RFO: One-way book-to-PDF scanning service?

May 12, 2009

(RFO == Request For Opinions)

I’ve been doing some traveling lately, to the east coast and to Chicago, and found that I still like it.  I’m not 20 anymore, but I can still deal with some hassle and bullshit from time to time and appreciate the surprises and adventure of going to new places and learning stuff.

(And things like WiFi, iPhones and Couchsurfing.com make it so much easier, it ain’t funny.)

So I think about how I could do that as much as possible, or even “move to nowhere” for some years, as I’ve been fantasizing for some time.

And here’s the catch: Books! What about my books!

I can pare my life down to five each of a certain shirt, underwear, pants and shorts.  A certain blue blazer and pair of shoes.  A MacBook and certain fiddly accessories.  That’ll pack my world down to a (waterproof, airline-checkable, shotgun-resistant, rollable, lockable and enviably macho-looking) Pelican 1620 hard case. Great!

But the books!  The books!  Dangit!  I want access to my books!

So how about this.  It lets me “dispose” of my books physically without saying goodbye entirely:

It’s a super-simple streamlined business that receives books (and magazines), slices off the bindings, sheet-feeds them into a pack of PDF’s, and emails them back.  (‘And implements the ~100 non-obvious details that make it real and genuinely useful.) They’re legible on one’s laptop or, even better, on one of those easier-on-the-eyes electronic-ink Kindle thingies.

The books are always destroyed!  Bye-bye!  That makes the service cheap and fast.  Five cents a page?  Four?  Three?  Two?

Services sorta like this exist, but their websites are complicated and crappy (== government work).  No one’s really ironed this out to something that’s as slam-wham-bam as it should be, given the assumption (that no one’s ever made) that we’re only doing one-way scanning, and never two way.

My question: Am I the only freak who can see himself using something like this?

9 Responses to “RFO: One-way book-to-PDF scanning service?”

  1. Matt Brubeck Says:

    There are two other business models in competition with your hypothetical book-scanning service:

    1) Commercial e-books (Mobipocket, Kindle, etc.).
    2) Pirated e-books

    Option 1 has the advantage of convenience (one-click purchasing, instant gratification, nothing physical to ship) and quality (books are computer-generated rather than scanned, so they are searchable, no OCR typos, no smudges or other marks). Price is around 4 to 6 cents/page for most types of book (and no shipping costs). The main disadvantages are fragmented, incompatible formats and DRM, and selection (the books you want may not be available).

    Option 2 has the advantage of cost (free!) and selection (with effort, you can probably find anything published electronically, plus many things scanned from paper). Convenience is mixed: it may be hard to find what you want, but once you find it you can download instantly, and there are no DRM compatibility hassles. Disadvantages: illegal, possibly poor quality.

    A book-scanning service is better than #1 only if it’s significantly cheaper (including shipping costs) or if the book you want is not available in a format you can use. In both cases it still needs to compete with #2, which means it needs to be both very cheap, very convenient, and reasonably high-quality.

  2. Jessica Says:


    Was this one of the ones you considered too complicated?

  3. ekpaulson Says:

    The idea sounds interesting, especially for older books (can’t buy or download an electronic copy), but personally I could not imagine anyone using the service as you described it. If I like a book enough to own a physical copy of it, I don’t want to see it destroyed.

    It may not be rational, but many people view books as having a value far beyond the information contained therein. Thus the whole collectible/antique market, as well as the desire to own a book, rather than check it out from the library.

    I *might* be willing to accept it being cut apart, scanned, and rebound (even if it was in a different cover/binding method than the original). I don’t think I would emotionally accept “losing” the investment in my paper copy. If I got back a alternately rebound version of my original, at least I would still have it.

    If I gave up the paper copy, in my mind, the cost of the book would be added to the cost of the service, making it seem doubly expensive. I’d rather pay twice as much and get the book back. However, if there was also a cheaper option for scanning with no returns (i.e. both options were available), *maybe* I would opt for that after I got used to the whole process.

    On the upside, the used book market is amazingly huge. My wife and I sell used books online (via Amazon and other sources) and I have peripherally observed the used music market, and my guess is that the size of the secondary book market is easily 5-10 times as large as that of audio recordings.

    If Reclaim Media entered this market and did it right, I wouldn’t be surprised if the volume of business was an order of magnitude larger than what they currently see in the audio market.

    Looking at Amazon, if I did it right, I find they currently have 2,258,201 items in the category “Music” and 27,115,116 items in the category “Books” — so that is about an order of magnitude more, as I thought.

  4. ekpaulson Says:

    As a follow-up to my own comment, maybe something that would work (for me at least) would be to get a reproduced physical copy of my original (i.e. produced via an on-demand book printing machine from the electronic info) rather than getting my original book back.

    How much demand do you see for converting cassettes or CD’s to mp3’s *without* returning the originals? My guess is not much — people want their stuff back even if they never use it again.

  5. ekpaulson Says:

    You should use one of these:


    And then return the book.

    (I always love to see when someone comes up with an elegantly simple solution to a difficult problem.)

  6. Thomas Says:

    If you need a service that does not destroy your books, you should check out http://www.bookscanning.com – not the cheapest but one of the best in this area.


  7. littlejohn Says:

    There is actually a service that already does what your looking for, and cheap;


    They advertise $.04/page and $5.00 /book. Knock off an additional $10 if you don’t need the books return shipped.

    Take care.

  8. craigrmeyer Says:

    Well look at THAT, Little John. That’s pretty much right on, I think.

    Now I can forget about it. This was very much appreciated. Thank you.

  9. Found your site on ask.com . Awesome post and what a tip top blog you have. Will visit here soon.

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