There are many ways to read books for free, both with and without obligations to review and/or promote in return. I’ve been planning to feature this discussion on the blog and YouTube channel for a while, and since we tackled the Rothfuss issue and whether or not authors owe their readers anything last week, following it up with a topic where readers potentially owe the authors something seems like great timing.
Disclaimer: This will not be a completely exhaustive list on places and method to obtain free books, and I acknowledge that the opinions and advise I’m about to bestow may not line up with everyone else’s opinions. I hope I’m in the majority, but if I’m not it’ll make for interesting discussions, right?
Free (and Cheap) Books WITHOUT Obligations
Captain Obvious Says: Libraries
If your area has a public library then you owe it to yourself to obtain a library card. If you like ebooks and/or audiobooks and have a device that can handle these things, you can even use your local library card with OverDrive or Libby to check out books remotely. (Libby uses the OverDrive system and is an improvement on the user experience, but isn’t available on all devices.) I use Libby on my phone to borrow audiobooks of all the new releases I didn’t get ARCs for so I can stay in the loop on popular book discussions. I prefer to borrow audiobooks through Libby rather than ebooks because 1. it’s on my phone, which isn’t a large screen, and 2. I can listen while creating art, cooking for my family, cleaning the house, etc.
If you live near a college or university campus you may also be able to make use of their library. (During non-pandemic times, of course.) Not all higher education campus libraries will allow the general public to obtain cards and take books out, but most will let you in the building, and that means you can read in person. And no, academic libraries aren’t just great places for non-fiction readers. Most have a modest selection of fiction and an ample selection of poetry as well. English departments need material to work with, and pleasure reading is still encouraged. I’ve discovered some of my favourite books by browsing the fiction offerings on campus on days where I forgot to bring a book from home. There was also a period of time in my life when I was no longer a student but didn’t have a full-time job, and that left me in the city before/after shifts waiting for my husband to be off from his full-time job so we could carpool home. Where did I spend my free time? Roughly 95% in the university library.
Borrowing, Thrifting & Lucky Finds
You can also obtain free and cheap books without obligations (other than treating the book nicely and returning it if you’re borrowing) by…
Borrowing from friends & family
Browsing second-hand book stores, general thrift stores, yard sales, etc.
Keep an eye out for library purging sales when they dump old stock in favour of making space for new books.
Enter giveaways. You never know! Social media book communities are full of these giveaways, many blog tours include a giveaway, and Goodreads has ARC and new release giveaways all the time.
Get involved in book swaps (may cost postage) to trade used books with other bookworms.
Getting a little more creative…
Many used book stores and thrift shops allow trade-ins and credit. Turn in your old books and get credit toward new (old) books from their stock. In a similar vein, if you’ve received gift cards to businesses you don’t want to shop at (or can’t shop at) look for reputable gift card exchange services and trade for credit at your favourite book store.
Prime Reading, Kindle Unlimited, Audible Memberships, etc.
All book merchant services (Kindle, Kobo, etc.) will offer free books from time to time with no membership obligations. Kobo has a generous selection of free books at all times (heavy on the romance genre.) Pretty much all ebook and audiobook subscription services offer free trial periods, and most let you keep the books even if you don’t purchase the subscription at the end. Pro tip: While you can’t take advantage of a new trial offer using a user account you’ve previously set up and used a trial on, these services aren’t set up to track you between user accounts, and some have separate user accounts for their different regional sites. This means if you have more than one email account you may be able to try again (technically a violation of terms of service, proceed cautiously.) I have also claimed my free audiobooks on Audible US, Audible CA, and Audible UK all with the same email address, as accounts on those regional sites are separate.
Audible’s membership offers you one or two book credits depending on your monthly fee and then a steep discount on purchasing further books. Credits roll over if unused but expire after 6 months. These books are not free, you are paying through your membership, but they are significantly cheaper than purchasing audiobooks without the membership, and while libraries actually are free, services like Audible offer a larger catalogue, no wait time to get the book, and it’s yours to keep forever (even if you cancel your membership.) Audible does allow you to exchange audiobooks you didn’t like, but don’t abuse this feature, as serial returners will find themselves unable to return books at all.
If you are an Amazon Prime member (affiliate link) then you have access to Prime Reading, which is the sampler version of Kindle Unlimited and allows you to borrow from a small selection of the Kindle catalogue. (Similar to how Prime members have basic tier access to the video and music streaming services.) If you like ebook reading and you have Prime for the shipping and add-on deals, why not also make use of Prime Reading? You can also purchase a monthly subscription to the Kindle Unlimited service (affiliate link.) Then you get the same service with the same borrowing restrictions, but you now have access to pretty much the entire Kindle library. When borrowing from Prime Reading or Kindle Unlimited the individual books are free and do not “expire” like a library loan, but there’s a limit on how many books you can have borrowed at any given time. (I believe it’s currently 10.) If you’re using this service to keep 10 of your favourite books around indefinitely it’s not worth it and you should just buy them for a one-time purchase fee. If you’re a voracious reader and will be borrowing and returning books frequently, it’s a great deal.
I understand some people want to avoid supporting Amazon and may be looking for alternatives to their services. Kobo has the best competition for the Audible and Kindle Unlimited services I’ve come across so far, but keep in mind that Kobo is owned by Rabuken, which was recently acquired by Walmart.
Scribd is an interesting happy medium between the commercial services owned by Amazon and Kobo and free library services like Libby. It started as a way to share academic books but now has all the fiction you can read as well. Membership grants you 3 audiobooks per month and unlimited access to ebooks and other digital content.
Free Books WITH Obligations
Advanced Reading Copies & Review Copies
Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs), also called galleys, are copies of books distributed before publication in exchange for reviews. If you receive an ARC it is expected that you will leave a review. Publishers usually welcome all reviews, while individual authors and publicists distributing ARCs may encourage you to pretend you never saw the book if you end up not liking it. If you request or accept an offered ARC then you are agreeing to review it. You are only doing the author/publicist/publishing house a favour by not reviewing it if you have nothing positive to say. (That isn’t to say don’t put out negative or DNF reviews if you usually write them, but don’t feel obligated to do so if you aren’t comfortable with it.) If you did enjoy the book, you definitely owe it to the author or publisher to share your review. It’s bad form to accept ARCs and never get around to reading them.
All of the same points apply when an author or publicist offers a free review copy of an already published book, or when you receive a review copy through participation in a book tour.
If you receive unsolicited books (books sent by authors or publishers without first communicating with you) then the understanding is that a review would be appreciated if you choose to read it.
NetGalley, Edelweiss+, BookSirens and StoryOrigin are excellent places to sign up as a reviewer and request ARCs. NetGalley and Edelweiss have most of the big traditional publishing houses, while BookSirens and StoryOrigin are great places to look for ARCs from self-published authors and indie presses. You can also find authors looking for reviewers most places books are discussed online, such as Goodreads groups and discussion boards, and most self-published authors will advertise on their websites and in their email newsletters when they’re ready for ARC reviewers. If you have a presence online as a reviewer or work in a relevant field (librarian, educator, bookseller) then you can also contact traditional publishers to inquire about being on their PR lists or joining their influencer programs.
Are you a blogger? Do you have a large following in the Bookstagram or Book Twitter communities? Publishing houses will often invite reviewers with blogs or social presences to participate in official tours for their books, but you can also seek out tour companies that play middle man between both traditional and self-published authors and the hosts of their book tours. Some are strictly blog touring companies while others allow for a mix of blog and social stops or run exclusively social tours.
If you sign up for a review stop on a book’s blog tour or social media tour, you are committing to reading it by a certain date. Some companies will expect you to post a review no matter what, while others will ask you to switch to an excerpt post and withhold your review until after the tour if you didn’t like the book. Most companies set a 3 or 3.5-star minimum to post your review during the tour and give you free rein to post lower-rated reviews once the tour is over. This is because a blog tour is a promotional campaign that someone (usually the author) is paying for and it should encourage people to buy the book.
Tour companies I post for include: Silver Dagger Book Tours, Goddess Fish Promotions, Audiobookworm Promotions, Lola’s Blog Tours, YA Bound Book Tours, Bewitching Book Tours, iRead Book Tours, Rockstar Book Tours, and Rachel’s Random Resources. Silver Dagger is my top recommendation if you want to be on a master list for spotlights that’ll keep your blog full, as their schedule is always packed. (Guest posts & reviews require individual signup, so don’t worry about being overwhelmed with unsolicited review stops.) Goddess Fish is my top recommendation for a company that will drive the most traffic to your blog, as they are the best at promoting each and every individual stop through Twitter (rather than Instagram) which means backlinks to your blog post. Audiobookworm is my top recommendation if you’re interested in free audiobooks (mostly through Audible,) and iRead is my top recommendation if you’re hoping for physical copies of review books outside of the USA.
Blog tour companies usually offer the chance to earn small rewards for your work (Silver dagger enters hosts in weekly draws for small PayPal rewards and Goddess Fish for Amazon gift cards, Audiobookworm has a credit for rewards system, etc.) but this is generally unpaid in exchange for free books and boosted traffic to your blog or social media platforms. Once you gain a reputation for your review work and have steady, large amounts of traffic to your blog or platform then you may be able to take on paid review clients.
Beta Reading & Street Teams
Many authors, especially self-published and first time querying authors, will seek out beta readers. If you are an experienced beta reader or editor you may be able to hire yourself out as a paid beta reader, but if you simply want early access to a favorite author or just want to be part of the process you’re much more likely to gain access to manuscripts if you beta read for free. This is similar to receiving an ARC copy of a book, except you are reading much earlier in the writing and editing process and you are NOT supposed to post a public review. At this stage your job is to provide feedback to the author. Well organized authors will send questions to be answered (frequently broken down by chapter or section) and may even send the book in chunks so that you have to give feedback at chosen intervals before continuing. Some authors will welcome off-script feedback (I’ve shared proofreading notes with authors I was beta reading for) and others won’t. When beta reading, keep in mind that what you read is likely quite different from the final product and you should not post public reviews near/after publication based entirely on the beta read, especially if your review would be less than 4 stars because of all the holes you were asked to poke in it. If you were a reliable/helpful beta reader, the author will likely have no problem sending you a finished ARC if you want one.
Some authors, publicists and even publishers will organize “street teams” to help promote a new book leading up to publication. This usually automatically comes with a free ARC and the expectation to review the book, but it also comes with the expectation that you will participate in other activities to promote the book. To date, I have participated on two different street teams and other promotional tasks included sharing the author’s mockup materials on social media, posting my review in different places, designing or participating in tags inspired by the book, promoting the author’s presale giveaway, creating fan art or cosplays of the characters, promoting sales on the author’s merch store, etc. I won a T-shirt and a character art print during the street team period for The Cyborg Tinkerer with Meg La Torre and a writing diary and print/bookmark pack during the street team period for The Savior’s Sister with Jenna Moreci, and of course, I received a free eARC of both books in order to review them. I am also signed up to participate in a read-along for The Cyborg Tinkerer in the new year.
BookBub, Voracious Readers Only, etc.
BookBub is a service that promotes free and cheap books. Authors get their books on the list, readers get notified by email (free for the readers), and the books get downloaded by thousands of potential readers. If you download a free book from BookBub then the understanding is that you will review it, similar to being approached individually for a review by the author or publicist, but nothing will stop you from using the service if you never review a thing. (But if you’re just being a free book hoarder and likely not even ever getting around to reading them then you are taking advantage of hardworking authors, and that’s incredibly rude.)
Voracious Readers Only is a similar service that emails you about free books, except this one is all free review copies in exchange for a review. VRO asks you to fill out a preferences survey and also pays attention to which offers you accept and ignore, so over time you will only be offered books you’re likely to be interested in. The number of free copies available is usually limited, so it is expected that everyone accepting copies intends to review. The VRO team does keep an eye on Goodreads and tracks who is actively reviewing books and who isn’t. If you accept a bunch of books through VRO and aren’t actively posting reviews you’ll start to see less and less invites to check out new books.
There are many other services out there similar to BookBub and VRO, and the same rules and guidelines stand.
All images used royalty-free from Pixabay.