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.
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?