How To Load Up Your Kindle With Non-Amazon Ebooks

So you’ve got a Kindle, and you have books on it, and you want to keep those books—no matter what Amazon or a publisher decides you deserve in the future. Your legal options are limited, but you do have some.

First of all, don’t believe the old fogeys who pour haterade all over ebooks whenever Amazon does something stupid with the Kindle. Yes, Amazon just flipped a giant, cloud-computed middle finger at its customers, and wiped away any sense of trust that the company either knows what it’s doing or respects the privacy of customers—but that doesn’t mean ebooks are a bad idea. The ability to carry a virtual library of titles in a single book-sized device (or on a phone or netbook) carries all sorts of benefits that traditional print does not.

The Kindle, however, is proving to be a rotten deal for customers. Not only do you lose the right of first sale, but it turns out even the idea that your license gives you the promised “permanent” access is false. Last week’s Orwell stunt by Amazon is almost certainly not the last time the company will swoop in and manipulate your content, regardless of any promises it churns out in an attempt at damage control.

Here, then, is the best and easiest way to get non-Amazon, public domain ebooks on your Kindle:

Feedbooks: the open source alternative to the Amazon Kindle Store

If you don’t already use Feedbooks, you’re denying yourself access to what amounts to the free, open-source version of the Amazon Kindle store. On the down side, it won’t have the Twilight books; but on the plus side, it won’t have those Twilight books. To participate, go to Feedbooks (feedbooks.com/help/kindle) and download the Kindle-formatted catalogue. You do this directly on the device via the built-in browser or you can download it to your PC and copy it over via USB cable.

Now you’re ready to “shop” for free, legal copies of ebooks. Make sure your wireless is turned on, then open the catalog like you would any ebook and browse through the available titles. When you find something you want, select it; you’ll be taken to a download page on the device’s built-in browser, and if you accept the download, the book will automatically be loaded onto your Kindle. See? It’s just like using the Amazon store, only free!

A lot of public domain works are also available on the Amazon Store, some even offered by Amazon for free. But when you download from Feedbooks you get a copy that will always be yours. When you download those books from Amazon you’re just purchasing a license that can (obviously) be revoked without warning. We recommend you use Feedbooks.

If you can’t find it on Feedbooks, try Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org). Any file offered in MOBI or Plain Text is a perfect format for the Kindle; other formats—HTML, for example—will require conversion first (see below). Unfortunately, unlike Feedbooks you’ll have to download the files first to your PC and then copy them over to the Kindle via USB cable.

(As a bonus, you can read books from these sites on pretty much any device, including mobile phones and netbooks.)

Converting incompatible formats to Kindle-friendly formats

What if you have digital copies of books that you want to read on the Kindle, but they won’t display in their current format? Try installing Calibre (calibre.kovidgoyal.net) or Stanza (www.lexcycle.com) on your PC/Mac. Calibre is the golden child right now, but I’ve also had success with conversions using the desktop version of Stanza in the past. You should know, however, that Amazon now owns Stanza—so if you’re looking to go Amazon-free stick with Calibre, which remains independent as of July 2009.

Futureproofing your purchases

“But what about the books I bought from Amazon?” you ask. “How do I make sure Amazon doesn’t remove any in the future?” Technically, you can’t. You don’t have the rights to protect yourself under Amazon’s licensing agreement, congratulations.

Speaking practically, though, you’ve got two options. The first is an illegal hack to remove DRM. The second option is this:

1. Every time you buy a book from Amazon, download it to your PC and save it as a backup copy. You’re allowed to do this. You should also be backing up the text file on your device that stores all of your notes and highlights, just in case.

Now if Amazon removes a title in the future, you still have a backup copy. You should always do this with anything stored in the cloud anyway. You can’t seriously believe that cloud storage is a secure, permanent solution for your backup needs—it isn’t, and it will come back to haunt you if you don’t protect yourself with your own backups in multiple locations.

2. Keep your Kindle’s wireless connection turned off unless you need it.

This will somewhat reduce your participation in Amazon’s cloud storage system, and increase the odds that should Amazon do something stupid in the future, you’ll have some advance warning from other users’ tweets and posts if not from Amazon itself.

Remember, though, that thanks to Amazon’s DRM implementation, any backup copy will only work on that single Kindle device. When you stop using that particular device, you lose access to that file too if it’s no longer stored on Amazon’s servers. Your only route at that point will be to resort to something illegal, or to start over and buy a new license.

Is it really likely that Amazon is going to go all 1984 on other books in your Kindle library? No, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look beyond Amazon for your ebook fix. Over the past few months, Amazon has shown an increasing inability or unwillingness to have a transparent, fair licensing agreement for the ebooks it sells licenses to. If you’ve already invested money in a Kindle and want to make good use of the device, these are some ideas for how to look beyond Amazon when building your digital library.

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(Photo: EricaJoy)