How to Make a PDF Book That's Realistic

by | Jul 11, 2011

The PDF (Adobe’s Portable Document Format) version of your book has become a key component in the entire book production workflow. At different stages of production, the PDF might be used for:

  • Sending rough layout proofs to an author or publisher
  • Showing sample pages with treatments for photos, illustrations or tab composition
  • First galley proofs
  • Page proofs
  • Editing and proofreading copies
  • Final reproduction for print
  • Reviewer copies
  • e-book conversion
  • Archiving
  • Retailing

It’s good to know how to make a PDF book. There’s a market for books in PDF format, especially for heavily illustrated books, art books and photography books. Whether you decide to offer your book for sale directly from your website in PDF or not, you are going to use the PDF of your book for lots of marketing and publicity tasks.

For instance, on a review campaign you might offer reviewers the book in ePub, Kindle, print or PDF versions. I’ve found lots of reviewers like the PDFs. You can deliver the book as quick as sending an email, and it’s an exact replica of the printed book.

Manipulating PDFs

The best tool I’ve used for manipulating PDF files is Adobe’s Acrobat Pro. If you have Acrobat Pro or another program that will allow you to add and replace pages, you’ll be able to use these simple tips to making realistic PDFs to give away, sell, or use for promotion. (For information on some other PDF tools, see the Resources at the end of this article.)

Unlike the typical ebooks you find online, most of which are letter-size, landscape and look more like presentations than books, these PDFs look exactly like a printed book. After all, the printed books are made from the PDFs. In a PDF you see the book in its idealized, perfect form.

Here’s how I created this PDF of Glenbrook Press’ Payments Systems in the U.S. so that it was a true representation of the printed book.

  1. I output the complete interior as an Acrobat PDF/X-1a file from Adobe InDesign.
  2. Then I exported the flat cover as a JPEG from InDesign.
  3. In Adobe Photoshop I cut the cover into separate files for the front and back, and saved them as PDFs.
  4. I also created a “blank” page that was just a white page.
  5. In Acrobat Pro, I added the front cover followed by a blank page as the first 2 pages in the file.
  6. I set the File/Document Properties to make the book display as 2-page spreads, like you would see when a printed book is laid open.

PDF document properties

Here’s how the cover and first spread look in the finished file. This is exactly the effect I was going for.

Cover and opening spread in the PDF version

I did the same thing at the back of the book, so the “illusion” is complete.

Glenbrook - Payments Systems

The last spread and the back cover

Fun With Hardcovers

If you want to get fancy and you have a jacketed hardcover, you can do the same thing. Here, for Larry Jacobson’s The Boy Behind the Gate, I exported the jacket file from InDesign as a JPG. In Photoshop I created files for both the front and back flaps. Making these into pages of their own, with white backgrounds, I was able to imitate the look of a hardcover pretty successfully:

Jacobson- The Boy Behind the Gate

Front cover and first spread with "flap"

And here’s the same treatment at the back of the book:

Jacobson - The Boy Behind the Gate

Last spread with back "flap" and back cover complete the book

Whether you’re selling the PDF as a full-fledged book or just using it for online reviewers, it makes sense to put your best PDF forward. Making it look like a copy of the print book will give you a much more attractive PDF e-book to work with.

A Bit of Advice: Get the PDF Files

No matter who does the layout on your book be sure to get a PDF of the final, corrected version as it went to print. Whether your printer is a print on demand supplier, or an offset printer, your designer most likely supplied them with a complete reproduction-quality PDF of both the book interior and the cover or jacket.


More software for working with PDF Files
Adobe Acrobat Pro
Adobe InDesign and Photoshop

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resources for self-publishers

Photo by memekode

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. sue

    How would you create a hardcover book from a pdf?

  2. Karena Domenico

    Hi Joel. I have designed a very beautiful, 138-page book in In Design. There are 64-color artwork images with facing pages of full background color with a quote-type passage directly written for that specific image. So the format CAN’T flow, and since fixed layout epub books seem still unable to maintain my fonts, images, and copy the way I’VE DESIGNED THEM, I keep coming back to keeping it a PDF book. It looks great. I also decided NOT to do facing pages. This way it just flows one page at a time. I’ve lost the feeling of a real book, but devices that can do 2up sometimes threw the mandatory pagination off. (When I had it 2up, different readers would put the passage with the wrong image). I’ve finally decided against hard-copy publishing because the RGB images get so compromised in the CMYK conversion. And I love seeing them so alive with the light of a computer/phone/tablet behind them. They are digitally created.

    Yes, I will sell the downloadable PDF from my website. I’m going to make 2 versions available: one readable only with 96dpi images, but also a full 300dpi (more expensive) version so people have the option of PRINTING the pages/passages they want to have as a hard copy to frame etc… HOWEVER !!!! And here’s the stumbling block I keep coming up against: Anyone I sell the PDF to can super easily pass it on to their friends or worse, to someone who could actually print the entire book and sell it. It’s so easily shareable via email, dropbox, kindle, Adobe Acrobat. Yes, I’ll copyright it and it will have it’s own ISBN#. Somedays I just accept that I have no control over people choosing to be honest, and other days I feel I’m being naive and giving away my 5-1/2 year project to anyone and everyone and not getting any compensation.

    I really really love the way the PDF looks, and I’m able to import it to kindle and read/see it on my iPhone or on my MAC. (*I send the PDF via Dropbox, but then I have to choose to read it in Adobe Acrobat, and THEN open it with Kindle . . . a lengthy process because the file is so big). Or of course I can read it in Adobe Acrobat (Pro). The thing I don’t like about AA is there is NO index that shows all the pages at once so you can choose a particular page/image, like in Kindle or even Dropbox.

    Sorry for the long explanation but I’ve gone round and round on this issue for months now, but now the book is complete and I’m designing the website so I need to make a decision. Am I going to stick with my priority to have the book look awesome by selling it in PDF form, and make buyers go through the lengthy process of downloading it, then moving it from AA to Kindle, (my market won’t really go looking for it on Amazon – it’s really more word of mouth hence another reason NOT to do epub) and just accept that piracy is part of epublishing, OR, do I continue to try to find an ePub format that can keep all my formatting AND fonts AND layout? I don’t think it exists. Right?

    I would be SO GRATEFUL for your input. This is my first of (hopefully) many ebooks, so finding the right publishing format now is really important to me. OK. Now I’ll breath ; )

    • Joel Friedlander


      You also have the option of using DRM (Digital Rights Management) on your PDF books. Although it’s a slight hassle for buyers, it would likely cut down on any piracy. Another solution would be, since you will only be selling them from your own site, to personalize the copies you ship to customers with their name added to the book, which is not hard to do in Acrobat. In the end, everyone who sells content online has to deal with the piracy issue, but many experienced authors have decided that piracy is simply another promotional channel that will put their book into the hands of more readers than they can reach themselves, and in some cases that can be a good thing. The ultimate solution is to issue the book only in print. That would solve your reproduction quality and piracy concerns all at once.

      • Karena Domenico

        Thanks for even getting through my long email Joel! ; )

        It sounds like you feel PDF is still the best way to go. And I will look into both those options to eliminate or at least reduce piracy. As far as quality, the image quality is definitely much better online vs. print.

        And, like you said . . . in the end. What’s the purpose? To get the info to as many people as possible, or to make money? I think that attitude wins out. I’m going to put my best work forward and make it available. THANKS!!!

  3. Michael D Gorman

    Great information, as far as making books from PDF’s is concerned you can indeed make a similar standard book using tools like MS Word which of course has a PDF filter already installed, so you can adjust the JPG’s and ‘flaps’ using GIMP, or even Pixlr then simply save-as PDF the finished book you need Word 2007 as a minimum – but you can produce this result without needing to invest in all that Adobe expense – Cheers

  4. Judith van Praag

    Joel, Your post is just the push I need to make the book I published as a paperback in 1999 available in e-format. Great suggestions in the comments as well. I’ve pulled out the PDF and am going to follow your lead. Y’all are most generous!

  5. rasa

    Another amazingly useful post, Joel. Thank you!

  6. Alexa Whitten

    Great post, thank you. I love your hardback replication idea.

    I often offer PDF versions of my client’s books, as they then give these away to their list, and then offer the printed version once the client has downloaded it. A very high percentage of people end up buying the book, which shows that printed versions, are in fact, still in vogue :)

    I have yet to get acrobat pro, however I use a great little freebie program, called PDFsam – which is a splitter and merger. I use Quark Xpress 7 – and so I export all of my chapters to PDF – then use this programme to bind them all together – along with the cover (which I’ve split, like you, the front going at the beginning of the book, and the back cover going at the end) – you can get this programme at – I highly recommend it.

  7. Chris O'Byrne

    Another amazingly useful post, Joel. Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to show my print publishing clients a PDF proof.

  8. Mike Perry

    I should have noted that Adobe’s formal requirements for InDesign upgrades are here:

    Note that owning a registered copy of Pagemaker 6 or 7 or InDesign CS2, 3, or 4 will get you InDesign 5.5 for $199. That’s the version with lots of new ebook features. Since Pagemaker has been discontinued, you can often pick up a copy for a pittance. And you won’t have to blow $410 (Amazon) on the latest version of Acrobat Pro.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mike, sorry I missed these comments when you made them, but thanks for your extensive contribution and the links to LSI documents.

      I prefer using Distiller and have rescued many client files by using it in conjunction with Acrobat Pro, but most authors have no need of this software, and I’m glad that you’ve presented alternatives.

  9. Mike Perry

    Mac users might want to look into using PDFPen Pro instead of Adobe Acrobat Pro. It’s has 90% of the features of Acrobat Pro in an easier to use package at a fraction of the price.

    Also, I should comment about this posting: “Lightning Source requires that your PDF be converted to a PostScript file and be run through Acrobat Distiller (which come with Acrobat Pro). CreateSpace will accept a “raw” PDF.”

    I’ve been publishing with Lightning Source for 11 years and I’ve been distributing PDF books commercially through them for about 8 years. LSI has no PS through Distiller requirement. It’s merely one of the work flows they suggest. I’ve been using InDesign, which has its own PDF engine, for about six years without a single problem. This link will give you Lightning’s file creation guide:

    Also, keep in mind that using software designed for creating business letters (i.e. Microsoft Word) isn’t the best way to create high-quality paged documents, either printed books or PDFs. It’s a bit like using a station wagon to delivery gravel.

    My workflow is Scrivener (a marvelous writer’s tool) to InDesign for printed/PDF books and Scrivener direct to ePub and Kindle for digital books. Cut Word out of the loop.

    InDesign doesn’t have to be expensive. Get an used but registrable old version of InDesign or any version of PageMaker, and you can upgrade to the latest InDesign for $200. That’s less than a Word plus Acrobat combination and, once you learn InDesign, admittedly a steep learning curve, the books you create will look infinitely better and be based on top quality PDFs.

  10. Gordon Burgett

    Excellent suggestions, and much appreciated cover placement details. PDF is a godsend, particularly for books with lots of images and charts.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Gordon. I’m still looking for good e-book retailers who actually sell PDF books in quantity. Know any good ones?

  11. Michael N. Marcus

    Primitive self-publishers like me who use MS Word to format book interiors can easily make PDF versions if they’ve installed Adobe Acrobat Pro.

    Simply select “Print” and then specify Adobe PDF as the printer, select some properties such as page size, DPI and “press quality,” name the file, and in a minute or less (depending on file size and PC speed) you’ll have your PDF.

    If you display the pages as “two-up” you should see the proper verso-recto configuration. A PDF will usually reveal many more errors than you’ll find in a Word doc, so Acrobat is a worthwhile investment. You can save some money if you buy an older version on eBay. Educator discounts are available for the current version “X.”

    Lightning Source requires that your PDF be converted to a PostScript file and be run through Acrobat Distiller (which come with Acrobat Pro). CreateSpace will accept a “raw” PDF.

    Michael N. Marcus (information, help and book reviews for authors) (pre-publication book assessments)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”



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