Digitising your Manga in 7(ish) Irksome Steps

Those who know me personally may remember my personal crusade to digitise my manga collection - after multiple house moves and sales I was down to my last bookcase of manga.

These were the survivors - series too close to my heart and/or out of print to feel comfortable discarding. I wanted to still be able to read them, but was sick of the space they took up and how much they weighed whenever I had to move house. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, basically.

After a lot of time and work, I managed it. I now have a folder of CBZ files on my personal server that are standards compliant and can be either viewed via a web reader or downloaded and viewed directly. I also have none of the original books, as these were sacrificed in the process and taken away in 1.5 blue recycling bins. Here is my process and what I learned.

Before I dive any further into this post, I have some important warnings I want to lay out:

  • Digitising your manga is an expensive process in both time and money.
  • You will have to spend lots of both resource. If you cut back on time, it will cost more money, and vice versa.
  • You run the risk of ruining your manga and having nothing to show for it. Plan ahead to minimise the risk of this happening!
  • If you want the physical manga to survive the digitisation process, then it will cost a lot, lot more.
  • Think and plan carefully both from the outset and before each individual step to ensure a minimum of wasted effort.
  • If the manga you are planning to digitise is already available digitally legally, strongly consider buying it! Yes, you may not be enthused about the prospect of double-dipping, but you will be saving yourself a lot of time, money, and effort. Plus, your money will be going towards supporting the official release!
  • Keep your digitised manga private. Don't be a jerk and make it available to the internet - manga piracy is bad enough as it is already.

With those out of the way, on to the actual processes. There are two forms of scanning - destructive and non-destructive. The primary difference is self-evident - you either still have a valid book afterwards or you sacrifice it in the process.

Non-destructive Scanning


There are two primary methods of achieving this:

  • Send your books away for a company to scan.
    The most obvious benefit of this is that you save a massive amount of time, as well as allowing you to to offload the work itself to experienced staff and professional equipment. This (obviously) entails a number of fees - the cost of shipping the books to and from the scanner, and a per-page cost for scanning the books. Even at pennies per page, the costs can very quickly add up. A number of scanning companies I looked at can also offer extra services for you, such as turning the scanned images into a standards-compliant EPUB/MOBI/CBZ for you to save you that labour. Make sure to carefully read up on the resolution and format of the files provided before picking a vendor. E-mail them first so both of you have your expectations set before sending any physical books!
    It is worth nothing up front that a number of book scanning companies offer a discount for destructive scanning (you don't get the book back!), if you are want to save a little money and don't want the book back.

  • Create an automatic/semi-automatic book scanning apparatus.
    There is a vibrant community around this concept and a number of various enterprising tutorials available for this. The general outline is that you create a scaffold with a V-shaped plate to hold the book down and use a statically mounted matched pair of cameras to take pictures of the pages. You then turn the page, take another pair of photos, wash and repeat.
    This can quickly get expensive depending on your equipment and can still take a non-trivial amount of time to perform both the image-taking and the post-processing. In addition, despite the helpful, vibrant community, a "gold standard" apparatus and set of instructions does not appear to have bubbled up to the surface, likely due to the great diversity of use cases that people have.
    Doing this does give you an apparatus you can continue to use time and again, however, if you wish to scan books on an ongoing basis.

Destructive Scanning


As outlined above, destructive scanning involves physically compromising the structure of the book in order to scan its individual pages. The most direct way to do this to remove the pages from they spine as closely as possible and then scanning these individually. After all, holding a book down on a flatbed scanner is not going to provide the best quality images and will take approximately forever and a day.

I decided on destructive scanning as I was planning to either sell or discard the original physical volumes once the scanning was complete no matter how it was accomplished. I also planned to do the scanning as one large project with a set end date - this was not going to be an ongoing endeavour of buying and digitising more manga as time went on. (Although this was tempting.)

To cut to the chase, here is my full process for scanning the books:

  • Research.
  • Research more.
  • Plan your entire process end-to-end, perform additional research if needed.
  • No Really, Do more Research.
    • I know all these research steps feel onerous, but the more you research up-front the less unpleasant surprises you are likely to encounter!
  • Buy/borrow/gain access to hardware.
    • This is where a lot of the research came in handy as I knew what my requirements were and the features the various pieces of equipment needed for this to work.
  • Test process end-to-end on a disposable book.
    • Amazon "1p" books are good for this, so you don't use your prized volumes. Sorry, volumes 1-3 of Junk Force, your sacrifice was not in vain!
    • Doing the whole process through allows you to safely walk into any pitfalls and learn from them. It also helps you realise the enormity of the work that you will be undertaking! This way, you can re-adjust your process without losing a massive amount of time.
  • Scan manga covers.
    • Get nice, full-colour high resolution scans of the manga covers before you compromise the structure of the book!
    • This can be nice and easy if your scanner is halfway smart and it can automatically detect the edges of the book. Sadly my scanner was a little ropey at doing this and took some manual adjustment for each individual volume.
  • Main Loop - repeat this for each individual book.
    • Chop spine off the book
      • POINT OF NO RETURN
      • As you might expect, this step is critical to a successful scan. If you are not (yet) comfortable doing it, either re-assess your process or try a few more test books so you become accustomed to it.
      • Carefully look at the top and bottom of the book to assess the shape of the spine and (critically) how much glue has been used to stick the individual pages to the spine. Open the book up and see how easily it spreads before resisting. This will directly effect how deep the cut will need to be in order to cleanly remove the spine and release the pages so they can be individually separated and scanned.
      • Line the book up in the guillotine. Again, take your time to make sure you have it placed properly - cutting off too much may lose some of the page content, whereas too little may leave you with pages still stuck together and remediating this can be difficult and time consuming.
      • Clamp the book down firmly so it does not shift during the cut and leave you with a skewed edge.
      • Chop the spine off of your book in a single swift motion - do not slam the blade down but make sure to use an even, purposeful amount of force.
      • After doing this a few times on test books you will get a good feeling for this.
      • While initially testing ways to remove the spine, one method I saw recommended early on was to use a clothes iron to warm the spine so the glue loosens and you can then pull the pages away individually. I tried this out on one test volume but this took a lot of effort for a poor result. In addition unless you are very quick the glue re-sets and you have to warm the book up again, and each cycle of heating and cooling runs the risk of damaging the book and its pages.
    • Separate out pages
      • The individual pages of the book will likely still be held together by friction and/or a small amount of glue.
      • Picking up the block of pages from the guillotines, blow into the now-cut spine edge to separate out the pages, going from top to bottom, Wave the block of pages around lightly to encourage them, and run your thumb over the edge like you would a deck of cards.
      • Take special care to separate out the pages closest to the covers- these are typically likely to have more adhesive sticking them to the spine and (if you are unlucky) the covers themselves. If this happens, carefully manually pull the pages apart. If the pages are stuck with a lot of glue, consider setting the pages aside (if they are blank or have adverts/other non-manga content), or heating them gently to loosen the glue and allow you to pull the pages away.
      • Some books may be easier or worse than others when it comes to glue, print quality, and the closeness of the content to the spine. Some publishers have better book and build quality than others- a highly unscientific list of these is available below.
    • Scan pages in document scanner, one set at a time.
      • If you have decided to scan the pages individually and manually, well, more power to you. But please re-consider because it will take you a living age to scan even a single book. Using a document scanner with a decent feed tray is a godsend as it is set up for this exact use case!
      • Resist the urge to press the "SCAN" button and walk away. Stay close to the scanner in case of issues, in particular if you are not yet experienced or if the book was awkward to de-spine. You don't need to stare at the scanning process for the whole time, just keep an eye and an ear open - you can use the time to read some of the manga you are about to chop up!
      • After a few books, you will get very used to the sounds your scanner makes as it goes about its business. If an issue starts to happen you will know immediately from the odd noises it is making and at that point you should take a close look at it!
      • When I performed my scanning, I oriented my pages in portrait. I never tried rotating the pages to be scanned in landscape so I cannot say if one method is better than the other!
      • Do NOT over-stuff the document feeder of the scanner. This will often cause feed errors/ double feeding and will waste more time than you hope to save.
      • While tempting, resist the idea of "topping up" the document feeder. This can often cause page feed issues, and a lot of scanners are limited in how many pages they can scan in one run by their software. Failure to heed these limits may lead to lost scans and a lot of aggro!
      • A common issue that can happen is when a page is pulled into the scanner but it is attached to the page behind it. This can pull one side of the page into the scanner while the other side of it remains static. If this happens, do not panic or pull at the page- this risks tearing it!
        Instead, stop the scanning process by opening up the scanner and remove the affected pages. Check the jammed pages (usually there is a small drop of glue still holding them together at the very edge of the page), and re-separate them. Save the completed scans in the run up until the jam, flatten and re-seat the interrupted batch of pages and restart the scanning process.
    • Quick visual QC check of pages
    • Scan book spine (optional)
      • If you are like me and want to keep as much of the original art as possible, you can scan the book spine on a flatbed scanner. You can scan multiple spines at once and then split up the scanned image after the fact in software to speed up the process.
    • Collect up book into sandwich bag, keep to one side in case of issues
      • This is in case there has been any kind of issue with the scanning- given the pages are now loose it behooves you to keep them together somehow.
    • Check and clean the scanner before the next book
      • Dust, paper fragments, and even rogue glue can get stuck in the scanner and (at worst) the scanning element. Take the time to check the scanner inside and out before each book to see if it needs a quick clean.
      • This will save you a lot of annoyance - if you start a scan and notice all the pages have a distortion/vertical solid line then you need to discard the scans taken to clean the device and start again!
  • Remove duplicate/ erroneous scans
    • Check through the pages to get rid of duplicates or errors. Using IrfanView or an equivalent is good for this.
  • Back up Original Scans
    • Archive and Back up these original scans somewhere safe in case you need them again later.
  • Format scans to a sensible size
    • You will likely not need the full, massive original scans for general reading.
    • If memory served, I processed my scanned images so they had a standard width of 2700 pixels.
    • You can also use this step to perform colour/white balancing, contrast adjustment, etc, whatever you feel is necessary.
  • Combine scans into CBZ files
    • CBZ is a godsend because it is both very liberal but has a lot of nice features you can take advantage of. At a minimum you put all your images for a volume into the same folder, check they are numbered in the desired order, and zip up the folder.
  • QC check
    • Check your CBZ files for errors- if you have scanned a LOT, it is work picking a representative subset and skimming through these instead of checking EVERYTHING.
    • If all has gone well and you have been careful in the proceeding steps, there should be nothing to rectify here.
    • If you find issues, don't sweat it! It may take some time but you should still be in a position to resolve issues as long as you still have the original pages and your equipment.
  • Dispose of originals.
    • Responsibly recycle the now-split original books.
    • Alternately, use them to make a papier-mache angel or something, whatever takes your fancy.
  • You are done!

I appreciate this post is already absurdly long, so will curtail it here. There may be some more details I have missed off but they do not come to mind immediately.
If you asked me if this was a worthwhile exercise - I believe it was. I still have access to a lot of manga I love dearly and that is not available digitally from the publishers, and it is available on my tablet with a few taps. I'm going to outline my process for easily reading the manga in another post as this is quite long enough already.

If you are interested in manga scanning or have any questions at all please feel free to contact me. I'm happy to talk your ear off about it.

Appendix A: Equipment I used

  • Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500
    • From my research, this emerged as the "Best in Class" document scanner and I was very, very lucky to be able to borrow one from a twitter friend. Massive thanks and hats off to them. This machine is fast, has both PC and MacOS drivers, is very easy to clean and perform maintenance on, doesn't take up masses of space, and (critically) can take up to 50 sheets at a go. Once you have set up the paper tray and the scanning software itself (which admittedly takes time, but is worth the investment) you can whip through the scanning.
  • Heavy Duty Paper Guillotine
    • As will be outlined later on, part of my process involved cutting off the spine of the books to separate out the pages. This cutter was the one I found that boasted it would be able to cut through the thickness of book I was going to scan. Worth noting however that 600 pages is perhaps a little generous, especially if you have nicer paperstock and covers- it struggled with some of the omnibus and special edition paperbacks, in particular the Cardcaptor Sakura special editions put out by Dark Horse. if you are cutting these omnibus volumes, put some welly into it.
  • Canon Pixma MP630
    • My poor departed MFD. This had a scanning plate of a much higher quality than you would think given its price tag, and it was used to scan the covers of the manga at 600DPI. It had a half-decent scan speed to boot. I cannot speak to the subsequent models in the Pixma series Canon has released since I bought this one.

Appendix B: Publisher Tier List

According to how easy it was to scan their books.

Absolute Dogshit:

  • TokyoPop
    • Did you need to use so much glue, such cheap paper, and print the content so close to the dang spine???
  • DrMaster (RIP)
    • Hilariously cheap paper made scanning these a PITA- the pages constantly stuck together

Bad:

  • Del Ray (RIP)
    • Too much glue, spine cutting was a crapshoot at times.
  • Seven Seas
    • Highly variable book quality. Some belonged in the "dogshit" tier, some in "fair".

Fair:

  • Viz
    • Some of the older books were a bit over-eager with the glue and printing close to the spine, newer books are generally better.
  • Yen Press
    • Fine, no real issues.
  • Dark Horse
    • Ditto.

Great:

  • Vertical
    • Good paper, not too much glue, nice clear art. Excellent.
  • Viz Signature
    • Good paper, not too much blue, nice big page sizes. I felt bad putting my Perfect Edition of Monster under the knife but no digital version exists so whateverrrrrr.

This article is my 10th oldest. It is 3203 words long