I got the Aldiko e-book reader for my Android phone the other day – for free over the net. It came with two apparently random free books in epub format: H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. And whenever I like I can get more books for free over the net from within the e-reader: either old ones whose copyright has expired, or newly written ones with a Creative Commons licence. Austen, Doyle, Lovecraft, Twain, you name it! I can also buy copyrighted e-books and put them on my phone. The cost works out to about the same as if I mail-order a used paperback from the UK, the difference being that I don’t have to wait and I will have nothing to put on my shelf (which is pretty full already). My next book purchase will probably be an e-book.
Meanwhile, a top-tier literary agent representing a huge number of huge names has made an agreement with Amazon to deliver his author stable’s output directly to the on-line book store for e-reader access without the involvement of any publisher. New times! Will we see the high-street print-on-demand booth soon? Or will the paperback novel soon be obsolete?
The cheapest way to get hold of a copyrighted book, though, is still to borrow it from a friend or the library. My local doesn’t have much that interests me, but they offer an excellent inter-library loan service. I order over the net, they notify me by SMS when they receive the book, and then I pay €1 to borrow it down at the library. (Local loans carry no such fee.)