Taking Books to Bits: Book Scanning with 1DollarScan.com

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.

Interlock MCLS Digitization Tour
a non-destructive book scanner

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


  1. Barney21 April, 2015

    A couple of years ago I used 1dollarscan for a few months on their Platinum plan, and I found the results far better than “serviceable.” In the 100 or so books they scanned for me, I haven’t noticed a single crooked, missing, or blurry page. Images look great, accurate OCR. Maybe the quality has declined since, but I have no complaints about 1dollarscan. They delivered exactly what they promised.

    I stopped using 1dollarscan because it was a pain to pack books and ship them, wait a week or two for them to arrive in San Jose, and then wait another week or two for them to finish the scans. I’m sorry to hear about their legal troubles with McGraw Hill, and as you suggest it’s only a matter of time before other publishers join the party and have the lawyers shut 1dollarscan down. Bummer.

    It’s much cheaper and faster to do it yourself. I eventually bought multiple-sheet feed scanner – for $250 – and have so far “changed the form” of over 600 books. The “chopping” process is tedious, but not all that unpleasant.

    My recommendation: if you want to “transform” 50 books or fewer, use 1dollarscan. Any more than that, get your own scanner.

  2. Nate Hoffelder21 April, 2015

    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.

    Not necessarily. Defending against this type of copyright infringement suit can cost millions and take years, and 1DollarScan might have given in because they realized that McGraw-Hill had deeper pockets and could bankrupt them with a bogus lawsuit.

  3. Doug21 April, 2015

    Their belief that “only changing the form not republishing” is a defense indicates they failed to seek legal counsel. They are making copies of the material, which is what copyright protects. That it’s a digital copy of a paper books is irrelevant.

    The most telling court action in this regard is MP3.com. US copyright law has a special provision allowing consumers to make personal copies of music. In the MP3.com case, the courts ruled that the consumers had to make the copies themselves; MP3.com couldn’t make the copies for them.

    Although making your own copy of a non-musical work is still a violation of copyright (and, if you broke DRM, of DMCA), copyright and DMCA are tort laws. The rights-holder would have to sue you, and prove that you made an unauthorized copy. For individuals making copies for their personal use, the chance of that happening is incredibly tiny.

    A company that’s charging people to make unauthorized copies, though… that’s a bigger and easier target. I wouldn’t want to be them.

    1. Moriah Jovan21 April, 2015

      They are making copies of the material, which is what copyright protects.

      It’s called “format shifting,” which has already been to court and determined to be legal. The physical copy belongs to the consumer. Where the consumer can also KEEP the physical copy, the third-party can’t, which is why it’s destroyed. (I’d find the cite, but I’m lazy).

      Good timing on this, though. I’d forgotten I had a book waiting for me to download. Heh.

      When the service was new, I used them for a huge box of used books I’d bought and realized that it cost more for me (in money AND time) to convert used books I wasn’t sure I’d ever read than to put them on a list and wait for the ebook to come out, at which time I might not care anymore anyway.

      In the case of the book I just had done, it’s a beloved book. I bought a hardcover (which I do for books I adore) and sent the water-warped paperback. I’d have bought the ebook, but there isn’t one to be had. Anywhere. I guess no one found it valuable enough to put online.

      1. Doug21 April, 2015

        In the US, space shifting (the term generally used in legal circles) has not been found to be legal except in the specific case of music. The 9th Circuit Court held that space shifting was “paradigmatic noncommercial personal use entirely consistent with the purposes of the [Audio Home Recording] Act,” which is the law that allows US consumers to record and copy music for personal use. (RIAA v. Diamond)

        A number of later cases have seen arguments for space shifting of non-music media being struck down. To my knowledge, no space-shifting defense has yet stood up for media other than music.

  4. StevH21 April, 2015

    Thanks for the info/details refresh. I used them for a few books too about two years ago. They did a good job and the quality was acceptable for my uses.
    BTW- if you do want to DIY any FedEx Express copy center will happily cut your book’s binding off using their high-end hydraulic cutter, cost 0.75 per book.

    1. William D. O'Neil21 April, 2015

      ” any FedEx Express copy center will happily cut your book’s binding off using their high-end hydraulic cutter, cost 0.75 per book.”

      Nice tip. Thanks.

  5. William D. O'Neil21 April, 2015

    One interesting thing is that there are commercial services advertising nondestructive book scanning services. It’s hard to imagine how they can possibly stay in business.

    Even if what 1DollarScan.com is doing might ultimately be accepted by the courts I question whether the business can possibly be worth enough to support the costs of litigating the issue against a deep-pockets big-5 publisher, or perhaps all five of them at once. Of course it may be too small an issue for the publishers to bother with for now, but as I suggest in the review, I see 1DollarScan.com as existing only on sufferance.

    As Doug suggests It’s clearly out of the question for the publishers to pursue DIY book scanning. OTOH, I think that if you actually look clearly at the time involved and place much value on your time, it’s not all that attractive.

    I do plan to make use of 1DollarScan.com while it exists, but am glad to have the DIY option for McGraw-Hill titles (of which I have quite a few) and for other special cases.

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  7. John Cheston6 May, 2015

    There is another book scanning service that can scan and OCR books I’ve used in the past called Custom Book Scanning. I prefer to use them since its a veteran owned business and the turnaround is about the same.

  8. KC28 February, 2016

    Non-destructive book scanning services stay in business because they are used by libraries, archives, collectors, and actual book publishers (i.e., the ones who do things like contact the author’s estate and get permission to re-publish out-of-print books without violating copyright). As you might have imagined, if you’d thought about it for a moment: some books that are scanned for either preservation or OCR are extremely valuable, or even unique. A 700-year-old, irreplaceable, illuminated manuscript or a signed first edition are quite different from the used paperback you’d prefer to have in ePub format 🙂

    By the way, the reference to copyright above is not some veiled attempt to claim 1DollarScan is violating copyright. It means only that re-publishing a book for sale is obviously very different from making a copy for personal use only. Publishers do contact the author’s estate, or the current copyright holder, and obtain publishing rights. Or at least they should, and those who don’t rightly get sued.

    I apologize in advance for sounding a little snarky. However, I get a very tired of seeing comments all over the Internet that say, “It’s hard to imagine….” – or the equivalent – merely because the commenter has not bothered to think or imagine beyond his own limited needs and desires.

    It’s actually very EASY to imagine why non-destructive book scanning services would be necessary; but it does require using one’s imagination rather than simply referencing it, not to mention one’s intelligence. Self-absorption is the enemy of rational discussion.

    By the way, Mr. O’Neil, I apologize to you if that sounds unduly harsh. It is not intended as a shot at you directly. Obviously everyone, including me, has at one time or another made some observation for which we later whack ourselves on the forehead and say, “Duh!”. I’ve made some incredibly dumb comments, for example, before I’ve had my morning coffee 🙂

    Sadly, though, it sometimes seems Internet comments are made primarily by people who are completely ignorant of anything outside their own personal experience. It is to those people my harshness and irritation are directed, and not to you personally.

    Best Regards,

  9. […] your old books and replace them with PDFs. The Digital Reader has used this service and offers an analysis. The results, which naturally will cost you more than the $1 their name has set you up to think […]


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