Could the publishing industry get Napsterized? That was my first thought when I saw the marketing materials for the Atiz BookSnap, the first consumer device that enables you to "release the content" of your books by transforming the printed words on the page into digital files that can be read on computers and handheld e-readers. "It's not a scanner," proclaims a banner on the Atiz Web site. "It's a book ripper." Though ripping (which means transferring content from an external medium to your computer) does not necessary imply an act of piracy, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a sign of impending apocalypse on Publishers' Row, a scenario that could end up with people file-sharing John Grisham's latest they way they do now with the newest Vampire Weekend tunes.
Then I tested a BookSnap for myself. Short verdict: not a revolution. More a thud than a snap, the device—an ominous three-foot high construction draped with a thick black darkroom-style shade—looks like a Goth puppet theater and weighs 44 pounds. Under the shade is an angled cradle for a book and a glass platen to hold the pages down during scanning. You turn the pages yourself. It costs $1,600, not including the two Canon digital cameras (about $500 each) necessary to capture the page images and send them to your computer, where software transforms the pictures into files that can be read on a screen or an e-book reader. It takes considerable fiddling to get images set up properly. Supposedly, once you get started you can digitize 500 pages per hour, much faster and at higher quality than with flatbed scanners (which are much cheaper but not optimized for book scanning). I never got that far, but I imagine such a feat would require considerable caffeination.
Still, the very existence of a consumer book scanner is one of those early warnings of turbulence to come. In the mind of its inventor, Sarasin (Art) Booppanon, scanners will one day become commonplace appliances. Four years ago, Booppanon, 28, who is from Thailand, was a grad student at George Mason University when he got tired of making photocopies from books and tried to make his own technology to get pages into the computer. He hoped to create something that cost much less than the high-end machines used by Google and Microsoft to capture the collections of entire libraries for their search engines. (These can cost well over $100,000.) He first came up with a $10,000 device designed for commercial use, and then devised the stripped-down BookSnap.
He found a partner and CEO by watching "The Apprentice," the reality television show with Donald Trump. One of the contestants was Nick Warnock, a Bayonne, N.J.-born Xerox-copier salesman. After The Donald uttered his trademark dismissal to Warnock, Booppanon recruited him as a partner. All but two of the 14 employees at Atiz are based in Bangkok, where the BookSnap is manufactured at a low cost.
Booppanon and Warnock both believe that the BookSnap—and cheaper versions to follow—will encourage people to scan their collections so they can quickly search through them and grab a shelf's worth of reading for a trip across the world or on the subway. Warnock says that potential BookSnap buyers will be college students, bibliophiles and just plain folks who "want to digitize their own library." But what if someone gives copies of scanned books still under copyright to a friend or two—or a few thousand friends via an Internet file-sharing site? "All copyright laws should be followed," says Warnock, knowing that to say otherwise is the kind of boo-boo that gets marketers hauled up to the dreaded boardroom for dismissal.
Not that publishers seem worried. "I'm not going to lose sleep over the BookSnap," says Pat Schroeder, the former Colorado congresswoman who is CEO of the Association of American Publishers. "We've been ready to sell e-books for 10 years," she says. "[But] everybody still likes physical books." When it comes to potential infringement, she's more worried about abuse of POD (print-on-demand) machines that can quickly turn a digital file into a printed book for less than $10.
Alan Adler, a lawyer who reps the AAP, has scrutinized the Atiz Web site and tentatively concludes that it focuses on legal uses. His ire is reserved for Google's program to scan collections of libraries, and use the contents in its search indexes; the AAP has filed suit against the Google program.
But while the publishers worry about snippets of copyrighted works appearing in search engines, the real threat will emerge when some company produces the iPod of e-book readers, whether it's some evolution of Amazon's Kindle device or even an Apple production. (Ignore Steve Jobs's recent proclamation that e-readers make no sense because "people don't read anymore." He once said he didn't believe that people would watch video on tiny screens.) Eventually, electronic readers will become commonplace, creating a demand that won't be met by publisher-authorized releases of copy-protected digital books sold at similar prices to the bound volumes in stores. That's when the idea of ripping books might really catch on, presumably with cheaper, cooler scanners. "It will be inevitable," says Booppanon. "And then the book industry will follow what happened with the music industry." Remember—Napster happened in a snap.