There are services that offer to scan books and create electronic versions. Most are pretty expensive, but 1DollarScan.com holds out the prospect of scanning your book for $1.00. It’s not really quite that cheap, but it is the least expensive of the book scanning services that I’ve found to date, and I decided to try it.
First of all, the pricing is a good deal more complicated than their come-on suggests. It starts with a dollar for a “set” of 100 pages or fraction thereof. That is, for instance, a book with 400 pages counts as four units, and so does one with 302 pages. Not just numbered pages but all that can be scanned (since each sheet of paper has two sides, there is always an even number of pages). That’s just for a barebones 300 dpi image scan, and if you want something usable you start adding options that can run the price up by several more dollars.
However, just to make it all the more confusing, they offer discount bundles. The “Platinum Membership” costs $99.99 per month for up to 100 sets, including the most essential options. The “Platinum Lite” version gives you up to 10 sets per month for 14.99. “Memberships” can be cancelled at any time. Payments are through PayPal and you just tell PayPal not make recurring payments to them anymore.
The options included in the bundles (and otherwise charged separately) include OCR (optical character recognition, to add searchable text), a file title that matches the book title, rescan insurance (they keep the pages for two weeks in case the scan wasn't right the first time), shipping used books purchased via Amazon directly to them for scanning, scanning of magazines as well as books, and “express service” (five- to ten-day turnaround). Other extra-cost options are getting your files on a DVD rather than only by download ($30), “High-Quality Touchup” (Compression + Angle correction + Highest quality OCR + over 40 Languages, $2 per set), or 600 dpi scan ($2 per set).
If you have books running between 302 and 400 pages (i.e., four “sets” per book) then the 100-set monthly quota for a Platinum Member comes to 25 books, with an average total of 350 pages per book or 8,750 pages all told. They will weigh about 32 to 35 pounds altogether and fit into an 18×12×10-inch box. From U.S. locations, Media Mail postage to 1DollarScan.com’s San Jose plant will cost about $17 to $19.
The scanning process preserves the information encoded in the book without change, but changes the physical form irreversibly. At the beginning you have a print form and no electronic form, and at the end it’s the other way around. By disbinding the book’s pages they make it easier to scan and by pulping the paper at the end they make sure they are not creating an additional copy, only transmuting the one you (presumably) already own.
Their theory is that this means no violation of copyright; they’re only changing the form not republishing.
Whether that theory would hold up in court could only be determined by litigation and appeal. They clearly are not sure that it would hold up, because they’ve allowed McGraw-Hill to bully them into refusing to scan McG-H books. No doubt other publishers will follow until the parent company of the service, zLibro, has to fight or fold.
The results are serviceable, for the most part. To give you an idea, I have assembled several 1DollarScan.com sample page scans into a PDF, with each page repeated twice—once at the default 300 dpi color setting and the other at one of the 600 dpi extra-cost settings. Even at 600 dpi the text looks slightly hazy. That’s because the pages are all scanned with descreening. This cuts moiré in continuous-tone images but blurs text and line art.
As a customer you initiate the process by sending them a box with one or more books. They don’t tell us much about their process but from internal evidence its outlines are clear enough. When they receive a book they strip the cover boards off (if it’s hardbound) and then feed it through a power paper stack cutter which shears off the binding and a narrow strip of paper, leaving a stack of disbound pages.
The pages are fed into a Canon production scanner, perhaps a DR-6010C that can scan 500 double-sided pages in less than four minutes. Someone takes a quick look at the resulting PDF file to make sure it isn’t grossly flawed and then it’s posted in a Website directory for you to d/l. After waiting to make sure no rescan will be ordered the print pages are pulped.
Could you do it yourself? Scan your books yourself? It’s possible.
You’d need a manual stack paper cutter to begin with. Pretty good ones, capable of cutting 250 pages or so, can be had for under $150. If the book has more pages you’d have to break and slit the binding to separate the pages into two or more segments that are each within the capacity of the cutter. Once disbound the pages could go through a desktop sheet fed scanner, such as those offered by Epson, Fujitsu, or Xerox.
For $500 or so you can get one which will scan 25 pages per minute, in color and double-sided. It could handle 500 pages in 20 minutes or so, in batches of 50 pages at a time, and hold up doing this on a regular basis. For OCR and production of the PDF the best choice is ABBYY FineReader; version 12.0 currently lists for $169.99.
All of which of course is to say that doing it yourself makes pretty limited sense unless you have some quite special needs. You wind up paying $800 for equipment and software and then have to spend about eight hours of your time to scan as many books as 1DollarScan.com would charge you $100 for (plus shipping), with no up-front investment required.
Of course, regardless of price, whether it makes sense to take your books to bits has to depend on what you want and need. 1DollarScan.com will “fine tune” your PDFs for your devices (e.g., by trimming the white space at the edges) but fundamentally a 300 dpi PDF image is not going to be easy or comfortable reading on a device screen much smaller than the page it was scanned from; forget your smartphone or even pocket e-reader for reading scans of octavo books for fun.
For me, it’s attractive to convert books I never expect to actually read again but do want to keep for reference and research. Not only can I find and access the electronic version more quickly but the PDF search feature makes it quick and easy to find specific information. And if I want to quote a passage in something I’m writing I can easily cut and paste. For most books in this category it’s worthwhile to digitize it if it’s worth keeping at all. But no poetry or fiction or belles-lettres, let alone picture books.
images by bert_m_b