It may be a sign of my own times, but I was reading a post on the blog site for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) about "Getting paper books into your e-reader or tablet". Written in January by Mike Lee, the post was recently flagged as part of a news feed I read on association publishing.
In his post, Lee describes a quest to have some of his favorite books scanned and converted to both PDF and reflowable formats. Lee sent books he already owns to Blue Leaf Book Scanning Service, which used non-destructive scanning and returned PDFs (that Lee loaded to his iPad) and EPUB files (added to Lee's Nook).
According to Lee, the PDFs were faithful to the original text and could be searched and annotated through the use of an OCR overlay that came with the document. The EPUB included a number of visible font-related errors, and tables were a mess. Publishers involved in conversion efforts know these problems all too well.
Somewhat astoundingly, Lee paid an average of $60 each to have his books converted from print to digital formats. I don't think the price is unreasonable; publishers can pay three times that amount to obtain a file with a relatively low error rate. But Lee isn't a publisher; he's a consumer.
This makes me think that there's a pretty healthy long-tail opportunity to win over consumers who love whatever digital platforms they have chosen and really want to build out their accessible libraries on those platforms. There may not be that many people paying $60 to digitize their favorite books, but even at lower price points, it wouldn't take too many customers to justify a $200 or $300 investment in digitization and cleanup.
Publishers could also use the moment to engage with loyal customers to develop different relationships around the books they love. Why not trade a picture of that old, worn copy of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel for a discounted digital version?
Or, find a cohort of journalism junkies, the ones who own print copies of Harrison Salisbury's Without Fear or Favor (a partial history of the New York Times and its involvement with the Pentagon Papers). Offer them full credit on a subsequent purchase if they'll buy a digital edition and offer their thoughts on its relevance to the current relationships between the government and the journalists who report on it.
Don't mind me… I have 1,000 of these ideas. It's called my book collection.
My point is simple: the AARP post shows that there are people in the universe who value formats, flexibility and content so much that they are willing to spend crazy money to digitize books. Publishers can give them better options at lower prices while using one set of relationship – readers and their books – to build another set of relationships.
It won't be a success every time, and it may not be the best idea to come along this decade. But it does two good things at once. All you have to do is innovate, a bit.