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Google Docs Gains Epub as an Export Option, But You Should Stick With the Other More Useful Options (PDF!)

11026746783_6d450cc7a4_hEarlier this week Google added a new export option for Google Docs which let you produce an Epub file from the webdoc you’re working on, but the new option is far less useful than one might hope.

From Google:

EPUB is the most widely supported file format for publishing accessible documents and digital books, allowing people to consume long-form content in their preferred apps on a diverse range of screen sizes and devices, including smartphones, tablets, and eReaders. To make it easier for authors, publishers, and academic institutions to create works that can be consumed digitally, today we’re launching the ability to export Google Docs files as EPUB publications.

Leaving aside that Epub is not all that widely supported, this export option is more hype than substance.

Tidbits took a careful look at the Epub output and they found that it could not make a usable to save its life. I can report that I got a couple Epub files that had been converted to all italics (plus a bunch of mostly usable Epubs – if you don’t mind the lack of metadata, TOC, etc), but Tidbits says that nothing worked.

They tried a dissertation, and the text was clipped at the right edge of most lines. Then they tried the text of one of their blog posts, and got an Epub where the images bled into the margins.

Even a basic ebook didn’t fare well:

Maybe simple documents without graphics can make it through Google Docs’ EPUB-exporting mill. To test that, I tried a page of a novel I wrote recently, a book that contains no images and precious little special formatting. Even something this simple broke when the exporter encountered italic text, adding an extraneous space after each italic.

Here’s what Tidbits posted as proof:

One could argue that they were trying too hard, but I think that one can’t know a service’s limitations without stress-testing, and so far as I know Tidbits is the only blog to push this export option to its limits.

Have you tried it? Did it work well?

If it didn’t you might want to consider using an alternative format like the nearly-universally supported PDF format. Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets all let you export a PDF file, and since we know it can be read virtually everywhere it’s clearly the better choice than Epub.

Then again, why would you want to export a file? Why not just share it online?

image by Lindy Buckley

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Byrdie March 10, 2016 um 7:57 pm

"Epub is not all that widely supported." On which planet, pray tell? I don’t care how universal they are, I truly hate trying to read PDF "books".

Nate Hoffelder March 10, 2016 um 8:02 pm

PDF is supported in virtually every web browser. Epub is supported by the people who make or read ebooks.

The former set is is significantly larger than and subsumes the latter set.

Peter March 11, 2016 um 5:22 am

I think that the best option is currently to use instead. It can also convert to mobi to be able to read on Kindle. I have pretty good experience with this service.

Frank March 11, 2016 um 11:04 am

Why would you want to export a file?

The advantage to exporting means devices that don’t have a browser, like e-readers can view the document. Also, older people that aren’t tech savvy would rather have a file than a link to Google docs.

Cyfranek March 11, 2016 um 12:49 pm

"Have you tried it? Did it work well?" – yes I did it yesterday. You can find some of my findings here: I was unable to generate EPUB while header’s styles (needed for generate TOC from chapter’s titles) were used.

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 1:07 pm


Anthony March 11, 2016 um 1:08 pm

I wonder if the tests used plain text or was it that they were copying and pasting from another location that brought over all the extra junk? Still, sounds like some bugs to work out. Also Apple’s iCloud web app 'Pages' has the ePub export function too, not sure how it compares. It would be good to open up an exported file in Calibre or Sigil and see what’s under the hood.

Nate Hoffelder March 11, 2016 um 1:40 pm

The Google Docs PDF errr Epub is a minimalist Epub with no sign of the tool used to make it. The several I tested passed EpubCheck.

Thanks for reminding me about iCloud; that option has been around since forever, but I only got access to iCloud recently and never thought to try it.

gingeroni March 11, 2016 um 4:59 pm

I did a ePub export of a personal gardening journal from Pages v5 a while back and it seemed to work well. Even the photos and tables were readable. I’ve switched since to LibreOffice because the latest Pages removed bookmarks which I use extensively. Not sure if LibreOffice supports epub and the conversion lost the photos and wrecked the tables anyway. At least it preserved my timestamps.

KS Augustin March 13, 2016 um 11:57 pm

OT: I have a background in IT and have used several Google apps. They fail to impress. This whole idea of Google having the best and brightest in the world is mega-hype. Wish they’d stop boasting and actually do the development & testing required before releasing anything. Amateurs.

dokidoki August 31, 2016 um 6:20 pm

I tried converting a short story of mine, written on Google Docs (so I can use the iPad when out) to epub. Well, technically it did good and made an exact reproduction of the story including all of the formatting.
Problem was, all of the text sizes were hardcoded into the document. On an e-reader, typical body text sizes tend to be in the region of 28-40pt because your eink screen is something like 800×600 and you want to see stuff clearly. On a printed page, the body text is more likely to be something like 12pt.
Even worse, since all the styles were baked into the document, the reader was unable to change any of them.
Google needs to realise that dead simple markup (even simpler than the days of HTML 2.0!) is the way to go. All this complicated stuff is ridiculous. I looked at the markup and nearly had a heart attack. In the end I copy pasted the plain text and did the markup by hand and assembled everything with Calibre.

As for PDF vs epub, they are only superficially the same thing – a way to get written content to the eyeballs of a user. Yes, PDF is extremely widely supported, however PDF is intended for presenting the user with a copy of your document exactly as you want it seen. There are various options to "reflow" the text, but these are usually varying degrees of fail. Epub, on the other hand, provides the content and maybe some basic markup (it is based on a very simple sort of xhtml) and then lets the user decide how they want to see it. Margin size, line spacing, text size…these things are my choices, not yours. I know my e-reader and I know my eyeballs.
I think in the future epub will become a more popular format. PDF is good on desktop devices and on big tablets, however it is generally a particularly unpleasant experience on smartphones and e-readers; so I can see epub making inroads here.

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[…] only can you edit a doc in Google Docs, you can even export it as an Epub ebook. You won't be able to edit it after you export the file, but that's okay because you can always […]

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