Why Can't I use a PDF? – The Differences Between eBooks and Books Designed for Print

What exactly is an eBook? What does it look like? And why do PDFs need to be converted? If you've found yourself asking these questions, you're not alone – Publish Green can help clear up some of the mystery for you.

What are eBook formats and why does my PDF need to be converted?

If you have a PDF, this means that you already have an electronic version of your book. It seems like this should be all you need, right? Unfortunately, it’s not. A PDF is actually very, very different from an eBook. A PDF is the file used to design your book for print; an eBook's main purpose, on the other hand, is to be read on an eReader. eBooks have a very different internal structure, and are meant to be manipulated. In fact, that's one of the biggest draws for people who use eReaders. Users can choose their own font, change the size of the words, increase line spacing, margins and more. Unlike a PDF or a print book, the two major eBook formats, MOBI and EPUB, are designed to allow this level of flexibility. For your eBook to take full advantage of an eReader's capabilities (and for it to be sold through the major eBook retailers) it must be available in one or both of these formats.

What makes an eBook different from a print book or PDF?

Unlike a printed book, an eBook is “flexible,” meaning that it can be manipulated in many ways. Print books and PDFs, on the other hand, are essentially immovable. We like to use the comparison of a rock and a piece of clay.

The rock – in this case, the print book or the PDF – cannot be altered in any way unless it is physically damaged. The contour of the rock will always be the same, no matter how hard you try to change it. Similarly, the layout of a print book or a PDF will always be the same. You cannot move the pages around. If chapter 4 starts on page 16 in the print book, it will start on page 16 in the PDF, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. If chapter 8 in the print book uses a special font for a section of a chapter – perhaps a handwritten note by one of the characters in the book – then chapter 8 of the PDF will display the same “handwritten” styled font. It is not so in an eBook.

An eBook, or the clay in this analogy, is much more malleable. Font size and style can be changed by the reader, as well as line spacing and "page" margin. Adjustments to these settings will affect how the words flow and break onto the next "page." Screen size affects how many words appear on the screen at a time, as well. An eBook displayed on the Kindle may contain more individual screens of text than one displayed on the iPad, since the screen size is so much smaller. Because of this "flowing" nature of the text in an eBook, each screen or "page" of text will never have a set page number, though some eReaders may automatically assign "page numbers" to each screen. These numbers will not match up with your print book, nor will they be the same from one device to another. They may even change on a single device if you adjust your settings. Like clay, your eBook will change and "re-shape" itself with every adjustment the reader makes.

Typesetting for Print vs. Coding an eBook

Just as your eBook looks different from your print book, it also requires a very different process to create and edit the files. When a designer typesets your book, they see the words on the page exactly as they will appear in the printed book. If they want to change spacing, it requires simply a few clicks of the mouse. If you need to make an editorial change, you can point out what page the error is on, and the designer can make the change, again, with just a few clicks.

An eBook, on the other hand, is created using code (much like a website). When your formatter works on your eBook, they are not seeing the words exactly as they will appear on the "page" or screen of an eReader. They see lines of code, and they must understand exactly how each line of code will translate to the eReader screen as they format. Making a change is not a matter of a few clicks. Any given change may require the formatter to change multiple lines of code, transform all of the code into an eBook file, and then finally see how the change translates to words on a page when the file is viewed on a device.

Though proper typesetting and eBook formatting both require trained professionals, creating and making changes to an eBook file can take significantly more time than typesetting and making changes to a print book. Again this is due to the fact that an eBook formatter works with the raw text and source code of the file. For this reason, changes that may seem simple or quick can often take longer than they may have for your print book, or require an additional cost.

Supported Features in eBooks

Aside from an eBook's highly malleable structure, it may also differ from your print book in terms of which features we can and can't reproduce in an eBook. Unlike a print book or PDF, where you can create virtually anything on the page you can think of, an eBook has limited abilities in what we are capable of creating. Special fonts or very fancy designs that are in your print book will not be in your eBook, or will be simplified, based on what we are able to do. For example, a heavily designed border around text in your print book will be formatted as a much simpler border or outline in the eBook. We are limited in this way for two reasons. 1) We use eBook-specific code (much like the code used to build a website) to create your eBook files. If we cannot recreate something in your eBook, it may be because the code used to build the file simply is not capable of producing that particular print design feature. 2) Sometimes, even if we can create a design feature using code, one or more of the major eReading devices may not be able to display it. This is what we mean when we say a particular device "doesn't support" something. Even though eBooks are all created from the same basic building blocks, eReaders are not uniform in the way they "understand" all of the pieces.

When Publish Green formats your eBook, we will get as close as we can to your original version while working within the limits of the eBook format. Your eBook will NOT be a mirror image of your print book, nor will it look the same from one device to another, but that is okay. The most important thing is that your eBook is clean and professional, and consists of a steady stream of text that can be read and adjusted on all eReaders. Read more about Publish Green's supported features.

What Goes into Creating Your eBook

Another part of what makes an eBook different from a print book or PDF is how exactly the files are created. When we make an eBook, we take your manuscript, break it down to its most basic parts, then rebuild it from the ground up using eBook-specific code, similar to what is used to create a website. Here is a look at the steps we take when creating your eBook:

  1. Strip out any headers, footers, endnotes, footnotes, page numbers, and other elements that interrupt the flow of text.
  2. Extract all the raw text from the manuscript (this is a more involved process if we are extracting from a PDF).
  3. Reformat the raw content using eBook-specific HTML (code) to recreate the style and design elements seen in print (ie. bold, italics, underlines, chapter headers, drop caps, etc.).
  4. Create the structure of the eBook by inserting prefaces, parts, chapters, sections, etc. that will reflect appropriate page breaks and table of contents hierarchy when viewed on a device.
  5. Recreate bulleted and numbered lists using HTML.
  6. Insert and hyperlink footnotes so readers can zip back and forth between the text and the corresponding note.
  7. Code hyperlinks for any outside websites that appear within the text.
  8. Insert images using specific code that tells the eReader how to display the image.
  9. Create a metadata file that will provide the device or software with pertinent information about the book, such as title and author.
  10. Create a hyperlinked table of contents that will be accessible in the navigation function of each eReader.
  11. Create eReader-specific title and copyright pages.
  12. Adjust the CSS (another type of code) of the file to reflect any universal styling that will apply to the entire eBook.
  13. Convert the HTML (the eBook's source code) to EPUB and MOBI formats (the actual file type recognized by eReaders).
  14. Test the files on each major eReading device.
  15. Make changes to the source code (now that we can actually see what all the code looks like on the eReader!), convert to MOBI and EPUB, and re-test as necessary.

Still have questions about why you need to convert your PDF and what makes an eBook different? Please contact us!

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