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Four Reasons PDFs Are Better Than Epub

7515248418_93de6abd35_hEpub, Epub, Epub.

Ask anyone in digital publishing today and they will tell you that Epub is the be-all and end-all of document formats. This ones-size-fits-all format can do anything (just ask Bill McCoy).

Or, you could look past the propaganda and realize that there are better formats. PDF, for example, is better than Epub in many ways.

Here are four (out of dozens, so if you know of other reasons please  feel free to leave a comment).

#1 PDFs can be read on any platform

Pull a computer out of the box for the first time, and try to read an Epub on it, I dare you.  When that fails, search for the user manuals on the hard disk. Guess what format they’re in?

If you said anything other than PDF, you’d be wrong.

Name any device, beit a cellphone, smart fridge, pez dispenser, , and odds are good it can read a PDF. (And if it can’t, it won’t be able to read an Epub either.)


Getting this to display a PDF was easy. The real fun was in getting it to run Vi inside a DosBox being emulated in Linux booted off of Mac OS 8.

#2 PDFs can be made with just about anything

Not only can you make PDF as a print/export option for office suites, cloud office services, note-taking apps, it’s now a standard printer option on Windows 7. Tools to make PDFS are literally everywhere, embedded in every type of app.

Got a Touchpad, a Twinkie, and a tissue? You can make a PDF.

Got an old Psion handheld and a couple of Q-Tips? You can make a PDF.


HK Mark 0.1.1 here just made a PDF. Top that.

#3 Epub 3

'Nuff said.

motion gears -team force

#4 Compatability & Accessibility

Have you ever tried to take an Epub from say, Apple’s proprietary Epub format and convert it to say, Kobo’s proprietary Epub format? Ever try to extract the content from a fixed-layout Epub?

It goes something like this:


images by jurvetsonralphbijkerwheanyAdam Greig

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Bill Rosenblatt March 11, 2016 um 7:57 am


You’re absolutely right on #1. PDFs can definitely be read on any device. I especially enjoy reading PDF technical documents on my phone, such a wonderful user experience.

BTW while you’re at it, do a global search and replace on this article: replace "PDF" with "ASCII." You’ll get two articles for the price of one!

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 8:23 am

LOL I’ll do that!

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 9:40 am

And speaking of smartphones, I’ve had some problems reading Epub3 on small screens. Some developers hard code in margins not as percentages but as specific numbers. That doesn’t work with smartphone sized screens, not when the ebook was designed for a large screen.

With PDFs, at least you can zoom out/in, and scroll around. You can’t do that with an FXL epub, or most other types of Epub.

Pablo March 11, 2016 um 8:49 am


#1 You won’t be able to read a PDF in your computer until you have installed a PDF reader, or a PDF extension for your browser. Same for ePub, of course. Anyway, the ability to read a document in an out-of-the-box computer is not a very strong argument in favor of a format.

#2 While you can *export* to PDF easily, you still need some other software to make your document.

#3 ?

#4 Ever tried to extract the content from a PDF file?

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 9:37 am

PDF worked just fine on an OOTB Windows RT tablet, and I bet the same is true for Windows 8 and Win10.

4, Yes. I have to do it every so often. It usually goes okay.

Frank March 11, 2016 um 11:14 am

1. While Windows 7 doesn’t have a built-in PDF viewer, Windows 8/10 have a built-in PDF viewing application. All modern browsers can open a PDF without anything extra installed; modern means within the last few years.
3. I am also curious what is wrong with EPUB 3.

Mike Hall March 11, 2016 um 9:41 am


I am always suspicious of computer standards: too often they seem to have been an initiative pushed by certain groups to try to gain a commercial advantage – often to restrain a market leader – and frequently they prove less useful than their proprietary competitor.

I’m not saying that this is the case with EPUB – my brief research into its history has been remarkably uninformative – but I can’t help wondering if it’s development from OEB was pushed forward by a desire to counteract Amazon’s purchase of Mobipocket.

Do you have any thoughts on the history? Am I being unfair by suspecting peoples motives?

As for your preference for PDF, it has a lot going for it but you really need to tailor the files for the reading device once the screen size drops below 10 inches. Appropriately done and they’ll be fine on Bill’s phone, otherwise to be avoided.

Florian Cramer March 11, 2016 um 9:59 am

Regarding compatibility and accessibility: We’re dealing with multiple versions and iterations of the PDF format (including PDF/X), none of which are fully supported on anything but Adobe’s own Reader. Try to use any of the more advanced features of the PDF format -such as: advanced meta data, embedded multimedia content, reflowable layout, interactive elements – and you will see that they all fail on the PDF viewers people most commonly use, namely the "Preview" app of Mac OS X, the default PDF viewer on Windows, the built-in PDF viewer of Google Chrome. Because of this, PDF is stuck in being a digital blueprint of print documents and doesn’t adapt itself enough to screen reading.

Smoley March 11, 2016 um 10:58 am

I built my own bookscanner with dual DSLR cameras to digitize my entire library. Searchable PDF is the document format of choice for this task. There’s nothing else that will retain the formatting and typesetting of the original work short of saving gigabytes of image files. I can’t imagine trying to convert a calculus text full of diagrams and math symbols to something like Epub3.

S. J. Pajonas March 11, 2016 um 11:12 am

Okay, I’ll admit that this whole article made me laugh. I feel that each format has its benefits and uses. I don’t consider one to be "better" than the other. I often have to make all the formats anyway for my work because one place wants one format and another wants a different one.

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 11:16 am

Good. I meant this as a joke. I really did not intend for anyone to take it seriously.


DSpider March 11, 2016 um 7:44 pm

So this article is a joke then. I see…

Why is the third reason (EPUB 3) "’nuff said"? Because of a low adoption rate? Same can be said for PDF, you know. Creating a PDF with the latest Adobe Acrobat, using the optimisations for Acrobat XI and then trying to read it on a device that only knows how to read PDF up to Acrobat 8 or 9… it’s not gonna work.

EPUB is both a source file AND the end product. PDF is just the end product. Which means that EPUB files can be easily converted (remember, *SOURCE FILE*) into anything you’d like, including PDF. Ever try to convert a PDF? Not very pretty. Like, at all.

Apple’s version of EPUB is basically the same as the regular format, except with one or two extra lines for the cover. But Kobo’s version… well, let’s just say that they had to rename their format to ".kepub" because of all the DRM and the "non-standardness" of the internal formatting and all, so that’s not really EPUB now, is it?

John March 12, 2016 um 1:02 pm

“Apple’s version of EPUB is basically the same as the regular format, except with one or two extra lines for the cover.”

I guess, but perhaps I’m wrong, that Nate was pointing at the iBooks format (from iBooks Author) which, indeed, is a pretty hardcore fork of epub 3. Some of its widgets, which are managed at the iBooks app level, have made it to the epub 3 export by the way (and that is not supported anywhere else at the moment).

So, if you’re considering .kepub is not really EPUB, same for iBooks + iBooks Author’s epub 3 export.

Note: I’m not implying iBooks Author’s epub 3 export is not epub 3 (it is, with some proprietary stuff here and there, but it can technically be read using an epub app), just saying that by the ".kepub logic", Apple is one step further.

Will O’Neil March 12, 2016 um 12:57 am

Not as a "gotcha" but just as information for those who need to know, converting PDF is best and most flexibly done with ABBYY FineReader. FineReader will read virtually all PDFs (including encrypted files) and can output any of a wide variety of forms with high accuracy. It can also drive a scanner via TWAIN or WIA. It does have its limitations, particularly in mathematical text or with very unusual fonts. I’ve used it every day for years.

Robyn Bradley March 12, 2016 um 9:45 am

I’ll lighten the mood around here. I appreciate your blog, Nate, and this post in particular, but not for the reason you might think. I used to teach an intro writing course to first-year law students and one of my students called herself "The Bloody Writer" and sent me this funny gif (back in 2004-ish) of a person banging his head against the computer as he wrote. I told my student that writing can feel like that for us pros on occasion. The gif became "our thing," but I lost track of it over the years and didn’t know how to find it. Today, I saw it on your blog and had to pin it. I also sent it to my former student. 🙂 So thank you for reuniting me with the bloody writer. 🙂

Olivier March 12, 2016 um 11:29 am

Nate, why was the article a joke? Why publish jokes on this blog: to bulk it up? As clickbait?

Anyway, PDF *is* a superior format, at least if you care about books as objects. To your reasons I can adduce a fifth: production values for Epub ebooks are often appalling but the PDF, if available at all, will usually be derived from the master sent to the printer for the hardcopy edition and thus will be of high quality. I have a few books in both Epub and PDF and it’s like night and day.

The way centuries of typographic refinement were just thrown out the window with the advent ebook is just barbarism. And the people who consume ebooks and don’t feel anything amiss are barbarians.

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KS Augustin March 14, 2016 um 12:05 am

I fully agree with @Olivier. We run our Epubs through *two* Epub verifiers, then load them onto *four* different ereaders before sending them for distribution and still come up with formatting issues. Something that’s fine on three will crap up on the fourth. Unpredictably. It’s frustrating *and* barbaric.

PDF is so much easier on our hearts and sanity. As for needing "special" software to read PDFs, I use Book Bazaar on Windows and Okular on Linux. Both read Epubs and PDFs with no bother. The problem is, Amazon uses MOBI and Kobo, e.g., uses EPUB. PDF looks to be becoming a lost cause. Pity. If you could reverse this, Nate, that would be very much appreciated. 😉

Robert Nagle March 14, 2016 um 1:47 pm

It’s unfortunate that the implementation details for an epub reader turned out to be so hard. I’m no fan of pdf, but it’s really hard to ensure a uniform experience for epub. (Kindle is definitely one of the bigger problems, especially for Kindle ios apps). I have been pretty happy with how epubs render in the Play Books app though across platforms….

One of the maddening things about pdfs is that different readers have different fonts, so you’re never sure about which font to specify…

Robert Nagle March 14, 2016 um 1:48 pm

Sorry, I misstyped. I meant to say: One of the maddening things about EPUBS is that different readers have different fonts, so you’re never sure about which font to specify…

Anthony March 14, 2016 um 4:48 pm

"and here we have fixed format epubs…"
"so you mean like a PDF then?"

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