How to buy and read ebooks without Amazon

There are much better ways to read digital books than what Kindle has to offer.

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Amazon dominates the e-reader market, and for some people that’s just fine. But buying a Kindle means buying into Amazon’s ebook ecosystem. You’re stuck paying Amazon for books until the end of time. Most of the money you spend on books from now on will go to Amazon, a power-hungry behemoth that treats its workers poorly, and very little of your purchase will actually support the author whose work you’re enjoying.

But it doesn't have to be this way. You can enjoy ebooks and ditch Amazon for good, too.

If you ever decide to leave Amazon for another brand of e-reader, good luck porting your ebooks without hours of work and frustrating formatting issues. Amazon’s proprietary ebook format, .azw, can’t be read by any other devices. Amazon makes it easy to convert other ebook formats, as well as Microsoft Word documents and PDFs, into .azw files; the other way around not so much.

I fell into this trap for a long time. I purchased the base-level Kindle on Prime Day in 2014 and had no qualms with using Amazon’s one-click-purchase button to stock my digital bookshelves. That’s what Amazon wants, of course; to activate your trigger fingers before you’ve had a chance to second-guess the purchase.

It’s only in more recent years that I’ve come to realize it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, every e-reader company is a business, and no, ethical consumption isn’t possible under capitalism. But there are lesser evils, and some companies use far fewer underhanded tricks to make your e-reading experience profitable.

You, too, can enjoy reading books on an e-ink screen without that sour aftertaste left in the back of your throat. And it starts with buying yourself a different e-reader.

First, hardware

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Kobo is owned by Japanese conglomerate Rakuten but its offices are headquartered in Toronto, and thus a huge portion of its customers are in Canada. Most other Kobo users are in Europe and Japan. But it’s easy enough to come by in the U.S. and well-worth waiting for in the mail.

Much like Amazon, Kobo has a graduated lineup of dedicated e-readers. The least expensive option, the Kobo Nia, has a 6” E Ink touchscreen and runs about $100; the top-of-the-line Kobo Forma has a larger screen and more storage options but costs $250.

I’m personally a huge fan of the Kobo Libra H2O, which falls somewhere in the middle of the company’s lineup. I really love reading on it. But the Nia is also a solid option if you don’t want physical buttons or prefer a smaller physical footprint for your devices.

Pocketbook is perhaps even less well-known in the U.S. than Kobo, but Ukrainian (now Switzerland-based) company has been around since 2007. It has a truly prolific hardware output, having released 43 different models since its creation.

As with every other ebook company, Pocketbook has larger and smaller models, each with varying features like different backlight options and storage capabilities. The Touch HD 3 is about $160; the company’s newest offering, the Color e-reader, is perfect for comic book fans.

If you’re really all-in on the wonders of E ink technology, there are ultra-premium e-readers like the Onyx Boox Note Air or the Remarkable 2. These are effectively tablets, but in the case of the Note Air, it compromises on too many things to really justify the price. That said, the gigantic 10-inch screen is a delight to read on.

Digital bookstores

Once you’ve broken out of Amazon’s hardware vice grip, you’ll need somewhere else to buy all your ebooks.

The sites below all sell their wares in the most standardized ebook format, called EPUB (electronic publication). Just about any non-Amazon e-reader can read .epub files, whereas proprietary formats, like Amazon’s .azw files, are exclusive only to the company’s ecosystem. EPUBs are widely available on the internet, but, of course, Amazon would rather you not know that and stick to Kindle books instead.

The easiest way to manage EPUB files — rather than just keeping them all in your Downloads folder — is to use an open-source program like Calibre. Like iTunes (remember iTunes?), Calibre is a library management system with a ton of built-in features. Calibre is a must-have for keeping all your ebooks in one place. You can even convert PDFs into EPUBs on Calibre, making them about a thousand times more legible on your e-reader. And when you’re ready to add a new book to your e-reader, it’s truly as simple as plugging it in clicking a button on Calibre’s library interface. — I know, it seems obvious, right? But doesn’t come up very often in conversations about ebooks, probably because it’s not exactly sexy. The site has been around since 2,000 and looks like its user interface hasn’t been updated much since. The selection here is very good, though, and you can read the site’s ebooks on basically any device.

Kobo store — One of the easiest options for buying ebooks is Kobo’s dedicated store — even if you don’t end up buying a Kobo. Unlike Amazon, Kobo makes it easy to download digital books to whatever device you own, even if it’s not necessarily the company’s own. There’s a rewards points system, too, so it pays to buy here over and over again.

Project Gutenberg — This one isn’t for you, classic-haters. Project Gutenberg is a free online ebook library, and it’s free because all of its books have outlived their copyrights. Fans of dead authors to the front. You can read these on any e-reader device, too.

BookBub — I’ve been a BookBub subscriber for a few years now. It’s a personalized email newsletter full of ebook deals. Tell the site what kind of books you like and it’ll send a few deals (many of them up to 80 to 90 percent off!) to your inbox every morning.

OverDrive — This one’s free, too — but it has contemporary books, too. OverDrive is a system that connects to local libraries; you can browse your library’s collection, place holds, and never leave the couch while doing so. Digital library bliss. If you buy a Kobo, you can even access OverDrive right from the e-reader itself and download borrowed books without connecting to a computer.

The many e-reading options you're presented with outside of Amazon might seem daunting. They're all made with ease-of-use in mind, though, and so many are just stellar experiences. Once you feel the freedom of reading without Amazon over your shoulder, you'll never want to pick up a Kindle again.