E-publishing: Pros and cons of PDFs vs e-books

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Should you publish a PDF or an e-book—or both?

For most businesses, electronic publishing is the way of the past, present, and future. The e-book has been around in one form or another for nearly 30 years, though the joint venture between Amazon and Microsoft to create their own version in 2000 launched the e-book as we currently know it. Meanwhile, the PDF (portable document format) was introduced in the early 1990s and popularized by Adobe.

Today, both the e-book and PDF are popular vehicles for digital content aimed at prospective customers and a general business audience. These readers may access your content on a variety of devices and operating systems. And herein lies a common dilemma:

Should you choose one format that will cater to the greatest percentage of users (and devices) or create a version of the content in every format in an attempt to reach every possible user?

Each format has distinct advantages, but it’s important to understand the trade-offs. Let’s take a quick spin through the features of each format.

The pros and cons of PDFs

PDFs can be viewed on almost any modern device and operating system, and they are easy to export from programs such as Word, PowerPoint, or design programs such as Illustrator. (Users can also “print to” a PDF format.) As services to the reader, you can add hyperlinks, table-of-content (TOC) navigation, and linked pages. In addition, the newest Adobe software lets you create slide shows and embed videos.

Furthermore, thanks to the PDF’s prepress roots, a printed and bound book can easily be turned into a hyperlinked web PDF—and vice versa. For companies that publish regularly on their website, PDFs are the most appropriate option. In addition, PDFs can be secured with a password so others can’t copy your content or images.

Despite these features, PDFs are typically designed in a mostly static way; text isn’t scalable, so users must zoom in to read. They are also usually shaped in a print format size, such as US letter or A4. Users also need to have Adobe Reader or another PDF-specific application installed to open PDF files.

The pros and cons of e-books

E-books (or e-publications, as they are often referred to) come in two different kinds: reflowable and fixed format.

Reflowable e-books feature text that is scalable and selectable, making them ideal for tablet and phone users. This reflowable format is best for text-only or text-heavy offerings. Like PDFs, reflowable e-books support internal and external hyperlinks. A cool feature is you can easily transform a simple reflowable e-book into an audio book.

On the downside, the reflowable format doesn’t have any page numbers, so a photo could get cut in half or a tall chart might appear very small in order to fit next to its related text. Also, if the e-book file is not set up properly, a cache of photos that ideally should have fallen throughout the text might appear at the end of a chapter. A reflowable e-book can be designed to work with lots of visual elements if the file is set up correctly, but this step can take up a significant (read: prohibitive) amount of design time.

Fixed-format e-books lock layouts in place while keeping text selectable and searchable, so they function much like PDFs. This format is well suited for image-heavy offerings such as cookbooks, travel books, or art books and would also be well suited for a report with a lot of charts. Like PDFs, the design files of a fixed-format e-book can be exported into hard copies easily. Another perk is that you can embed fonts into fixed-format e-books; however, if you would like to embed your company’s branded fonts, you will have purchase a separate e-book font license.

A major downside of fixed-format e-books is piracy: since the content can’t be locked, the text can be copied and shared easily. Also, while this format does allow interior page links, it currently does not allow external hyperlinks.

If you are considering publishing an e-book, remember that not every e-reader supports the same files types. Amazon Kindle files are not the same type of e-book files as iBook—but you can convert certain e-book files to other files. So if you want your e-book to be available on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google, you’ll need to create or export different file types. Again, this effort can add significant design time to your project.

So what is the right format for your content?

Companies should address two important questions before moving forward:

Who are your main audiences and how do they consume your content?

The C-suite tends to consume content in a different fashion than Millennials, so consider your audience. If most of your readers have tablets and your company is publishing a long, word-heavy report, you might want to consider producing a reflowable e-book so readers can download it off of Amazon, Google, or iBooks. However, if you have a shorter report with lots of charts and your audience consists of senior executives who like to print and read while traveling, or who prefer emailing articles to their management team or clients, then a quick, downloadable PDF is more appropriate.

Do you have content worth selling? 

People are used to paying for e-books from their favorite author, but they might be less inclined to shell out money for a white paper or report unless it contains proprietary research or insights. Companies must balance whether it’s more important to reach a broad audience or to generate revenue from their thought leadership. Many e-books are free to download, so the advantage may come from placing your publication on a popular platform.

The answers to these questions will help you make strategic investments in the right format for your digital thought leadership.

Delilah Zak

The principal visualization artist at Leff, Delilah works collaboratively with the team to conceptualize and create all manner of graphic content, from public reports to management articles to standalone infographics and beyond.

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