Review: PDF to InDesign Conversion Software for Book Layout: Recosoft PDF2ID

by Joel Friedlander on April 7, 2014 · 12 comments

Post image for Review: PDF to InDesign Conversion Software for Book Layout: Recosoft PDF2ID

One of the results of providing services to authors and publishers is that you become familiar with all the different kinds of software authors use to prepare their files.

I run into this with my book design clients, as well as the authors we serve on BookDesignTemplates.

Like the service bureaus of the 1980s and 1990s, you need to be able to accept and work with all kinds of files efficiently enough to make it profitable.

A large number of writers today use Microsoft Word, the legacy of millions of people who bought computers that had Microsoft’s Office Suite pre-installed. Word has been the dominant program in word processing for many years, so that’s the way a lot of files arrive for design or layout projects.

Recovering Rights and Old Projects

But authors and self-publishers have many sources of content now, and we’ve been doing digital layout long enough that there’s an entire pre-history to the Adobe InDesign era.

For instance, authors are getting rights back to books whose sales have dwindled for the traditional publishers who originally produced them.

In some cases authors were smart enough to hold onto the digital rights, so are free to publish ebooks.

But sometimes, what you’re left with isn’t exactly perfect for publishing a new edition.

Recently a number of authors have inquired about whether we can rescue their book from on old PDF file, and Adobe Acrobat can export all the text in the file so you can start over again.

But looking at a fully-formatted, completely laid out, typographically complete book makes us long for more. I mean, why start over if you don’t have to?

What if we could put that PDF through some kind of magic software that would turn it into an… InDesign file?

That tantalizing prospect got Tracy and me talking about the possibilities. Right away we identified two products that promised exactly this result: to create a real life InDesign file directly from a PDF.

We decided to split the labor and evaluate one each. Here are the results, with Tracy’s review today, and mine to follow tomorrow.

Recosoft PDF2ID – PDF to InDesign Converter by Tracy R. Atkins

$199 MSRP – http://www.recosoft.com/

The Recosoft PDF2ID converter plug-in promises a quick and easy way to convert a PDF into an InDesign file to edit and work with. For authors and other publishing enthusiasts, this sounds like a fantastic way to bring in back-catalog books in order to refresh or edit them, as well as a way to take previously converted works and import them into InDesign for a variety of purposes. As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the app and give it a spin.

Installation was very easy for this application. It was a digitally delivered download that was simple to install. I was able to load it up in no time and the application can be accessed directly from within InDesign on the File menu. Simply click the new “Open PDF / XPS File” option and you are in business. 

Upon execution, the plug-in brings up the PDF/XPS import menu, and allows you to choose a PDF file. PDF2ID then presents you with several options for conversion and layout. 

PDF to InDesign

The process to convert the PDF file was quick, taking less than a minute for a 29-page sample book.

Results

After conversion, the file opens in InDesign and at first glance everything looks great. The fonts all carry over it seems, and the file is the right trim size for the book. Even the margins look right and the pages appear to have transferred properly.

I was really excited to see the front matter and title pages come through and it appeared as if the plug-in works properly. It looks great that is, until you dig deeper on the content of the file and the internal layout of the book itself.

Some real and substantial problems start to show up post conversion for books. One of the first things you notice is that the text justification from the PDF is missing. Normally, correcting this is simple, as you set the justification for the text in InDesign and it flows through the body text.

In this case, the text blocks on each page have to be adjusted individually and set to justified manually, as the text doesn’t flow correctly from page to page like in a normal InDesign layout.

I tried the full array of settings and options and couldn’t get the text on the page to link with the text on the next page, making reapplication of justification very difficult and time consuming.

(Click to enlarge)
PDF to InDesign

To further clog the works, the conversion doesn’t recognize headers or footers, or at least, doesn’t differentiate them from the body of the book. The running heads and page numbers are placed on the page along with the other text, meaning you will have to remove it all manually and re-set numbering and running heads. 

This could become a huge and time consuming effort if you have a work of any real size.

PDF to InDesign

Other issues became apparent upon further inspection.

  • The text brought over retains the hyphens from the PDF, meaning you will have to do a programmatic action in InDesign to remove them. It’s not a huge deal, but is time consuming and will require a review of the materials.
  • The conversion wasn’t really smooth for images that have text wrap, or for drop-caps, as they were a bit of a mess and would also require cleanup.
  • Footnotes were all included with the body text also, making references and citations a total rework item.
  • The leading and sizing was off too, making some of the pages come up short and empty at the bottom since the text isn’t linked between pages. 

With all of the problems, the file became a big ball of frustrated mess to try to clean up and I gave up.  Sadly, it just wasn’t going to work.

(Click to enlarge)
PDF to InDesign

In conclusion, after my initial excitement, the low-down feeling of disappointment set in. It seems that the Rectosoft PDF2ID converter just doesn’t have the chops to handle the needs of those who work with books, which is a shame.

Pros:

  • Easy to install, takes only minutes.
  • It works on a PC or Mac, and the latest versions of InDesign.
  • Fast, especially on a multi-core processor.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t work well for book interiors.
  • Too many inconsistencies in conversion will require a LOT of cleanup.
  • Recosoft has a “no refund” policy, so you have to pay to play.

Coming Next: Markzware PDF2DTP

Tomorrow I’ll have a closer look at the other conversion solution we identified, and explain why Tracy was so disappointed with the output of the PDF2ID software.

Have you tried this type of conversion? What kind of results did you get? Let me know in the comments.

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    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    David Dilling June 17, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Paul, here is a user from Sweden that uses both PDF2ID and PDF2DTP with comments in an interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX5EtCGjUZA

    I work for the makers of PDF2DTP from Markzware, just to be clear. That said, customer experiences are of the utmost importance. It should also be noted, if you use an early release of PDF2DTP to make sure you get the free update. That has some amazing typographical handling especially important for those converting books.

    Reply

    Peter Gold June 18, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Hi, David:

    Thanks for the link to your Swedish client’s video.

    One thing that wasn’t clear is exactly how much work the client still has to do manually in InDesign with the PDF2DTP conversion. In their video, they demonstrate some of the work left for them after conversion. It is clear that they are happier with your product than the competition, because yours saves them time and effort, IOW it’s more efficient, so it has value.

    In their specific situation, translation is what’s needed, so if that’s all that’s needed, your product is a good solution for this client.

    However, there are people who want to convert from a source into InDesign and want to retain as much as possible from the original application’s document; for example hyperlinks in TOCs and indexes as well as to URLs, active email links that open a user’s email client, and cross-references within and across documents. MS Word and other authoring applications can create documents with these features, with some degree of automation. For example TOC and index generation can create the hyperlinks as well as the page numbers. Ditto for cross-references. These are preserved when the documents are exported to PDF, if done properly.

    It’s not clear if your product or its competitor preserves these features in the conversion to InDesign. If it does, that’s a great benefit. Please clarify this point.

    Placing MS Word files and those from some other authoring applications directly into InDesign usually preserves these features, whether the native file (.doc, .docx, etc) or a common intermediate format like RTF is used.

    In addition to the issue of preserving these dynamic features in converted documents, another important consideration is the efficiency of editing and revising the documents. As I noted in my previous comment, PDF loses many useful file properties, and they stay lost when converting a document from PDF to another format.

    So when comparing conversion methods it’s important to consider what’s expected of the converted document, and how much manual effort will be required, compared to the effort needed when a native file format document is placed into InDesign. It may be more efficient to retain all the mechanisms and features that an author has created – styles, links, running heads and footers, footnotes, etc. – and work with the issues of reproducing the original visual layout. It would be helpful to hear from users who have made this comparison and what they chose as their preferred method.

    Tracy commented on the comparable effort of working with a document after a conversion made with your product and copy/paste. It would be interesting to hear his assessment of the effort needed when placing directly from his source application’s documents, or an intermediate format that retains all the mechanisms noted above.

    Reply

    Michael Black April 8, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Thought I’d add a comment after reading this. I’ve been using PDF2ID for 5 years now. Some of the “issues” you mention actually have preference settings or even options for this (all right in front of you probably). “Hyphenations” as you mentioned can be turned on/off. Even justification can be controlled by preferences. Is this like a 5 minute review of the software? I’ve converted probably 1000 files by now using PDF2ID and what you’re mentioning in some cases seems like you never spent time with the software. Even text frame linking occurs across pages with an option. Its like writing a review of InDesign after using it for 5 minutes.

    Reply

    Rob Siders April 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

    I’ve used both of these add-ins with fair-to-decent success. They’ve saved me in a jam once or twice, but not without a lot of work on the back end. For the money, it’s better to buy an enterprise-grade OCR software, such as ABBYY Fine Reader, and get an editable Word file. It’s better, faster, and more efficient to spend the time on the front end than the back end.

    Reply

    Tracy Atkins April 7, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks Rob and Peter. In my experience, I actually had an time doing a book file by taking a PDF to Word, using Adobe Acrobat XI Pro, and then copying content into ID, than I did doing the conversion using the tool. Now, that said, this is most apparent with trying to do a complex and long document like a book file, which needs reflowing text. This particular tool just didn’t save me any time over dong the more traditional “copy / paste” method. Past that, an enterprise grade OCR would be another great option here. In all, for working with books, PDF2ID wasn’t something that I would recommend in any way.

    Reply

    Tracy Atkins April 7, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    I meant to say “I actually had a BETTER time doing a book file by taking a PDF to Word”. That is the best method for books IMO.

    Reply

    Peter Gold April 7, 2014 at 7:38 am

    You might want to post a link to this review, and the one that will follow, on Adobe’s InDesign user-to-user forum, to get responses from people who deal with this kind of problem often.

    However, the conversion shortcomings noted in the review aren’t specific to conversions from PDF to InDesign. Any PDF conversion to a document that’s editable in an application will have most of the same problems.

    Some conversion problems can be avoided by pre-processing the content in the application that produced it, and/or in Acrobat. At least one problem in the Recosoft PDF2ID conversion – the lack of differentiation between page body content and headers/footers – can be avoided by using Acrobat before converting. The simple fix is to use Acrobat’s crop tool eliminate the header/footer material and convert only the remaining page body content.

    But, there’s always a gotcha. Especially with documents that originate in word-processing applications, including but not limited to MS Word, unless they were created by expert-level users, there are often idiosyncratic, unofficial, expedient, “creatively chaotic,” and/or “chaotically creative” uses of the application’s tools. Some of these anomalies may be particularly difficult for any utility or pre-processing steps to convert correctly or usably. For example, if some pages run longer or shorter than others, and the headers/footers aren’t all in exactly the same locations, it may not be possible to remove all unwanted material by uniformly cropping top and bottom on all document pages. And, if the footnote area varies in size from page to page, again, uniformly cropping all pages may not work for every page with footnotes.

    To restore the excised headers and footers to the converted document, whether in InDesign or another layout application, the user must be skilled in the process. InDesign, like MS Word and other tools, can create context-sensitive headers and footers that incorporate document-body headings in text variables that capture and display those headings in the headers or footers. The user would need to be skilled in marking body text for the text variable to recognize – usually a complete paragraph marked with a designated paragraph style, a designated character style, or a code.

    To restore hyphenation, justification, numbering, footnote behavior, text wrap, etc., correctly-defined paragraph and character styles can apply multiple text properties with a few clicks. To use the many text-composition mechanisms with the converted document, it needs to be analyzed; then, the appropriate smart tools can be created this needs a highly-skilled InDesign user.

    In short, a PDF document is made primarily for end-users to read, in print or on a monitor. Almost all mechanisms that operated in the original MS Word or other application – such as text marked with named paragraph and character styles; text justification, alignment, and hyphenation; numbering schemes such as pages, lists, and footnotes, variables, and cross-references – are lost when the source document is converted to PDF. A conversion tool cannot restore these smart behaviors because converting to PDF strips them out.

    When converting from one application to another, the best way to retain smart mechanisms like these that are in the original document, is to convert directly from the source document that contains them, to an application that understands them. In most cases, close scrutiny and manual fixups may still be needed.

    If it’s necessary to recreate a source PDF exactly in another application, one technique that can help is to display each PDF page in the background of each matching conversion page, for aligning every last iota of converted page content with its source page. This method can achieve near-perfect results, but it requires a HUGE amount of manual work.

    Depending on the original material and the intelligence of the conversion tool, in some cases it may be simplest to export text and graphics from a PDF document, to save the labor of retyping, then use the composition and layout tools in your application of choice.

    Reply

    Rob Siders April 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

    This. All of it.

    Reply

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