Cover of the free ebook Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon
I’ve found a great source for free ebooks. For the last year, one publisher has been quietly handing out a new free ebook each month. Last month, it was “The Best of Roger Ebert,” a fascinating collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. Called Awake in the Dark, it included his reviews of the best films for 38 different years, plus essays on film-related topics (like the way Star Wars changed Hollywood). This month that book is retailing for $9.99, but for at least part of last month — they were giving it away for free!

So what’s this month’s novel? It won the prestigious literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (when it was first published in 1987). It’s called Loving Little Egypt by Thomas McMahon, and its description on Amazon sounds pretty amazing. “Imagine E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime rewritten by a mellower, comically more benevolent Thomas Pynchon,” writes the Library Journal, “and you might have a novel something like this one. Real people — Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst — are involved in imagined events, and historical facts counterpoint fictional themes…” It sounds a bit like steampunk hackers — the book’s cover describes it as “hilarious” and “wonderful” — but the author himself actually moonlighted as a Professor of Applied Mechanics and Biology at Harvard University. You may have heard of Thomas McMahon, since he was also the author of McKay’s Bees, which appeared in a long segment this summer on public radio’s “All Things Considered”. (“Moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and a group of German carpenters, Gordon McKay is dead set on making his fortune raising bees – undaunted by Missouri border ruffians, newly-minted Darwinism, or the unsettled politics of a country on the brink of civil war.”)

And remember, that’s the free ebook for the month of October — which means there’s another free ebook coming up soon in November. You can get updates by following their Twitter feed (which, surprisingly, has less than 3,300 followers) — or through their page on Facebook. (Or, for that matter, by just re-visiting the web page where they’re listing this month’s free ebook!) That’s the funniest part about these special offers. Amazon is still listing this month’s free ebook as selling for $9.99, even though it’s free if you visit the publisher’s web site!

They’ve been doing this for over a year — their first free ebook was claimed by 800 people, according to Publisher’s Weekly. (It was an obscure book by a 3rd-century Greek writer named Censorinus…)
And in February the free ebook was actually about free ebooks — sort of. It was a Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by a Chicago professor named Adrian Johns, and they handed out 2,400 free copies before the print edition even hit the shelves! (“We enjoyed the ‘steal this book’ irony of giving away a book about piracy,” they explained to Publisher’s Weekly.)

Ironically, that ebook now sells for $19.95…

They’re transmitting more copies of their books — by several magnitudes — than the first book they ever published in 1891, which, according to Wikipedia, sold just five copies! (Apparently there was very little demand for Assyrian and Babylonian Letters Belonging to the Kouyunjik Collections of the British Museum.) I’m talking about the University of Chicago Press, which Wikipedia identifies as the largest university press in America, and also one of the oldest. They’re famous as the publishers of “The Chicago Manual of Style”, a writing guide which helps set the standards for the entire publishing industry.

It’s just celebrated its 104th anniversary, and in September, they handed out a free ebook version to 7,408 readers — of the first edition published in 1906! It’s nice to think that as the Generations come and go, its publisher has survived into the dawn of the ebook. They’re still out there, delivering high-quality reading material, supported by the resources of a major university.

And sometimes, they’re even sharing those books for free!

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