If you often find yourself torn between downloading free, public domain ebooks, or paying a few dollars for a more polished, digital copy, I come bearing great news today. Standard Ebooks is a website that makes public domain ebooks into works of art, so you'll never have to choose again between saving money and your eyeballs.
Most readers who enjoy classic literature know about Project Gutenberg, the web repository containing tens of thousands of free ebooks in multiple languages and formats. All of the books on Project Gutenberg are in the public domain, which — thanks to a 1998 law that extended the copyright period to 95 years post-publication — means that they were all published no later than 1922. Although waiting for most of your favorite books to enter the public domain before buying them is not really a viable strategy — anything published after 1977 won't enter into the public domain until its author has been dead for 70 years, so good luck living until Harry Potter becomes your free, creative playground — websites like Project Gutenberg and Standard Ebooks are a boon to students and readers on a budget.
Both Project Gutenberg and Standard Ebooks rely on volunteers to help prepare books for distribution. Because of the sheer volume of works in the public domain, and the demand for more books to be added all the time, many of the titles available on Project Gutenberg and other public domain eBook services are scans of the original work. When computers "translate" those scanned pages into searchable type, they often have wonky spelling and formatting errors, such as letters H and S becoming letters N and F.
That's where Standard Ebooks comes in. The organization describes itself as "a volunteer driven, not-for-profit effort to produce a collection of high quality, carefully formatted, accessible, open source, and free public domain ebooks that meet or exceed the quality of commercially produced ebooks." The 200 or so eBooks available on Standard Ebooks have been updated with modern typography and other design details, including gorgeous, public domain covers.
There are a couple of downsides to using Standard Ebooks, however. Firstly, the volunteer efforts that go into making these high-quality, public domain eBooks could be spent improving the books on Project Gutenberg instead, which would lead to more people getting their hands on these fine productions. Secondly, only about 10 percent of the books available on Standard Ebooks were written by women, and a handful of women at that. Several of the woman writers in Standard Ebooks' catalog — including E. Nesbit, Agatha Christie, and Jane Austen — have multiple books available on the website, and every single woman represented there is white. In fact, the website's representation as a whole is not very diverse, with only a handful of classic books by authors of color featured.
In short, Standard Ebooks limited selection, combined with the limited resources available to process public domain works into eBook format, leaves it slightly lacking. But it is a gorgeous service for people who don't want to choose between form and affordability when it comes to reading ebooks from the public domain.