Why We Built Our Own Book Scanner

Mar 17, 2015 · 4 min read

Over the course of two days, last Wednesday and yesterday, we built a scanner. I say ‘built it’ — it comes in a kit — but it was nevertheless quite an investment, in money and time.

So why did we do it?

There are hundreds of cheap(ish) scanning and conversion houses in India, for example, and there are also some less cheap (but quicker) options in the UK. No British publisher we know of does their own scanning, and the publishing community is hardly abuzz with chat about post-processing and OCR. So why is the contraption below now sitting in Michael’s spare room?

‘Archie’ wearing his evil-looking anti-glare cloak

The first thing to say, and it is an undeniable concession, is that we are enthusiasts. We built it because we could, and because we are unusually interested in ebook production. Some would call it geekery, and they would be right.

Making things you care about is a simple pleasure, and one that publishing professionals are fortunate to experience more often than most. I suspect if you offered most editors a printing press for their kitchen they’d take it, and the fridge would just have to go. This, in a way, is our printing press.

It started life like this:

Bits and pieces, in traditional pre-Ikea layout

And became this:

Meet Archie. We’re at least 95% sure he’s not sentient.

Every book-loving home should have one.

Most book-loving businesses could do with one too.

Firstly, on a pure cost basis, most publishers happily spend between £50 and £200 per file, depending on extent and other factors, with a parcel of books likely to head to Chennai every month or so. In our first year we will produce about 100 ebooks, and probably 30 to 40 of these will be scanned.

If we assume a cost of £100 a book (including the postage), that’s three or four grand a year. The scanner, on the other hand, costs about £1,000 (the kit itself costs less, but we needed some tools, some adaptors, a cover etc). We’ll have our money back by the time the summer is out, and we’ll have a nice asset.

Each book takes about 40 minutes to scan, which is about as long as it takes to package a book, arrange a courier and email a conversion house. It’s also a nice bicep exercise, so you can expect the Canelo directors to look even more ripped than they usually do.

The Managing Director, half-way through a particularly arduous scanning job

The character recognition software outputs html, or a simple text file, and either can be ready for online editing in about another hour. There’s no chasing suppliers for files, and a three-week workflow can be completed before lunch.

We have total control of every stage of our production. If we’re not happy with the resolution of our images, we buy a better camera (currently we’re using 16 mega-pixel Canon Powershots). If the text is too tight to the margin we retake the shot and press the book harder against the glass.

Note: this photo taken with shaky iPhone, not the aforementioned Powershot

Quality control is important to us, so we put an extra emphasis on control. We don’t want to see typos in our books (which often come from bad scanning). We don’t want to see low-resolution images when nice, crisp images are possible.

Fundamentally we see the digital edition as an equal, but errors that would never be tolerated in print editions are still commonplace in ebooks. Certain reviewers and feature writers remain snobby about ebooks. If production standards are lower in ebooks, and editorial/design values remain an afterthought, then they are right to be.

The best publishing tends to be hands-on publishing.



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    The New Digital Publisher