is that, unlike EPUB, one can always refer to a fixed page number. Finally, in Apple’s iBooks app, there is no support for highlighting text. (Other apps, on the Mac and iPad can highlight PDF text.) All in all, you’re likely better off, with eBooks, to select the EPUB or MOBI formats unless PDF is the only option.
  • DAISY - A format for talking books which I won’t go into here.

Finding Millions of Free eBooks

Amazon has a page that nicely summarizes all the free eBook collections. Below is the link, in red, starting from the Kindle eBooks page.

Amazon link

Amazon free books link

If you want to navigate directly, use: -> Books -> Kindle eBooks -> Free eBook Collection. When you do, you’ll end up here:

Amazon free books collection

The Free eBooks collection page

For starters, for reasons that will become clear in a minute, I suggest browsing this site first with a Mac (or a PC). For example, I went to and drilled into the books from Indiana University. (Texts -> American Libraries -> (scroll down) Indiana University Library. Just to give you an example, I selected this book on mythology.

IU Library

IU Library page for “Modern Mythology”  Possible formats in red circle.

Managing Your eBook Files

Note the formats available on the left side of the screenshot above. If you click on one of those formats, the book will be downloaded. Now, here’s the catch. If you download to a Mac, you’ll have the file firmly in the grips of your Downloads directory. You can move it around, put it in a collection, back it up with Time Machine, move it between a PC and a Mac, and so on. If you have the right reader on your Mac, you can read it there, for example, like Stanza for EPUB and the Kindle app for .mobi files. You’ll feel more secure about your collection moving to the future because you’ve archived it, naked, so to speak, on your Mac.

If, however, you download a file in a compatibile format with the iPad directly via mobile Safari, the file will drop into the invisible directory for the corresponding reader app. Of course, you can back up your iPad, but isolating and managing the file will be just a little harder than if you maintain a library of eBooks on your Mac. Especially if, a few years from now, Apple re-invents the iPad and doesn’t provide a way to liberate and archive all your previous eBooks the way you’d prefer.

Moving EPUB file to the iPad

When you’re ready to move the EPUB eBook to your iPad, that’s easy to do, as I described in a previous how-to article. Basically, you drag the .epub file into the Books section of iTunes and sync to the iPad. But read the how-to for all the details.

Drag EPUBs to iTunes

Drag EPUB files to iTunes

Moving MOBI files to the iPad

In this case, you’ll need to install the Kindle app reader on your Mac first, conventionally or via the Mac App Store. And, of course, you’ll need the Kindle app on your iPad. Launch iTunes on your Mac, with the iPad connected, go to the iPad’s Apps tab and scroll down to File Sharing.

iTunes file sharing

iTunes File Sharing

Note that the Kindle reader will let you move books back to the Mac, but iBooks and Nook aren’t designed with that capability and will not. (This is another reason to download your non-DRM’d EPUBs to a Mac first.)

Click the Add… button and navigate to the .mobi file on your Mac. After you do that, your file will sync to the iPad’s Kindle reader, be added to your collection and will be available on any device with your Amazon account.

These methods of moving eBooks from the Mac to the iPad are simple, but there may be other techniques I haven’t yet discovered.

Downloading Directly to the iPad

If you do elect to download the eBook from the source, via mobile Safari on your iPad, here’s what you’ll see after you touch the link.

Download EPUB

Downloading EPUB to iPad

Download MOBI

Downloading MOBI to iPad

In these screen shots, iOS is recognizing the file type and basically asking you which app (and its invisible directory) you want to use.

Note that my GoodReader app also recognizes EPUB eBooks, but you’ll probably want to select iBooks if you want to take advantage of its nice user experience, books on a virtual bookshelf, etc.


There are three (but really just two) viable formats for collecting eBooks, EPUB and MOBI. Amazon has provided a very handy page that summarizes the locations of millions of free books from the Kindle Store, the Internet Archive, the Open Library, Project Gutenberg and ManyBooks. (The Amazon page isn’t required: you can bookmark those sites independently.) You can download those free books, generally in .epub or Kindle/.mobi format, and archive them on your Mac for the future. When you’re ready, you can either drag the .epub file into iTunes and where, after syncing, it’ll be placed in your iBooks app, or you can use iTunes file sharing to import files in Kindle’s .mobi format and sync to your iPad’s Kindle reader.

There’s a lot I didn’t have room to cover here, but this is a subject I intend to cover in continuing detail in future articles. For now, I look forward to your questions and comments.


* Note the absence of the font control, AA, in PDF eBooks.

PDF - no font control