Over at the Mobileread Forums, it’s regularly mentioned to new visitors that PDFs are “not a real ebook format.” However, this is a problematic statement. You have a book in hand. You have a PDF on screen. The PDF looks just like the one in your hand–same cover picture, same number of pages, same font, same page sizes. Why would that be “not an ebook?”
Obviously, PDF is a real ebook format–it’s an electronic copy of a book. Specifically, it’s an “electronic transmission format for paper documents.” However… PDFs are not a good ebook format. They lack several features that are among the top reasons people choose ebooks over pbooks (which is how Mobileread’s community refers to paper books; I love retronyms, so I’m using the word). Note: People who do not choose ebooks over pbooks are pretty much irrelevent to this discussion. The future of ebooks will not be decided on, or even greatly shaped by, people who want pbooks but are settling for a version they can’t touch, can’t smell, can’t rip the pages out of and make paper airplanes. People who want ebooks instead of or sometimes in addition to pbooks are the important demographic here.
Arguments in favor of ebooks generally say something like they’re easy and stable, or a lot of details that break down to they look just like paper, and act like paper on the screen. And those are very true, and compelling points for many people. Arguments against point out things like PDFs’ proprietary and anti-XML problems. (ETA Note: PDF is no longer proprietary.) Or they point out DRM nightmares, or how to waste time worth $150 on a $9 book.
People who’ve read my personal journal for a while know I love PDFs. I make them, I deconstruct them, I play with them; I edit the images, resize the pages, add table-of-contents bookmarks and links, annotate them and add form fields for others to use. I make PDF collections that are all interlinked with each other. I download PDFs of scans and run OCR programs on them and re-send them as searchable files. I make multiple versions–single-chapter documents and all-in-one documents. I bookmark where I left off reading long ones. PDFs are everything I wish paper books could be. I speak no ill about PDFs; I adore them.
PDFs suck as an ebook format.
They’re not designed for it. They’re designed to mimic paper on a screen, and they do that beautifully. They’re not designed to be read on a 3″ screen, or a 4×7″ screen. Even on a 21″ screen, they look odd–because pbooks are (generally) portrait-layout (taller than wide), and computer screens are landscaped. (The Word template I use to convert fanfic to PDFs for my own reading is landscaped, 1/4″ margins all around, 2 columns with a half-inch between them, 14-pt Fontin condensed by .2 pts, keep paragraphs together, 6 pts between paragraphs.) PDFs are a print-ready format, not an onscreen-reading format, not an archiving format, except that they imitate paper and take up a lot less space.
A lot of the arguments “in favor” of PDF ebooks seem to think there are a small handful ebook formats to choose from:
- PDF or EXE, which is a way of combining HTML files into a single format that’s only readable on Windows machines.
- PDF or Mobi or Lit, a choice between three proprietary formats, one of which only works on Windows machines.
- Of course, Amazon’s Kindle formats (AZW, TPZ) exists, although you can’t make .azw files or share them with anyone else–they’re made by Amazon’s software, and linked to your personal Kindle.
- A few people (outside the ebook fanatic community) are now aware of EPUB, an open-source multi-device ebook format. It’s touted in some areas as the ebook format of the future, as if we will, eventually, settle on a single ebook format usable by all devices. (I have my doubts. We don’t have a single format for pbooks–paperbacks, hardcovers,magazines, newspapers, children’s books and instruction-manual pamplets each have their own publishing industries. But it may be the future for ebook novels.)
But those aren’t the full range of ebook options. A quick look at the ebooks made for some of Cory Doctorow’s novels shows over two dozen different ways of reading content on a screen. Wikipedia lists more, and Mobileread invites you to collect the whole set. And that’s without getting into “digital photos of every page, showing your fingertips and the carpet behind.” (Maybe Cory needs a Carpet Edition of Down & Out, because J.K. shouldn’t have an ebook format that Cory doesn’t get.)
I’m digressing. The point is:
PDFs are limited in how many of those features they provide, and how many they can provide. I adore PDFs. Really. But the combination of their limitations, and the ubiquitousness of their creation-and-view software, means that we’re swamped with badly-formatted PDFs that don’t even do all of what PDFs could do. And at their best, for diverse and long-term usability, they pale in comparison to a good XML markup document.
There’s a lot of reasons people read ebooks. I haven’t gotten into those. They read them on a lot of devices. I haven’t discussed those, either. NONE of those devices are supposed to act “just like paper”… they are supposed to avoid some of the limitations of paper (it costs; it’s heavy & bulky; you can see through it; it fades in the sunlight; it wears out), and provide some features that paper can’t offer (searchability, remember where I stopped reading, fit a million words in your pocket, read in the dark, resize the text, permanent bookmarks w/o damage, jump between four books quickly, copy & pastability, read the same book on desktop, laptop, PDA or dedicated reader…)
Want to be able to print a document? PDF=good.
Want to read it in some form other than paper? PDF=less than optimal, at best. Unusable, at worst.