E-Libris: About PDF (More Than You Probably Want to Know)

As I said in a previous installment of this column, most e-ARCs these days still come in the time-honored format of the PDF file. It’s still the easiest, fastest way to format a text – editorwise, I mean.

PDF format was created in 1993 by Adobe Systems (in fact, it evolved from a system called “Camelot”, created in 1991, so we’re dealing with a Jurassic file in Internet-time) with a laudable goal: according to J. Warnock, author of the first document describing it, “The specific problem is that most programs print to a wide range of printers, but there is no universal way to communicate and view this printed information electronically.”

So the programmers at Adobe created what they called the Postscript language, devised to make documents visible on any display and printable on any printer. It took them two years to go from Camelot project to the first certifiable PDF file – but it paid up. PDF isn’t old because people are lazy or overlooked something – it wasn’t discontinued until now because it is good and it serves its purpose fairly well – even to be read in a mobile device. Just not in every mobile device.


Kindle is one of these no-no cases. And, since I already have complained here before about it, I’m not going to do so again.

I still use my iPhone a lot to read PDF files. The latest was the e-ARC of Lavie Tidhar’s OSAMA. (A very good book, by the way, and one which I’ll review soon here.) Over time, I found it easier to cope with the…let’s call it “inflexibility” of PDF when it comes to being read on a mobile device.

After all, that was never the point with PDF, so let’s not blame Adobe for it. All they wanted was a kind of universal readable document, something that could be printed in every possible machine and generate the same results every single time – and they did it.

Notice, if you please, that the original Camelot document stated that they strove for visibility, not exactly readability. That’s a subtle but very concrete difference. Nobody was thinking of reading a document in a computer screen in 1991. (“Damn, the glare! My eyes, my eyes!” and all that – though I must admit that I always loved to read on the computer screen, even in the Pre-Cambrian times of green phosphorus.)

A thing of beauty in the iPhone is the touchscreen – you can adjust the size of the PDF file at will – a thing you most definitely can’t do with Kindle, where you must conform to preset parameters that can be a pain, depending on the formatting of the particular PDF. OSAMA, for instance, was unreadable in Kindle.

Why? Because it was locked in a two-page view – and I couldn’t unlock it to read it one page at a time. On Kindle, it is what I call the hell of the 5-direction button (I use the Kindle 2 International, for those who want to know), because you must keep your finger on it as if it were the control of a Playstation, just to move the window of text to the left, to the right, up, and down (talk about square dancing!)

On my iPhone, I still had to do the finger dance – but at least I could touch the screen, adjust size at will and then use only my thumb to dance the text around without sweating a lot (the Kindle button tends to give you a sore thumb after a while). It’s not my idea of a great reading, but it’s the next best thing – and it sure beats the Kindle PDF Barnstormer Dance.

What about you, my reader? Have you had the same experience with PDF files in your mobile devices? What about other devices? Please do tell me everything about it – I want to know the beauty and the terror of it all.

14 thoughts on “E-Libris: About PDF (More Than You Probably Want to Know)”

  1. Great post! I can remember when PDF was competeing with DP (digital paper) format for dominance of its niche. Well all know who won of course, since few people have probably ever heard of DP.

    I don’t read PDFs on my iPhone much because the screen is just too small for me. It do read a substantial amount of PDFs on my iPad, there I think they work well for a number of reasons, first and foremost being they feel like a document page on the screen. I read Locus, for instance, in PDF format and it feels just like reading the printed issue.

    Moreover, for my critique groups, I convert all the manuscripts I read to PDF format to read them. I use GoodReader on the iPad which reads PDF documents, but also allows you to annotate them and mark them up. It will “flatten” the PDF document for you and allow you to do other kinds of manipulations, but it also treats the PDF pages as of they are an e-book. That is, rather than scrolling through the entire document, you can “turn” to the next page, which feels more natural to me.

    Being able to markup the PDF files are a big deal for me. I can’t easily mark up Word documents on my iPad but with PDFs it is easy. This allows me to avoid printing out the documents, saving a few trees in the process as well.

    You are absolutely right: PDFs were designed for universal printing and not screen-reading. Unlike e-book formats, PDFs encapsulate the layout on the page, and don’t alter that layout for screen size. You can’t change a font size, therefore, because it would alter the page layout. For that purpose–capturing a strict page layout–I’m not sure there will ever be a suitable ePDF format that adds many of the features that e-book formats give us.

  2. As already mentioned (and as I’ve stated elsewhere), PDF is all about maintaining layout and is therefore, for me, a huge eBook format fail. eBooks need to be reformatted for the device you’re reading on and the text should reflow as you adjust display settings, otherwise reading is close to impossible on some devices.

    I suspect “PDF eBooks” (a horrible misnomer, imo) like the review copies we receive are not about easy distribution, but about trying to stem the flow of ePiracy. Most, if not all, fiction books do not have any formatting that requires PDF to be displayed, thus PDF is completely unnecessary. Plus, some PDF readers (I’m looking at you, Adobe) are resource hogs that stay memory resident.  I avoid PDF whenever for all those reasons.

  3. My experience with PDFs on mobile devices has been rather different. On my libre, fiction books in PDF format are pretty much identical in all ways to the other eBook formats it supports.  Only if there are too many columns and illustrations does it have problems (I never seen an epub with columns and illustrations so I can’t compare).

    On my Android, I use the Quickoffice PDF maker/reader to read PDFs and have had no trouble with any PDF (including columns and images – much more important for science and RPG books). 

    I think the problem is more with Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Apple than with the PDFs.

  4. If I want to read a PDF, I read it on a netbook or desktop computer, partially for these reasons, and partially because PDFs are often going to have color graphics not likely to look good on the Kindle…(Roleplaying game books, for example)

  5. @tam : I already did that on a series of PDFs. It sucks. I never could convert PDFs to perfection. They were not made for this. All you can get is a passable (and I’m being generous here) version in mobi or epub to read in your Kindle. But I gave up after the 5th conversion – and I think I tried too much at that.

  6. Jamie: Nice of you to remember DP! These days we can only remember this initials for another thing entirely (modesty forbids me to spell it, but you know what I mean… ;)

    I haven’t mentioned the iPad yet because I didn’t use it. My wife has one of her own and she even allowed me to borrow it, so probably in the next few weeks I may be doing a little experimenting with PDF reading (and other formats, of course) on it.

    As a suitable ePDF format, I totally agree with you. The day they invent it, it will be another thing entirely, and therefore not a PDF any longer.

  7. I’ve been talking a lot with John about PDFs since I first proposed the idea of the column to him. I don’t loathe PDFs (at least, not as much as he does, heh), but I must agree with him in one respect: PDFs were not made to be read as books. I would be in heaven if publishers could just send eARCs in different formats to us!

  8. Paul, color is another thing I want to tackle soon – something better suited for NOOK, for instance, or for an iPad. But never, I foresee, for a Kindle, which is kind of a “poor people’s device” (or a clean-cut, no-nonsense, no bells-and-whistles thing, for the design-oriented).

  9. Love Calibre. Have nearly all my ebooks in various Calibre libraries. Worthless for converting PDF.

  10. I’ve been using Calibre for about a year, and unfortunately it converts ALL of a PDF – including hidden Quark codes, etc.  For my mental health, I’ll take the ePUB Calibre spits out, use 7zip to expand it into a directory, and spend 15-20 minutes fine tuning it before returning it into an ePUB.

  11. I’ve actually never had much of a problem reading PDFs. On my Android phone, I use Repligo Reader to read PDF books, and it works fine. Also, on my NOOK, I can read PDFs by adjusting the text size. This usually isn’t a problem, except I just recently started reading one where the text appears weirdly formatted when I do that. It’s still readable, and the book cover shows up fine, so it’s not a big deal to  me.

  12. @hemisphire: thanks for the tip! Even though I may not be using Calibre again for quite a while, it’s definitely worth trying and experimenting new ways of doing things.

  13. One of the problems with using Calibre to convert PDFs to other ebook formats is that the text in a PDF isn’t necessarily stored as text – it may be stored as an image. This can lead to errors in the conversion of the text. I have seen some pretty horrible results from this. If you go this route you pretty much have to copy edit the entire book to make sure it is OK. Understandably many publishers don’t bother.

    Another complication is that two PDFs of the same book can be very different. Acrobat has a huge range of output settings, and those you use when you are planning to send a book to a printer are very different from those you would use when intending to only every read the book online. If you get these settings wrong, and some people do, the resultant PDF can be an order of magnitude larger than it needs to be.

    Finally, if you are planning to issue an ebook as PDF, then you should do a proper layout job on it, just as you would if you were producing a print version, because a PDF file is designed to be printed, and will look crap of you don’t bear that in mind. I don’t produce PDF versions of the ebooks I publish, because it is a huge amount of extra effort to get them to look good. It annoys me no end that Google Books won’t accept a book for sale unless you provide a PDF version.

    Short version: I’m with John. If I get sent a book as a PDF it goes right to the back of the “to read” queue.

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