Scan, OCR and Restore BackList Books

This week I read a comment on a blog (can’t remember where–sorry) where a writer said she was putting off reissuing her backlist titles because she didn’t have accessible computer files for them and so she’d have to scan the actual books, run them through an OCR program and format them. She didn’t know how to do that.

I hear ya, sister. A few months ago I’d have nodded in agreement, and said, “Yep, too hard, too time-consuming, too expensive.” Now, however, having spent the past few months restoring nearly two dozen old paperback books from scans and turning them into ebooks, I know it’s NOT too hard, it IS time-consuming, and the cost can range from dollars per page (expensive) to FREE (DIY option).

(Another option is to retype the book, but quite frankly, folks, unless you are a super-typist with wrists of steel–which I most certainly am not–that is a daunting proposition.)

You know me. Somebody sez, “Can you do this?” and I reply, “How hard can it be?” Then I bumble and fumble around until I figure out how to do it. Then I come on here and am able to give you some tips that mean you can skip the bumbling and fumbling part. Unless you enjoy b&f. In that case, you can stop reading this post.

This is for the Do-It-Yourselfers.

SCANNING

Do a Google search for “scanning books” and the result will come up with thousands of services that will take your old books or manuscripts and turn them into pdf or doc files. Some services will scan the book without harming the binding, some will chop off the spine, destroying the book. Prices range from per-page costs to flat-rate. I haven’t used any of those services, so I can’t recommend any of them. You’ll have to do your own research.

You can also take your old books or manuscripts to a copy store such as Fed-Ex/Kinkos or a full-service office supply store such as Staples, and either do it yourself on their equipment or have them do it for you.

If you happen to own a scanner, you can do it at home. This is the insane option because quite frankly most home scanners are ridiculous beasts that take their sweet time (I know this because I had to try it myself just to see and so scanned a nearly 300 page manuscript–easy on the hands, tough on the buttocks. It took hours!) If you are home-scanning actual pages from a paperback, you will have to play with the settings on your scanner because most are at their best scanning photos and that resolution is far too high to get good results. Best results are achieved if you copy the pages onto good quality 20# or 24# copy paper and then scan the copies.

However you choose to have your book/manuscript scanned, my recommendation is to have the scanner turn it into a pdf file. There are services and programs that will do the OCR conversion during the scan and produce a .doc, .docx or .rtf file for you. On the surface, it looks like a bargain. I think it’s dangerous because: 1) the file you receive will be huge and bloated and junked up with tons of coding that can severely mess up your ebook: 2) it will not save you any work during clean-up and in some ways it makes clean-up more of a chore; 3) it could give you a false sense of security that your file is cleaner than it actually is and your ebook could end up like so many that are on my Kindle right now, full of formatting errors and gibberish.

Here is a file that has been scanned and converted at the same time:

Here is a file that has been DIY scanned and turned into a .doc file:

It’s a big mess, too, but there are actually fewer dangerous formatting issues you will have to address. Awful as it looks, this example is easier to clean up and turn into an ebook then the first example. So save your money (and a few headaches) and run the pdf through the OCR program yourself.

OCR

PDF files are image files. Pictures of a page. In order to clean up and format the pages they must be converted into text. That’s where OCR comes in–Optical Character Recognition.

I found a nifty little program called FreeOCR. It’s a free program you download onto your computer. It’s a powerful program with a few bells and whistles–none of which I recommend you use. This is a case where the more you automate the process, the worse your results will be. There is no good substitute for the human eye and human instincts when it comes to restoring a document file. You’re better off in the long-run by doing a basic OCR conversion. That means, open the FreeOCR program, open a pdf file, then render it page by page (depending on the size of the file and the density of the type, to do a complete book the process will take between 20 minutes and an hour).

The original scanned page is on the left, the OCR conversion is on the right. You can see what a mess it is. That’s because the OCR is very efficient. It turns not only images of text into text, it turns water stains, wrinkles, shadows, and debris embedded in the paper into text, too. If there are notes in the margin, it will try to turn that into text. A basic scan also inserts a hard paragraph return at the end of every line, gets rid of paragraph indents and destroys special formatting such as bold and italics (the first time I saw this I totally freaked out). Some things convert more cleanly than others. If you’re converting a decades-old paperback where the pages have yellowed and degraded, the conversion will be a HUGE mess.

But not a hopeless mess.

CLEAN UP

FreeOCR gives you an option of saving your rendered document as a Word file. You can do that and clean up your file in Word. There is a much easier, faster and more efficient way. Use a text editor (with a little eventual help from Word). I use Notepad++, a program you can download for free. Save your OCR rendering into the clipboard (or do a right click, Select All/Copy) and paste it into the text editor.

Whether you use Word or a text editor, this is the time-consuming part of the process. And there’s no help for it. If you want a good-looking ebook, you need to make your converted file squeaky clean. (Your other option is hiring someone to do it for you. BUT–and this is a huge but–you have to make sure the service you hire is NOT automating the process, but that there is instead an actual human being going through the book word by word and restoring the text. Those automated programs are powerful and they do a good job on some projects, but I have ebooks I have purchased on my Kindle right now that are unreadable messes due to those programs.)

I have learned a few things to make the job go faster and more efficiently.

  1. Save restoring the paragraphs for last. Take a look at the image of the OCR conversion in Word. I toggled on the Show/Hide feature so you can see how every line has a paragraph return. What you see is the layout from the printed book. That can help during clean up.
  2. Work off the actual pages. Either have the actual book in front of you or split your computer screen and have the pdf file open to the scanned pages. That way if the OCR mangled the text, you can retype a word or line from the actual copy instead of trying to guess what it is supposed to say. You can also tag special formatting such as italics as you go along.
  3. Use Find/Replace.

The text will be full of oddball characters (I call them bug shit). Things like degree symbols, floating quote marks, greater and less than characters, slashes, tildes. If something doesn’t belong in your text file–Find/Replace All gets rid of it. You can also use it to get rid of headers, footers and page numbers. Once you have the text cleaned up, you can use Find/Replace All to get rid of extra paragraph returns, restore the proper paragraphs and un-hyphenate any words that had been split in the printed version. (BONUS TIP: Before you get rid of the extra paragraph returns use Find/Replace to add an extra space at the end of each line. That keeps words from being joined and makes it easier to find hyphens you want to get rid of)

So, yes, this is time-consuming, but it is not hard nor does it have to be expensive. It is definitely worthwhile to get your backlist back in circulation.

 

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