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PDF is still “better”

Until eBooks are redesigned exclusively for the screen, print and PDF will continue to provide a better user experience

A few weeks ago, I surprised myself. I had decided to learn a new code language, and O’Reilly of course has a great little book about this particular language, so I pulled up the eBook files, and almost without thinking, I loaded the PDF onto my iPad, rather than the EPUB. And my brow furrowed as I tried to figure out why I had made that choice, because as an eBook developer—as a CSS and web technology devotee—shouldn’t I also be a devoted EPUB user?

And I’m not the only one to make this choice. PDF continues to be the most-used eBook format among oreilly.com customers, and we frequently hear complaints from our audience about EPUB and .mobi being “harder to use” than the PDF or printed book. I used to blow these complaints off as just the rumblings of dinosaurs, but I no longer think that’s the case.

It seems to me that PDFs (and print) are easier to use because they’re closest to the intended format for the information. Or more precisely, for the building blocks used to split up the information.

Before we go any further, I want to make an important (and obvious) distinction: Reference books are different from prose. When it comes to reading prose and novels, I’ll opt for a .mobi on my Kindle whenever possible. I could go on and on about how wonderful and perfect my Kindle Keyboard is, how it’s better than print (mostly), and how I wouldn’t want to read any other way.

But tech and reference books come with a new set of rules. As soon as you introduce more than a handful of page elements, and as soon as you really want to try to get people to learn from these elements, the user experience becomes much more delicate.

Let’s rattle off some of the things you might find on the page of a reference book: sidebars, notes and warnings, margin notes, footnotes, images and captions, various levels of headings, and of course plain text paragraphs. All these disparate elements are aimed at helping people learn and categorize information more clearly and in an organized way. These elements were developed in the context of the printed page, and the way they relate to each other has also historically been framed in the context of the static, printed page. Yes, it is possible to port these elements over to the screen, and yes, some of them even translate just fine as-is, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were created for the confines of a static page. Of course they work best there.

Now let’s consider the two most common ways of creating eBooks these days:

  • Take the material for the printed book, and push it into the shape of an eBook, without much restructuring at all.
  • Make an eBook-only product, but make it back-compatible—ie, make it a PDF as well (since that’s what people seem to want to read), building in the option to print as needed.

But how about we add two more routes to the list:

  • Take the material for the printed book and translate it into an eBook, but redefine what the building blocks mean in the context of the screen. (“What is a sidebar? What is a note? What is an index?”)
  • Make an eBook-only product with no regard for PDF or print, targeted at the screen and designed accordingly.

In order for ebooks to cease to be a lesser format, to cease to provide a user experience that is inferior to the printed product, they need to be designed for the screen, from the beginning. We’re seeing more and more examples of these kinds of storytelling/learning experiences, built for the screen, using the tools the screen has to offer, and shaking off lingering allegiances to print structure.

An equally viable option, depending on your content, might be to reconsider the way that the elements of the print book are being translated. Just because a sidebar exists in the print book as a box with borders doesn’t mean that’s the best possible representation for it digitally. Or maybe it is, but the important part is that you ask the question, and keep asking as the technology develops.

Educational books and e-textbooks are getting a lot of attention, and I suspect we’ll see more people seriously attacking the puzzle of how to translate them for the screen. This is a perfect time to rethink how we create material for the screen, how we format it, and how people want to read it.

Will there be complications with this kind of publishing? Sure. To start, our popular eBook formats (EPUB and .mobi) and the eReaders built to read them also currently attempt to mirror the print structure, and limit how publishers are “allowed” to format their content. The EPUB 3 standard promises HTML5 support, but the various eReaders have been slow to adopt the new standard, and even when they do, they’ll likely still offer very limited support for just a subset of the spec. This means we’ll need to find platforms both to create and to distribute these new digitally-redefined eBook products. We’ll also need to train production teams to work with these new technologies, and find authors and editors who can think in the context of the screen.

And of course, the business model still hasn’t really been sorted out, which is integrally related to how much resources can be devoted to producing beautiful digital products—but that street goes both ways. Unless we start targeting information at the screen, and architecting that information around elements that work best on screen rather than legacy layout designs meant for printed pages, eBooks will never exit these awkward preteen years where they’re always just second best to print.

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Comments: 14

  1. Your article reminded me why I love reading Sports Illustrated on my Android tablet. I subscribe via the Next Issue app and although it initially looks like a simple e-rendering of the p-version it’s much, much more. There are all sorts of great ways this subscription surprises and delights, including some cool ways they’ve enriched the print elements. For example, the print version has a page with all the writers, their faces, names, Twitter handles, etc. The e-version comes to life. Just touch your favorite writer’s name and you’ll see all their recent Twitter activity. Sidebars are also longer, scrollable and come to life with video and other terrific enhancements. Now that I’ve read SI in this format I’ll never go back to print again.

    • Yes, Joe, this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about! They could so easily have just squished all that content into a long line of text and images, but instead they rethought how it was being presented, and optimized it for the device. It’s really exciting to have so many possibilities with digital presentation of information, and I hope we see more and more people starting to use them!

  2. My biggest problem with PDF on tablet is: PDF doesn’t scale for [beans]. Sixty-odd-year-old-eyes NEED
    larger typefaces, so I don’t have to scroll down inside a page to keep reading. I love the ePub versions of the O’Reilly et al. books because I can scale the text to MY needs, not that of the (mythical) piece of paper.

  3. Confused, the only concrete complaint I’ve found here (and it was in the article you linked to) is that the formatting is poor. This has nothing to do with ebooks, it’s just sloppy production. With the exception of “margin notes”, every feature you mention is possible in an ebook. I’m doing it (with multiple ebooks), O’Reilly is doing it, but some publishers don’t give their “e-production” the love it needs.

    Maybe I’m biased, but I keep hearing that technical books don’t work as ebooks. This reeks of FUD, because multiple people are actually successful with technical ebooks.

    • Hey Matt, sorry it came across as FUD :/ Definitely not my intent! I agree that a lot of the poor ebook formatting is just sloppy production, and probably a lot of my dissatisfaction with reading tech books in reflowable formats could be solved with better formatting (this is one of my major goals for O’Reilly’s ebooks this year). But just because some ebooks are doing an okay job of translating information that is being created for print–and often QA’d only in print or PDF format–doesn’t mean that’s the best possible way to present that information digitally. We have firm numbers telling us that PDF is still the most popular format for our books, so the questions I have are: Why? Is that bad? What can we be doing better? 

  4. Would you mind expanding a little on your statement “It seems to me that PDFs (and print) are easier to use because they’re closest to the intended format for the information.”

    That sounds a little like “because the book is what the publishing industry has always done, it is what it will always do”. Which I think might be right 🙂 ie. its the thinking thats the problem, not the format. Or it could also be stated perhaps as ‘its the workflow thats the problem, not the format’ as it seems that workflow and thinking are synonyms in the publishing world (or at least workflow has replaced thinking) ..But I’m not sure if I understand your point correctly.

    • Hey Adam, good questions. I think your statement sums up what what I wanted to say: “It’s the thinking that’s the problem, not the format.” The publishing industry makes books and will always make books, and while print books and digital books have a lot of similarities, in terms of formatting and structure they’re not necessarily the same beast, and we should be careful to make sure we’re presenting the information in the best possible way for the format it’s packaged in. Really you can sum it up in a few words: question the norms!

  5. Nellie, I totallly agree with your main point that we need to “rethink how we create material for the screen, how we format it, and how people want to read it”. But I think the platform is clear: HTML5 (aka the Open Web Platform). Via websites for online consumption, packaged via EPUB when you need to distribute packaged files, esp. via multiple distribution channels, and packaged as a native application where appropriate via shells like PhoneGap.
    Of course one aspect of EPUB 3 is ability to represent fixed layout pages where appropriate. One aspect of your article is really not about PDF per se but about the inherent tradeoffs between adaptive layout that “reflows” and WYSIWYG approaches to page design and the reality that at least for now sometimes the latter is better for readers. HTML5/EPUB3 as the universal platform give publishers the ability to choose which approach makes sense and over time we’ll get richer template-based layout to minimize the need for compromises. PDF of course is limited to only representing sequences of fixed page images.

    RE: “The EPUB 3 standard promises HTML5 support, but the various eReaders have been slow to adopt the new standard, and even when they do, they’ll likely still offer very limited support for just a subset of the spec.” Well, Apple iBooks, Kobo, and VitalSource Bookshelf are already shipping pretty capable EPUB 3 support. Apple does restrict JavaScript’s ability to access remote data but Kobo and VitalSource do not and I expect this restriction (rooted in business concerns not security or technology) to go away over time because of competitive pressure. I.e. the market will demand, and will get, full support for HTML5 in eBooks as well as for websites and apps.

    EPUB also provides building blocks that I think will over time prove helpful to publishers even when they don’t need a packaged “portable document” file. Accessibility features, Media Overlays that defines in a structure way how to represent prerecorded audio or video synchronized with text, metadata. There is no requirement that publishers all choose the same way to do e.g. synchronized audio – one could imagine implementing this 1000 different ways in HTML5 – but having a standard way to do it will enable mix and match toolchains and content that can be easily remixed. This is totally independent of whether the content ends up consumed in a web browser online or downloaded in an EPUB ZIP file. 

  6. I find the the response comments to your post interesting and very varied. Some love the PDF format for some presentations, while others appear to claim that eBooks are not only the wave of the future, but are the best current medium for book production. Rationals for the preferred format(s) vary, depending on depending on the need of the individual – i.e. the reasons that the pdf. format works for them – or to show how the eBook format can do so much more because of digital technology.

    The middle ground, of course, is what the “book” content is, and how and where it will be read.
    EBooks, at the current state of the technology, work best for prose, where the design is fairly simple. Once you need more elaborate design elements, as has been described by a number of the comments, the problems arise. Most reader page sizes are smaller than the books they translate from. Once you need to design for a format that requires side-notes, or large (by necessity) illustrations, the smaller format starts to fail, unless the book has been designed for an iPad. Fixed formats for books that need them are also more complex in both their coding requirements and their presentation on a given device.

    While the advantages that eBooks offer for video inserts, animations, and links to other pages, many of them still depend on the readability features of the device they are ported to. Does it have color? Is it large enough to carry the information? Will the material translate easily to a variety of readers?  Will it be easy to code a well-thought out design for multi-platforms, in a reasonable amount of time, and for a reasonable fee — given what may be a limited but needful market?

    For “difficult” books, the pdf. format may be the answer right now. But, creating new digital  formats, designed to present complex information in a pleasing, easy-to-read/easy-to-use  format, wlll be the venue of those thinking away from the book.

    Originally, when movies were in their childhood, the given format was based on viewing a play in a theater. It took several generations of movie-makers to introduce the modern film divorced from the single focus setting it started out with.

  7. As a textbook author and digital publisher, I agree with much of what is said in the article. There is a significant difference between the type of formatting needed for a simple novel and the complex formatting needed for something like a digital textbook where many components need to be arranged on the page in a specific way and in a specific.  For many publications, the page layout makes a significant contribution to the overall value and usefulness of the product. Technologies that cannot handle complex layouts are not adequate for such content.

    Digital publications should combine the benefits of printed pages with the benefits of multimedia, interactivity, and the Internet. It should be–and it is–possible to gain those benefits without losing essential capabilities like support for complex page formatting.

  8. Yes I liked what Adam said as well as the points Bill made. I guess the point is this, will the future of content dissemination lie with the context of printed page layout or go in a wholly different direction. As long as we keep hearkerning back to the printed page I’m not sure what real progress we are making digitally. It is like the early years of film making trying to simply replicate plays rather than really make films. 

    Part of the problem we currently have with ‘digitalizing’ complex content is that we continue to look towards replicating the printed page in all its complexity as a guide to what a digital ‘page’ or format should look like. Ironically some of that complex layout had its own origins in page designers attempting to replicate the kind of complex collage, editing, montage and voice over features of video and film that were marginalizing the printed page in the 60s. Others go back to far more ancient sources in the use of marginalia and commentary that is as ancient as Talmudic Midrash and Mishnah, but all share in the idea of using both visual cues to learning along with dialog and commentary within that content.

    Alas while replicating static versions of that layout may be easier in PDF active versions are not really possible in PDF per se though attempts to incorporate both areas into EPDF, EPUB and most importantly EPUB3 (as well as other HTML formats like Inkling) do open up the vistas to new formatting opportunities.

  9.  There is always a place for PDFs for some types of content / publications but get off the tracks when you see a train coming! I dont think the PDF are superior for tablet and mobile users. I think that publishers have to start thinking of how they can make their content more liquid and allow the content to lay itself out based on the resolution of the device rather than forcing the user to zoom nad pan to consume the content.  The more that users transition to mobile devices as their primary platform for consuming media, the less efficient PDFs will become in delivering content effectively.  

    Google say that for every click on a users website journey, you will lose 50% of your traffic.  I think that the same priniciple apply here. You need to make the content adapt to suit the user rather than the other way around.

  10. I work for a publisher of advanced math books and journals.  Although HTML5 wnd EPUB3 nominally incorporate MathML, that’s not adequate to handle much of the material we publish.  It’s hard enough to get it onto paper!  And that’s without sidebars, pull quotes, often without even footnotes.

    The only hope I can see is for authors to learn to think differently about presentation; even mathematicians working in the same area as some of our authors wouldn’t be competent to rework the material so that the results are accurate and don’t lose any of the subtlety of linked equations, which require two dimensions and do *not* reflow without a potential change of meaning.

    The desired migration is going to be a long, slow, expensive process.

  11. I am reading an O’Reilly book on my Kindle and the charts are impossible to read. They are images and not html text and I can’t enlarge them.

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