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World eBook Fair tops 1.5m free downloads in first few days

If you give books away, especially online, readers will snap them up.

That seems to be the lesson of the first few days of the World eBook Fair, a one-month experiment in free downloadable books produced by Illinois-based Project Gutenberg. The fair began Tuesday, and already more than 1.5 million books have been downloaded, said Gregory Newby, Gutenberg's volunteer CEO.

``We passed a million about 1 this morning," Newby said yesterday afternoon by phone from Anchorage. ``As of this moment, it's 1,542,000."

Project Gutenberg is a 35-year-old nonprofit foundation whose thousands of volunteers type or scan books into the project's computers, making them available for free downloading. Gutenberg itself had about 20,000 titles available, and several large e-book collections -- such as the World eBook Library -- lent their titles for the monthlong fair, adding up to more than 330,000 books in 100 languages. Gutenberg intends to hold the event annually. The available materials include fiction, nonfiction, and reference books. Copyright has expired on 95 percent of the works. Permission has been given by the copyright holders for the remainder.

A few searches yesterday on the website (www.worldebookfair.com) suggested that the eBook Fair offerings have the diversity of Google -- useful results surrounded by many oddities. The keyword ``Herman Melville" turned up a list that included several of Melville's poems, Dostoevsky's novel ``The Gambler," and a scholarly article on military justice from the Military Law Review. The keyword ``Moby-Dick" did turn up the novel and the novella ``Bartleby the Scrivener," along with pages from the newspaper of the Unification Church and something called ``Space Patrol: A Collection of Warped Parodies From a Future We'd Like to See."

Newby, whose day job is acting chief scientist for the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center at the University of Alaska, said the system's servers in Hawaii were overwhelmed by demand -- about 750,000 downloads in the first 24 hours -- and a larger system in Seattle had to be brought on, which caused some delay. Otherwise, he said, the traffic might have been larger. He expects a million downloads per day, at least for a while.

``I can't say how many individual users there are," he said. ``We're seeing people from all over the world, from the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Brazil. The biggest chunk of downloaders are regular people, not libraries. We can tell from their connections that they're doing it from home, not businesses."

Newby said the intense traffic, without benefit of major publicity, indicates that the project fills a real need, even though many of the books could also be found in public libraries.

``This stuff is out there," he said, ``but we brought it to one place with a unified search engine. This means we are successful, and we want to be even more successful. The simple fact is that people like to read, and finding stuff you want to spend time on is special."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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