The Rocky Road from Print Books to E-Books

My work with long-time colleague Steve Paxhia on the BISG Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading study has often led us into a more-or-less friendly debate over the future of printed books. With some of that debate about to appear in Book Business magazine, I thought I’d add a brief account of my attempt to convert one of my old favorites from mass market paperback to e-book format. It was not easy — and the process raised some interesting questions. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

First off, I should confess that I have a weakness for 1950s and 1960s science fiction — from classic authors like Heinlein and Asimov to guilty pleasure works like the Lensman series. Since I re-read many of these from time to time, it follows that I have a large stash of mass market paperbacks taking up space and causing problems whenever I move.

In our debate, I lamented the fact that I could not easily convert these artifacts (mostly low-quality print) into e-book format, similar to the way I converted my legally purchased vinyl and CD albums into MP3s. Many of these titles are not available as e-books, and even if they were, I dislike the idea of buying the same thing twice.

My colleague pointed out that there are services, like 1DollarScan that will do the job for very little cost. Intrigued, I ran a test on a book I was willing to sacrifice. (Typically, you don’t get the printed book back after scanning; they recycle it.)
1DollarScan results

Working with 1DollarScan

The process was pretty simple. I selected the number of 100-page “sets” in the book — for which they charge $1 each — and options like OCR (which I chose) and direct shipment from Amazon (which I did not). This meant $6 for a 230-page book, to which I added book rate mailing and the cost of a padded envelope, bringing the total to around $8.50. This is roughly what a backlist e-book costs these days. However, my book wasn’t available in e-book format, and I was doing a test anyway, so I thought  what the hell.

After waiting for the book to arrive and be processed, I was duly notified, and downloaded the resulting PDF file. It was quite large (142MB), including the scanned images for each page and imbedded OCR data. (More on that later.) There were also several free “Fine Tuning” options for common e-reading devices. These reduced the file sizes considerably, and adjusted page margins to match the intended device screen size. These could be “side loaded” into some connected e-readers, but could not be emailed, because the file size was still too big.

OCR BluesSample OCR results

When I copied the OCR text in Acrobat and pasted it into Word, the results were abysmal (right). Granted, I did not choose the High Quality OCR option (for an additional $6), but since the object was to keep the price reasonable, there was no incentive to do this. (Even if the better OCR option had resulted in better data, I would have had to copy and paste each page’s worth, and done some formatting tricks to create a true EPUB file.)

Pages, not E-Pages

The whole point of the EPUB format is reflowable, resizeable text, which can be easily read on almost any portable device — or even on multiple devices. For trade publishing, it’s just about perfect. The problem with 1DollarScan’s solution is that it creates static pages — literally replicas of the printed work — not real e-books. I’ve lost my physical copy of Simak’s novel, and in its place received a bulky, inconvenient PDF file. (Also, the copyright issue is a little sketchy. 1DollarScan users must agree to a “fair use” arrangement, which I’m not sure would survive a court test.)

So, What’s the Answer?

On occasion, I have purchased e-book versions of books I already own in print, but enjoy re-reading — or would like to lend to friends or family members. If my physical copy is a mass market paperback, I gladly recycle or donate it to Goodwill. Almost always, these are backlist books, with relatively low e-book price points. However, because that price is still higher than a used paperback, I don’t do this very often.

Publishers already have the rights to the words that make up books — printed or digital. In fact, with few exceptions, all modern books are already digital! Formatting them as e-books is not rocket science. Why not do this more often for backlist collections?

Rather than scan my old books, I would much rather trade them in, as it were, for the convenience of EPUB. Would it kill publishers to offer price incentives for backlist e-books to those who owned — and were willing to give up — their printed copies? Because it would be limited to titles that generate little or no revenue now, it’s potentially “found money” for publishers — from book lovers who are more likely to buy new e-books from publishers who meet their needs.

It would certainly give me an incentive to buy more e-books. After my disappointing experience with 1DollarScan, I renewed my search for Simak’s work. Alas, I still could not find Way Station, but I did locate (and purchase) a collection of Simak short stories on the Sony e-book store. However, if I ever want to re-read Way Station, I’ll probably buy another paperback.

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