Battle Royale: PDF vs. ePub

POSTED ON Aug 2, 2018

David Kudler

Written by David Kudler

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By David Kudler

I ruffled some feathers a while back when I pronounced that a PDF isn’t an ebook, but an ePub is [i] in my article, “What IS an Ebook?

I really didn’t mean to cause a kerfuffle; I didn’t mean that ePubs are somehow better than PDFs, in all circumstances. I love PDFs. I love ePubs (learn more about ePubs here).

Which is better in a particular case depends on what purpose the file is going to serve.


PDF is a representation of a print document. It’s brilliant at that. No matter what device I look at the file on, each page will look exactly the same as if I had the paper-and-ink copy in my hand.

That’s wonderful — if you’ve got a printer or a full-sized monitor. On a phone or a small tablet? Not so much.


ePub files — in most circumstances — organize the text not around the page but around the screen. Like a webpage (which is basically what an ePub file is), it is re-flowable, or, in web terms, responsive. The “page” breaks change with the size of the screen that the ebook is read on — or the size of the text that the reader chooses in his or her preferences. If the ePub has been well designed, the images will resize proportional to the screen/window, and the text will flow properly around that.

Which format should you use?

So if you’re trying to show someone exactly what a particular document looked like, PDF is the way to go.

If you’re trying to share a document and you don’t know what the reader is going to be viewing the file on — and the content is more important than the appearance — stick to ePub.

Note: Each of those answers has a big “but” attached to it.

PDFs can’t be uploaded to any of the major ebook commercial retailer sites, so if you want to sell your ebook, you’ll have to create an ePub file.

If, however, the relationship of words to images is essential (as in a children’s picture book, a cookbook, etc.) or the page breaks are essential, a reflowable standard ePub file won’t work. At that point you need to create a “fixed format” ePub.

The advantage to fixed-format ePub to PDFs, aside from being able to upload them to most of the major retailers, is that, if you know your way around the inside of an ePub file, you can convert them to standard, reflowable ePubs in a fairly straightforward process, instead of having to go back to the original file from which the PDF was created and convert from that.

[i] I meant in the context of an indie publisher trying to upload and sell ebook files, and in those terms, I stand by my pronouncement. A PDF isn’t meant to be uploaded for sale; very few retailers accept them, and those that do will strive mightily to convince you to use something else. If you’re going to deal with retailers, ePub = ebook. Still, I do understand that out of context it sounded odd.
Photo: BigStockPhoto

David Kudler

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David Kudler

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