Why a PDF Isn’t an Ebook

by | Mar 2, 2016

When I started my series on ebook conversion, the first post was What IS an Ebook. I made the point that, for my purposes and those of the series, an ebook was an ePub file — what I called a website in a box.

A couple of the commenters pointed out that a PDF was also an ebook. I disagreed — not because PDFs (Adobe’s ubiquitous Portable Document Format files) aren’t great. They are. But they’re not ebooks.

Why is a PDF not an ebook? Two reasons.

The first is that they’re not designed to be displayed on an ebook reader.

A PDF file 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. It’s the format that designers have been sending to printers for decades, so, strictly speaking, every book you’ve read that was published since the turn of the century was almost certainly a PDF before it was printed. What you see when you open the file is exactly what you’d see on the printed page. Same margins, same fonts, same line height, same font size…

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

By contrast ePub files — in most circumstances — organize the text not around the page but around the screen. Like a web page (which is basically all that 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 them.

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

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to share a document without knowing what the reader is going to be viewing the file on — and the content is more important than the appearance — stick to ePub.

Having said that, 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 and distributors (Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.), 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, if you want to sell your book through the normal channels, 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.)

Photo: pixabay.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Ellen BAker

    Hey DAVID,

    Very concise and to the point. People really find it complicated to get their ebook converted rather consider PDF over any format. Great Job in the content!

  2. Ayman A R

    Great and concise article, to fix misconceptions out there about PDF. PDF’s are fixed layout by design, as you indicated in the first paragraph.

    But to my surprise, I opened a PDF in Acrobat professional, and then saved/exported it as an HTML. Opened it in the browser, and it is born reflowable again! How do you explain that?

  3. ebook writers

    Well, I always believed PDFs are eBooks. Like ePub file, readers can’t edit it, plus it provides perfect formatting and layout as you mentioned in your blog as well. I agree whatever format you use, use your real document to generate ePub file or PDF file because converting ePub to PDF or vice versa really ruins your work.

  4. Ramesh

    your article and subsequent brain storming was very enchanting for a novice like me! but it was very informative. Thanks!

  5. Joel Friedlander

    Of course, this leaves open the question, “If a PDF isn’t an ebook, what is it?” to which the only response I can think of is, “It’s an ebook!”

    Take a look at the PDFs I create for authors, I think they look a lot like books: How to Make a PDF Book That’s Realistic.

    • Leonardo Arroyo

      A different answer comes to my head. It’s a portable document format, as the name says. Sure, books are documents, although not all documents are books.
      If the document contained in your pdf is a book, than yes, it’s a portable document as well as a electronic book.

      The point is: this is all verbal masturbation. PDFs can be ebooks, but they suck big time if you don’t have a 24″ monitor.

  6. David Bergsland

    Much of your information is out of date:

    At this point there are two basic types of ebooks: fixed layout and reflowable. The only software to produce them on a professional level is InDesign CC.

    Fixed layout ebooks are all built from the same document:
    • The downloadable full-color PDF sold by Scribd, Gumroad, and the like
    • The Publish Online version hosted by Adobe [for free distribution only]
    • The Print Replica Kindle book: the PDF is converted by Amazon’s Kindle Textbook Creator
    • Children’s book created by the Kindle Kid’s Book Creator
    • Comic book created by Kindle Comic Creator
    • The ePUB FXL: supported by the iBookstore and Kobo

    All of these work wonderfully well for ebooks meant for group usage: textbooks, study guides, and so on because they have page numbers so everyone can be on the same page. The children’s books and comics are fairly obvious. These do need a tablet or phablet, at least, to work well.

    Reflowable ebooks are built on a conversion from the fixed layout ebook document:
    • The DRM-free ePUB2 with embedded fonts and relatively rich typography
    • The MOBI conversion of that by Kindle Previewer 3.0

    This reflowable ebook with embedded fonts works for iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd, the rest of the distributors serviced by Draft2Digital, and Kindle KDP.

    • David Kudler

      I’m sorry you felt my points were out of date, David. But I can’t see how any of what you said, all of which is true, contradicted anything in the post.

      I wasn’t focussed on the advantages of fixed-format versus reflowable files here; that’s another post for another day.

      I was really concentrating on the fact that there’s almost no market for selling PDFs, and you can’t easily convert them into ePub or mobi files that you can sell. The only markets I’m aware of where an independent publisher can upload a PDF for sale are Amazon (and they discourage it — the files don’t convert very well) and Google Play.

      So I’ll stand by what I said: when it comes to creating an ebook file for sale, PDF isn’t the way to go.

      • David Bergsland

        No problem. But PDFs are just one export out of six or so I make when I release a book using InDesign, in a space of an hour or so. I remain surprised at how many people prefer PDFs.

  7. Colin Dunbar

    Hi David

    PDF not an ebook? As I recall the PDF was the first ebook, way back when. A PDF is read electronically (e), and yes, it has the added benefit of being able to be printed (and thank God, it’ll still look presentable, with some design elements). The legend – Dan Poynter – was the father of the ebook and he created PDFs – and as far as memory goes, PDFs are still available from his organisation.

    PDF, in my opinion, are certainly ebooks.

    • David Kudler

      I obviously didn’t state my point as clearly as I meant to: the problems with PDFs, from a ebook creator’s point of view, are that a) they don’t display well on smaller screens and b) you can’t upload them for sale. The only ebook retailers I’m aware of that allow self- and independent publishers to upload PDFs for sale are Amazon (and they discourage it — the conversions aren’t great) and Google Play.

      A PDF is a wonderful digital document. But for my purposes, no — it’s not an ebook.

      • Tom S

        Amazon’s ‘Kindle Textbook Creator’ tool allows one to publish and sell PDF files in the Kindle Store via KDP (it is called ‘Print Replica’ format, but it isn’t ‘converted’, just ‘packaged’). These will not work with Kindles (e-readers) but the desktop and mobile device Kindle apps support them. They support highlighting, notes, dictionary lookup, text search etc., ‘Notebooks’ and ‘Flash Cards’ (I think PDF links are supported as well). You can also embed audio, video, and image popups. I have at least one of these in my Kindle library (a math book) and it is vastly superior to reflow-able formats, mostly because publishers seem to be too lazy to figure out how to use MathML and SVG (these are supposed to be things you can use in ePub, and kindle format supports SVG). Mathematical symbols and expressions generally don’t look very good when rendered as bitmap images.

        For other retailers there is ePub FXL, which is more or less just another InDesign export option. But they don’t seem to have any particular advantages over PDF. They indeed use HTML/CSS but are not particularly editable, at least as InDesign generates them.

  8. Max

    The reflowable ePub file has a major inconvenient for one who’s dealing with technical works. Reflowing content with tables simply is causing a big mess, you have to save each table as an image and this is not good for a certain group of publications.

    So a fixed layout for ePub is recommended, but the better solution still remains the PDF file format (it can also include audio, video, interactive elements, hiperlinks and anchors, even forms and tables with quite complicate math).

    For some domains, traditional ebook commercial retailer sites and distributors are totally irrelevant.

    • David Kudler

      Yes, for textbooks and technical books, pagination, etc., is important. Fixed-format ePub can do all of the things you mentioned as well — but a one-to-one reproduction of the print edition (which is what a PDF is) is perfectly suited to that kind of work.

      I will point out that this is a site aimed at independent and self-publishers; most textbooks and technical manuals are still produced by corporate and institutional publishers. For indies, a PDF is useless as an ebook because it’s essentially unsellable.

      • David Bergsland

        I still sell quite a few PDFs through Lulu, Scribd, and Gumroad.

  9. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “The advantage to fixed-format ePub to PDFs… 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.”

    Any chance you might let us know the “secret herbs and spices” of this conversion?

    Also, since we’re talking about ebooks sold through retailers, does the conversion work with DRM-protected ebooks from Apple and others?

    • David Kudler

      Um. Sure? :-)

      I’ve done it a couple of times — I’ll have to remind myself what the steps are.

      But essentially, you’ll need to remove some meta statements in the OPF file that define the ebook as fixed-format — there may also be an XML file that you need to delete. If you’ve got any relative placement of objects (images, text blocks, etc.), you’ll need to take that out and place them more conventionally — reflowable ePub doesn’t currently allow for text that runs over an image, for example. And you’ll want to merge any pages that you don’t want a page break before.



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