Is It Worth Converting an Old Book Into an eBook?

by Joel Friedlander on October 3, 2012 · 34 comments

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A colleague called today for a chat about creating an ebook. Then it got interesting.

“Well, what do you have to start with,” I asked.

“It’s on older book that’s out of print, and there are no files available,” was the reply.

“No problem if it’s a novel or narrative nonfiction.”

“Uhm, no, it’s a little more complex than that. Let me explain.”

It turned out that this book, like a lot of other books that have been in print for years, or which have gone out of print, would be a major project to turn into an ebook.

Why?

The project involves a print book that’s about 200 pages long, and which was published 13 years ago. Clean copies are available. It contains three types of content:

  • Running text with chapters, subheads and other formatting used in nonfiction books
  • Tabular composition (tables and charts created with typesetting)
  • Graphics in the form of drawings for which no originals can be found.

This is a trifecta of difficulty. Each of these types of content needs to be handled differently. Here’s a streamlined version of what it would take to complete this project.

  • A clean copy will need to go to an OCR (optical character recognition) scanning service. They will scan each page of text and create a Word file. It’s critical that you choose a good-quality scanner for this service, since some suppliers simply run the document through their OCR scanner and give you whatever the software puts out.
    But think about it. Even if they maintain that they have a “99.5% accuracy rate,” you should expect lots of corrections. Even though it sounds good, if your book has 100,000 words in it, you are looking at a document with 500 errors—somewhere.
  • Send the resulting Word file out for proofreading and correction, which is easier and less expensive to deal with early in the process. Okay, now you’ve got a clean manuscript, but it’s only of the first type of content, the running text.
  • Re-create the tables and other material created by the original typesetter. Someone will have to re-enter the text since it will come from the OCR scanner in the wrong order and mixed with other unwanted characters. Once completed, the new material will need to be proofread and then sent to the book designer to be included in the new version of the book.
  • Pages with graphics will need to be scanned separately, and perhaps by a different vendor if the OCR scanner doesn’t provide graphics scanning.
  • The resulting graphic files will likely need clean-up and adjustment before they can be included in the ebook file.
  • A book designer or ebook formatter will then have to reassemble the three types of content and convert the resulting book into the ebook formats required by the client.
  • In the meantime a cover designer will need to create artwork for a cover suitable for listings on e-retailers and for promotion around the web.

It took almost half an hour to just describe this process adequately and, at the end, it was obvious it would be a big job.

“So, does the book have a good sales history? Is it still up to date?” I asked.

“Well, the client was thinking to use it as a giveaway.”

“A giveaway? You realize you’re going to have to contract with and pay an OCR scanning company, someone to scan the graphics, a book designer or layout artist to create new files for the book, a proofreader and someone to convert the book to ebook formats. Are you sure it’s worth it?”

What Should You Do?

The fact is that most older books won’t be worth this type of production unless there’s some reason to believe you can recover the money it will take to get the book on the market as an ebook.

An example: In this scenario you might reasonably end up paying:

  • $100-200 for the OCR scanning and correction;
  • $25-120 for scanning, correcting and placing a dozen graphics
  • $200-400 for the proofreading;
  • $200-1000 for typesetting and layout;
  • $200-500 for an ebook cover;

This adds up to a cost in the range of $725 to $2,220. Compare that raw cost to an expected royalty on an older book of about $2.79 per sale ($3.99 at 70% royalty). That works out to somewhere between 260 and 789 copies you’ll need to sell to cover your costs.

Keep in mind that it will also take time and energy to manage, and you’ll probably want to do some marketing to help the book find its audience.

Surprisingly, this project would be much easier to do as a print on demand book. A vendor can simply scan each page as a graphic and assemble the pages into a print-ready PDF. Add new title and copyright pages and you’re good to go. Of course, using that method you can’t change anything in the body of the book, and you can’t convert it into a reflowable ebook, like the kind sold for use on the Kindle or Nook.

Although ebooks are exploding in popularity, the tools we have to create them favor straight text books like novels, memoirs and literary nonfiction.

With complex books that include all three kinds of content, we’re still a long way away from being able to easily and inexpensively re-launch the books of the past.

Have you tried to create ebooks from old or out of print books? How did it work out for you?

Photo credit: kandinski via photopin cc

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    { 28 comments… read them below or add one }

    Debra Davis Hinkle October 3, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Wonderfully consise.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski October 3, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Joel:

    Great analysis. This should be a wake up call, not only for someone wanting to publish an out-of-print book as an ebook, but also for those thinking of publishing an ebook for the first time.

    I signed up for Ryan Deis’s Kindle Publishing program out of curiousity. A lot of people who signed up are really enthusiastic about making money from their books but I don’t believe the majority understand the numbers. As a matter of fact, most are delusional. Selling Kindle ebooks at 99 cents leaves a profit of 34.65 cents per book. Even if the outlay is only $300 for cover design, formatting, etc, the author will have to sell 866 copies to break even. That may seem like an easy number to attain but most ebooks, likely 95 percent of them, will sell fewer than 100 copies a year. That means it will take the author at least 8 years to recover an investment of $300.

    I am about to convert my “Career Success Without a Real Job” into an ebook. I have got a good price of $125 to convert it into Kindle, Epub and Nook formats. Even so, I not sure that I can recover the costs that quickly, if ever.

    “Career Success Without a Real Job” was selling about 250 copies a year in print for the last three years at the suggested price of $16.95. I would have to say that it will sell only about one tenth or one fifth of that total as an ebook at best. This means 25 copies to 50 copies a year. Say 35 copies. So if I price this book at $7.97 and get a royalty of 70 percent, my profits will be about $5.50 a book. Selling 35 copies a year will mean a profit of about $192.50 for the year, which will just pay off the $125 that I will pay for Kindle formatting.

    I also did a thorough analysis of placing my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” as an ebook on the Kindle platform. The book in print edition sells around 17,000 copies a year (suggested retail price = $16.95) and makes me a pretax profit of about $80,000 a year (after paying for the printing costs) . Yet I calculated that I likely will make around $5,500 to $9,500 a year from the Kindle version priced at $9.97. Keep in mind that my retirement book almost owns the category. The estimated Kindle sales are based on a thorough analysis of how well all other retirement books are selling in their Kindle formats versus their print formats. This is also based on the Amazon sales rankings and the estimated corresponding sales figures.

    Here are the figures that I used based on several people’s research:

    * 1,000 to 3,000 Amazon Sales Rank — tend to sell average 20 – 30 copies per day
    * 10,000 Amazon Sales Rank — tend to sell approx. 5 copies per day
    * 20,000 Amazon Sales Rank — tend to sell approx. 3 per day
    * 30,000 Amazon Sales Rank — tend to sell approx. 2 copies per day.
    * 50,000 Amazon Sales Rank — tend to sell approx 1 copy per day

    Note these are estimates. Amazon does not disclose sales figures. For what it’s worth, you can also try this Kindle Calculator,

    http://kdpcalculator.com/

    One more thing:

    I have just reduced the price of the Kindle edition of my inspirational novel “Look Ma, Life’s Easy: How Ordinary People Attain Extraordinary Success and Remarkable Prosperity” to 99 cents (from $7.97) for a day or two as a test.

    Here is the link to Amazon page for the book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Look-Lifes-Easy-Inspirational-ebook/dp/B008F4W73G/

    I don’t think that reducing the price will make a big difference in sales numbers but you guys can prove me wrong. You can also place a review of the book on Amazon if you like it.

    Incidentally, the philosophy presented in “Look Ma, Life’s Easy” has helped me self-publish three true bestsellers (each with over 100,000 copies sold) and have my ten or so books sell over 750,000 copies worldwide.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of the Bestseller How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free
    (Over 165,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller The Joy of Not Working
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Ernie,

    It makes all the difference whether an author who decides to publish their own books treats the project as a business or not. Thanks for your detailed analysis and particularly for sharing the results of your research.

    Reply

    Anna Erishkigal October 3, 2012 at 5:05 am

    I actually -do- the post-conversion legwork of some older books for traditionally published authors. While I agree with everything you said, you are looking at it purely from the business standpoint of an author who subcontracts out each of the steps you listed. Every step you mention -except- for the actual scanning can be done yourself.

    If a book was traditionally published, it already had what I find to be the -most- expensive (and non-self-doable) step of professional editing ($2,000 – $5,000) already done. Retyping tables is tedious, but depending upon how difficult they are, you can always retype them yourself and then convert them to a .jpeg. Some of those pictures may be available for free on the internet with a .dpi adequate to reprint. Simply google image them and find out. Chances are, you may be able to find your picture for free or purchase it for $10 from a source such as RoyaltyFree.com, or find one that conveys the same idea.

    An author is as capable of running a computerized spell checker and then printing out a copy, getting a ruler and a red pen, and going line-by-line through their own text and the original themselves (don’t skimp this step!!!). Smashwords recommends a place that can convert a 200-page manuscript for as little as $25 (albeit you will be searching for errors!) or if you are an adequate typist who can type a modest rate of 60 wpm, you can simply tackle a chapter per day and retype it yourself (will take a couple of weeks).

    And then there are the great tools on Createspace to help you create your own manuscript layout and book cover and Smashwords to help you convert it to e-file.

    If tackling self-publishing alone is intimidating, an experienced, older author with a solid sales history has something a newbie wants. Their experience as a book editor and/or a book reviewer. A self-published newbie can’t afford $3,000 – $5,000 to have a REAL editor go through their books, but chances are if the older author agrees to mentor and help edit a manuscript for a younger author who is more computer savvy, they may be able to swap off ‘grunt work for grunt work.’ The sum of the parts ends up being greater than the whole.

    Thanks for another great article, Joel!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Thanks for your excellent suggestions, Anna. In this case the illustrations were commissioned for the book, so it’s unlikely the author will find them online, free or otherwise. And while I completely agree with the fact that many of these tasks could be done by an author, the plain fact is that many, many authors have no interest in doing this stuff themselves, and no desire to learn how. And keep in mind there are many kinds of self-publishers, some of whom gladly pay for professional editing because without it they will not reach the goals they’ve set for themselves.

    Reply

    Karl October 3, 2012 at 5:06 am

    I’ve gone through this process with several books. Some thoughts based on this experience:

    I’ve used bookscan.us for the scanning; opt for the service that gives you a .docx file with OCR and a .pdf, and it only costs a few dollars for 300 pages. Any graphics are included without extra charge and are scanned at 600 dpi. They also scan the cover, and with a little work that image may be suitable to use for the ebook cover. The OCR that bookscan.us uses is very good, but proofreading is still necessary.

    For proofreading, it will be good of you can find a person or service that has experience at proofreading scanned and OCR’d text. There are a host of errors that are fairly unique to text produced this way. An italic “I” will often be read as a forward-slash (“/”), for just one example. Also, it will be necessary for the proofreader to have the original book or the .pdf on hand to decipher some OCR errors or gaps. Proofreading is the most time-consuming part of the project, in my experience.

    Laying out the ebook from the text can also be a major chore, depending on how many graphics, charts, indented passages, etc., etc. there are. Also chapter breaks and a table of contents have to be created (unless you’re willing to have a really cheesy ebook). Again, the person doing this layout will need access to the printed book or the .pdf.

    In sum, if I were paying others to do the grunt-work for me, the breakdown of costs would be different from what you list, but overall I agree with your assessment. It’s a big project.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Karl, thanks for the breakdown and particularly for the link to bookscan.us, I’ll be checking them out.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 3, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Sometimes high tech is counterproductive.
    You’re talking about 600 for scanning and proofing the scan.
    How about just paying somebody to type the book into a a file?
    $500 for a cover is absurd. Doesn’t the book already have a cover? A book like you describe doesn’t require any special artwork or talent for a cover. Most authors could do it themselves, or get it done for $50.
    The “typesetting and layout” charges (A THOUSAND BUCKS??) are curious. This is an ebook. Once you have a doc file, why do you need layout and what is “typesetting” for a Kindle book?
    What does a “placing graphics” cost cover? It’s called “insert picture from file”
    In this day and age authors are getting pretty clever at saving money.
    What I’m seeing here almost seems like putting a lot of thought into how to spend money unnecessarily.
    You can other think and definitely overspend.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2012 at 11:06 am

    I’ve recently surveyed pricing on cover designs from designers who work with self-published authors. The range is approximately from $35 (the famous Mark Coker price point) to $3500. Designers at all points on this continuum seem to be quite busy, so it’s obvious that authors buying these services are doing their own cost/benefit calculation.

    It’s good to keep in mind that although DIY epublishing can be very inexpensive, the universe of book publishing is actually quite large and very diverse, with many actors pursuing a large variety of goals.

    Reply

    Louis Shalako October 3, 2012 at 9:36 am

    I know someone with with a book like that. It was published in 1993. Their 3 1/2″ floppy disc files won’t run in my machine, and the book is full of graphs, charts and cartoons. The cover is nice enough, but how would a three-colour separation of Benday dots scan? To put it all together, scanning every line drawing, etc, would take a lot of time. It’s not that it can’t be done, the question is the price of doing it well, and yes, how long to recoup the expense.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 3, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Let me point out that you not having that drive is not a flaw in the book.
    And the idea that it makes is necessary to spend a lot of money overlooks the simple solution of the author buying a disc drive (under $10 online).
    Non-professionals don’t seem to have much trouble scanning from book covers.
    Again, this seems to be a thing that pros are over-thinking and thus over-pricing.

    Reply

    Anna Erishkigal October 3, 2012 at 10:40 am

    @ Louis

    You can get an exterior 3.5″ floppy disc drive that plugs right into most modern computers for $20 (or find somebody who has one). If the manuscript is an earlier version of MSWord, modern windows will usually open it (though it won’t be pretty). Otherwise, you can open it as a .txt file (again, not pretty, but that’s essentially what a scan does anyways).

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Regarding the “treats it as a business” phrase.
    One hears that all the time, but it ignores the fact that many authors are not particularly in it as “business” but as art or whatever reason they might have.

    Unfortunately, it’s so often a code phrase for “you have to spend a bunch of money up front”. And generally there’s a subtext there of “so give money to me or you’re hosed”.

    I doubt this thought will find a lot of favor here, but perhaps will be understood and accepted as a viewpoint, but one thing self-published authors start to learn is that while “professional expertise” is nice, it is often useless or even counterproductive to the evolving publishing models and methods.
    I continually see people using “my 30 years experienced working for a big six publishing house” to back up advice that is absurdly wrong for the people he’s talking to: and they know it.
    You see discussions of ebook covers get tracked off into discussions of separations and subtractive color, marketing threads bent toward getting distributors for POD books into major chains, promotional discussions yammering about SEO and outmoded “Ad Age” buzzwords.
    All the time.
    The real “experts” on self-publishing is a population of people who actually self-publish successfully. You can wade through yards of stuff on fonts and layout that is absolutely useless to ebooks–then somebody mentions one little tip they’ve figured out to keep Kindle from mindlessly indenting first lines of paragraphs and you rejoice.

    Just a perspective here.
    Another would be that if you talk to selfpublishers about spending $3500 for a cover they’ll laugh their butts off and toss a bag over your head.
    There’s a divide between those trying to publish economically and those used to getting big fees from publishers.

    The first reprint job mentioned here is a good case in point. It’s some sort of textbook or other didactic text. What does it take to do a cover for that? There’s a free ebook on using PAINT to make ebook covers. And guess what? That’s all you really need for a book on immigration stats or whatever. Also pretty much all you need for “literary fiction”. Any school kid can do covers like that in an hour with the simplest of programs.

    Again, a perspective. There’s always a balance between promoting services and supporting authors.

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski October 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    Linton :

    I agree with you to a large degree.

    The motto that I went by to get my first book published in 1989 was:

    DO IT BADLY — BUT AT LEAST DO IT!

    When I look at that book today, I admit that I am a little embarrassed with the cover and the layout. Nevertheless, I got the book done and it ended up selling 5,000 copies with its first title, another 5,000 copies with another title, and then 5,000 copies when Ten Speed Press took it over. Regardleess of its mediocre quality, 15,000 copies sold means it still sold more than 95 percent of the books by traditional publishers or self-publishers sell.

    As you say, a lot of the work can be done yourself. Even today, with my making a great income, I will do some of the work myself such as the layout for the inside using Quark Express. I don’t know the program that well but it gets the job done for some of my projects. For some Kindle projects, however, I will be outsourcing the formatting of the books that have some complex formatting.

    For covers, I also prefer to have someone do this for me. The key here is to come up with an cover concept myself so that the cover designer doesn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking of one himself. This way the cover designer charges me way less for the work.

    Reply

    Linton Robinson October 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    Good one, Ernie.
    We see all this MUST BE ABSOLUTELY PERFECT OR THEY WILL STONE YOU WITH WOLVERINES stuff, but new models accomodate to this much better.
    Oddly, I just now saw this article on writing tips from Neil Gaiman..much better than the usual writers’ how-tos. Note number 6
    “you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon.”
    http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/

    The fact of separating concept from execution of cover designs is important. A lot of great covers are just a simple concept, realized in common, easy ways. I saw an award-winning cover once (perhaps on Joel’s cool contest) of a cover that was just a 45 rpm record with the title and author printed on the label. Once you have that idea, a fifth grader could to the graphic.

    Actually, it would probably be more worth paying somebody to just come up with a visual concept and do the execution ourselves. :-)

    Reply

    Suzanne White October 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I had an old book scanned and it worked out very well for me. I had the scanning done by someone in Buenos Aires ($100.) and then a friend ran it through the necessary software and proofread it ($300.)

    It’s a book with charts so they had to be converted to images. Another friend dealt with that. I don’t recall what I paid him, but it was not much.

    That book has sold very well on Kindle, Nook and is now selling on Kobo. I have never been able to get it onto The Smashwords premium catalog because of the charts. But I also sell it on my web site where I get the full price instead of just a royalty. Over 3 years now, I have sold well over 1000 copies of this book.

    If you can find inexpensive friends to help you sort through the muddle of putting the book together, I advise going to the trouble of preparing it for sale. Over time, it will earn back your investment.

    Reply

    bowerbird October 3, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    1. buy a scanner, assuming you don’t have one.
    2. buy abbyy finereader to handle the scans.
    3. scan the book; have abbyy save it as a .pdf.
    4. distribute the .pdf freely, and sell it as well.
    =================================
    5. total cost will be under a thousand bucks.
    6. with luck, you’ll make that much in sales.

    -bowerbird

    p.s. so joel, did you every try out my jaguar?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 3, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve looked at it a bit, looking forward to spending more time with it.

    Reply

    Pogue Mahon September 14, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    I read this and kind of shocked that it woudl be that much.
    Basically tyhe same thing as posted above, by bowerbird

    Me personally, I have in the past home just taken my scanner, scanned each page of a book as a picture, then tossed all the pictures (numbered correctly as per page-to follow the index if it has one) into a folder.

    Then I just print them as a PDF (lots of free apps/print drivers for this now), and I would end up with a PDF, sadly not an epub, but to me whats the difference really, as long as its a copy that I can keep on my ebook reader.

    One thing thou is that it will not be able to be OCR’d as its not actual text that was scanned but a picture.

    Also for a cover use any royalty free image and put some text on it.

    Total cost for the project should be about ummm… nothing, if u already have a scanner

    Actually on most smart phones their are many Apps where you can take a bunch of pictures with the phone, and it will automatically comvert them to a .PDF and save it on the phone, upon exiting.

    Reply

    Will Overby October 4, 2012 at 6:13 am

    I have been working on my backlist for a while now, and to me it’s been better to just retype each one. It also gives me a chance to do some rewriting and polishing and updating for the 21st century.

    Reply

    Roger C. Parker October 4, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Dear Joel:
    Thanks for another relevant post.

    I found it particularly interesting because one of my most satisfying, and popular, trade books, my One-Minute Designer, got lost in not one, but two, trade publisher mergers and acquisitions.

    We have a CD of the original Quark Xpress files, many versions old, but have never done much with it.

    Since it’s so design intensive, the POD option was especially interesting.

    Thanks for always managing to come up with fresh topics and options in your blog.
    Roger

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Roger, have you tried the Apple iBooks Author program? I’m tempted to try a graphics-intensive project, but haven’t spent enough time with the tool yet.

    Reply

    Karl October 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

    The Kindle “Topaz” ebook format is germain to this topic. My understanding is that this proprietary format uses .pdf scans of paper books as its source, but still allows reflowable text by recognizing the glyphs of individual words. The advantage is that an approximate OCR-generated text version of the content is sufficient; no proofreading is required.

    (If you’ve ever listened to a Topaz Kindle book via the Kindle’s text-to-speech, you’ve probably heard some of the effects of the approximate nature of the OCR’d text.)

    Unfortunately, AFAIK the tools for generating Topaz Kindle books haven’t been made available outside Amazon.

    Reply

    jjmcgaffey October 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Not precisely relevant to the discussion, since all of this assumes the author/publisher wants to keep the rights to the book. However, I’ve done some work with Distributed Proofreaders (pgdp.net), which is crowd-sourced proofreading and formatting for Project Gutenberg.

    Someone who has the book scans it and puts the pages up on the site; anyone who’s interested does a few pages. A book will go through two proofreading cycles (oh, and they have a font to use that emphasizes the differences in common scannos), then two formatting cycles (marking things like italics and small caps, formatting poetry or chart lines), then a final cleanup and assembly by the person who took charge of it. It’s not a fast process, but it gets a lot of books onto Project Gutenberg that would otherwise not happen for lack of time and energy from the book owner (not copyright owner, since the first cut is whether it’s public domain, but the person who owns a physical copy and wants it made into an ebook. Or a copyright owner who’s willing to let the book go to public domain, I suppose).

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    mcgaffey,

    Thanks, that’s the first I’ve heard of Distributed Proofreaders. They seem to be pretty active and have been online since 2000. I wonder if something similar would work for for-profit indie publishers?

    Reply

    Rachel jordan October 10, 2012 at 2:14 am

    If you love the books, you should care Old Books. I would like to make into ebooks so that I can carry them around and read them more conveniently . I do not want to damage them that’s why I would prefer Converting Old Books Into an eBook.

    Reply

    Precision eBooks May 18, 2014 at 9:29 am

    As it happens my business specializes in print-book-to-eBook conversions. Pricing for a novel-length books starts at $120, with proofreading additional (but quite reasonable; this is a narrow and specialized form of proofreading, and it can be done fairly rapidly if you know what you’re doing).
    The link is in the name above.

    Reply

    jimmy July 17, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    It’s a lot of work I prefer to go with an affordable and experienced conversion team. I use the guys at Convert a Book they will do all of it for you. You can send them your physical books, or your scanned files. They can make it into a PDF and then send it back for you to check over for any thing you might want to change. Then they will convert it into Epub and Mobi formats. They can even get into to all the major stores for you. It’s all very cost effective!

    Reply

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