Editor’s Note:  the following is a contribution from Chris Walters.  Chris included examples of the scans and the pictures have been placed after the break in order not to overwhelm the front page.  You can find Chris’ site, from which the below image is taken, here.  PB

Screen shot 2010-01-21 at 5.07.47 PM Blue Leaf Book Scanning Service is a small Connecticut company that offers a mail-in scanning service for about 10.5 cents a page. Earlier this month, David Rothman wondered whether it could serve as a viable solution for those with out of print or otherwise non-digital books, so I decided to try it out and document the experience.

To test it, I shipped an out-of-print book from my library and paid for only the most basic, nondestructive scanning service. (You can drop the per page cost to 8 cents if you don’t ask for the book back.) Davide Bianchini, the co-founder of Blue Leaf, says that they use a custom built overhead photo-based scanner, as well as an industrial page-fed scanner for the cheaper, book-gets-destroyed option.

After ordering it and paying via PayPal, I bought a padded envelope and shipped the book via media mail. Eight days later I received an email with a link where I could download the files, and two days after that the physical copy of the book was back in my possession via USPS Priority Mail.

As for cost, I spent just under $29, including shipping, for one 288-page hardcover. That should make it clear that the service isn’t being positioned as an alternative to buying e-books from publishers; it seems more suitable to the rare or out of print titles in your library (or for authors with out of print books they’d like to sell digitally–more on that below).You should also know that Blue Leaf raised its prices since Teleread’s first mention. The base fee is now $17.95, and the per page fee is 5 cents. If I repeated this experiment today, the total cost would be $33.91.

The company offers a menu of additional-fee services: if you want a text-to-speech file, a Kindle-ready file, or a backup on disc, you can buy it separately. To provide these additional services, the company maintains backups of the original scans for at least six months. If you’re not keen on the company keeping a backup copy, you might want to check first; Bianchini says that they “usually comply” with archival opt-out requests.

As far as quality goes, you can see for yourself. Below are portions of two pages from the PDF file Blue Leaf sent to me. The book I sent included photos and maps, so I’ve included one of those pages as well. (Although this is in greyscale, color scanning is offered).



And here are the results of the OCR process.


You can see that mixed language texts are problematic for Blue Leaf’s OCR software. Bianchini says the software can recognize 186 different languages, but it has problems if you combine them. The usual suspects cause trouble–things like diphthongs and accented vowels. Bianchini says that they’re looking into improvements to the OCR engine, but for now you can expect good results with single-language texts, and not so good results with the random foreign word or character.

Skewing remains a problem, although this certainly isn’t unique to Blue Leaf. I found one page within the file that was unreadable because it was so distorted, so I contacted customer service and asked them to investigate. I was concerned that I’d have to send the book back for re-scanning, but they were able to correct the problematic page using their archival copy and return a corrected file in less than 24 hours.

Before going this route you should be aware of two other things:

1. You lose possession of your original book, however temporarily, and the real wild card here is the United States Postal Service. In most cases nothing ever goes wrong–but then one day it does, and you’re left with little recourse. If you’re dealing with something rare or expensive, make sure you take whatever precautions you feel comfortable with.

2. You can’t monitor the scan and request a do-over on problem pages as they happen. By the time I found the illegible page, the hardcover was already back in my possession. Fortunately the problem wasn’t with the original scan, so Blue Leaf was able to fix it immediately. I can imagine there will be rare instances where you’ll have to send the book back again.

And finally, if you’re an author with an out of print book that you want to convert into a print on demand template, Blue Leaf offers a “publisher ready” service for $16. That gets you a formatted and cleaned up PDF file with standardized margins, embedded fonts, and other adjustments required by POD services like Lulu.com. However, it won’t correct “processing artifacts such as page skew,” notes Bianchini. I didn’t test the service.