If e-books continue their rise in popularity over physical books, they will be the most popular format by year's end. At half the cost or less than physical books, their appeal is obvious. But the many options for getting and reading them can be confusing.
How do I get e-books
The main stores are Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Apple's iBookstore and Google Play. You can also download older book titles for free or get a free e-book on loan from your library.
Do I need an e-reader?
No, but it sure helps. A traditional e-reader has a grayscale (black and white) screen with a technology called e-ink that is easy to read in bright sunlight. That's all but impossible on an iPad or laptop. E-reader makers are beginning to add lights so you can read equally well in the dark. You can read an hour a day for about a month on an e-reader without recharging the battery. Phones, laptops and tablets offer eight hours of use, tops. [ Best e-Reader: Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight ]
Can I read any ebook on any device?
More or less. Amazon offers a Kindle app for most any device, including iPads, iPhones Android phones and tablets, Macs and PCs. Barnes & Noble's Nook system works like Amazon's with an e-book store, Nook e-readers and Nook apps.
You can also use Apple's iBookstore with an iOS device or Google Play for an Android phone or a tablet such as the new Nexus 7 Android tablet.
Can I download free e-books?
Your best option is the library. About three-fourths of American public libraries lend out e-books, but only half the people who have a library card are aware of the service, according to a report from Pew Research. You won't have to worry about overdue fines — the book will simply become "unreadable" when the checkout period expires. You may have to get on a waiting list for popular titles, because book publishers impose limits on access to library copies.
A second option is joining a free online lending service such as EBookFling that lets users swap Nook and Kindle e-books. You list books you have, and when another user borrows from you, you earn a credit good for borrowing a book from someone else.
If you're a Kindle owner and a member of the Amazon Prime benefits program ($79 per year for a variety of perks), you can borrow one book at a time from a pool of 5,000 titles. Also, both Kindle and Nook e-books can be lent to one person, one time, for 14 days.
Because of copyright restrictions, not all titles are lendable. You can easily check Amazon to see a book's status by looking under "product details." Apple iBooks and books purchased through Google Play cannot be loaned out.
If you're interested in older books, try Project Gutenberg, a collection of free e-books whose copyrights have expired. Start with its Top 100 list — you might just find a gem.