eBooks: Going Digital…The Hard Way

Book SaverWhile the news from CES last week buzzed with updates about the latest Android tablets and stories of self-navigating iPad robots, a new product with the potential to further disrupt the already troubled book business went largely unnoticed.

The ION Book Saver is a new scanning system designed to convert print books into eBooks at a rate of two facing pages per second. It’s fast. It’s cheap. And it has some in the publishing industry wondering if it’s a precursor to a new class of product that will one day enable consumers to digitize their book collections in much the same way they ripped their CD collections.

The Ugly Truth About Analog to Digital Conversion

While the CD ripping analogy is interesting, I think it misses the mark by well over a decade. In reality, conversion from print book to ebook is more like a conversion from LP to mp3. There aren’t many consumers who have taken the time to convert a Vinyl LP to digital (I know the ones who have will gladly regale us with war stories in the comments).

Analog to digital conversions are messy and time consuming (assuming you care about things like accuracy and metadata). Kindle owners who dream of converting a personal print library into an easily accessible digital library are in for a rude awakening. The process of making usable ebooks involves quite a bit more than just scanning the printed pages.

While the Book Saver might scan a book quickly, the end result will be far from an optimal reading experience. Without resorting to additional processing, the Book Saver will produce either a PDF file that doesn’t reflow or a poorly OCR’d text file that requires additional manual cleanup. While these limitations may be suitable for certain types of books (and certain types of readers), this isn’t a general purpose conversion solution for most consumers.

Consumers will quickly realize that, in most cases, it’s more cost effective to simply pay for a commercial ebook.

You can’t buy what isn’t for sale

That is, assuming they can actually buy the book they might otherwise scan. Unfortunately, many of the books that consumers are likely to scan aren’t yet available as ebooks (at least, not as legitimately licensed ebooks).

Publishers are undoubtedly cranking up their digital production efforts, but they are hampered by quality issues and poor management of digital assets. Or rather, non-existent digital assets. Book publishers simply don’t have digital source files for the vast majority of the content they hold the copyright to. While we live in a world that seems on the verge of going entirely digital on a moments notice, many publishers have no digital assets for books that were released just a few years ago.

For publishers with no alternative, an affordable scanning solution like the Book Saver is part of the solution, not part of the problem.

TOC Alert

O’Reilly’s annual Tools of Change conference is just around the corner. This year I’ll be participating on a panel titled: Open, Webby Book Publishing Systems.

If you have any interest in how books are evolving in the digital era, then TOC is the conference for you.

The conference opens on February 15th, with in-depth workshops the day before. The early registration discount for TOC ends Tuesday, January 11th. Use the Medialoper code: toc11med to save an additional 15%.

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