Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

PDF is preferable to ePub, even on small screens

Over a period of months, I’ve been moving my fiction from Medium to this site. Only two pieces have still to be moved: my novel A Falling Body and a longish (7,500 word) three-part story that I’m not happy with and that I think needs to be rewritten or abandoned.

I originally wrote A Falling Body in eight chapters averaging 9,000 words each. For posting to Medium I split each chapter into four (or in one case six) smaller parts. So, the Medium version consists of 37 individual HTML pages. I’ve decided to reintegrate the chapters to post them here in nine parts (eight chapters plus three short appendices).

Looking at the vanity metrics on Medium, I notice that the first part of A Falling Body is still getting page views and reads, but these fall off precipitously after three or four parts. Some of the later parts of the story have had no views at all, and none has more than a handful. Much the same is true of the other stories that I’ve posted in multiple parts: Dear Old Stockholm, a 21,000-word novella in six parts; and “Protected”, a 9,500-word long short story (or novelette) in five.

Because of this rapid fall-off in views, I’ve been thinking that I should, at the end of each part, offer readers the option of downloading the whole story as a PDF. I have in the past been dismissive of ebooks and I’ve no intention of recanting my criticism. It does strike me, though, that PDFs avoid at least some of the disadvantages of ePub (and the related Kindle formats). If the ePub imitates the printed book in arbitrary, unconvincing and often unnecessary ways, the PDF is at least a closer approximation, though of course it too fails to replicate the physical characteristics of print.

In other words, I think the conventional wisdom may be wrong about the relative merits of ePub and PDF in the online dissemination of long form writing. As I understand it, the prevailing view is that ePubs are preferable because of their flexibility. The text will reflow to fit the viewport, making it possible for someone to read the same document on any arbitrarily sized screen, from tiny phone to enormous desktop monitor. The reader can choose the font size and (within fairly tight limits) face, easily search the text and add bookmarks and annotations.

What I think this argument gets wrong is that, while the sizes and proportions of the screens may vary widely, most people are going to want to view the text in a window that doesn’t diverge hugely from the dimensions of a typical book. Phones are bigger than they used to be, so I think it’s safe to assume that almost nobody will be reading on a screen smaller than 5". I calculated that a screen which is 5" diagonally will be 2.8" in width and 3.78" in height, and used that as my starting point. Having tried out several possibilities, I eventually settled on 4" × 6", with a font size of 10pt and quarter-inch (18pt) margins. I could read the resulting PDF on the 4" screen of an iPod touch, albeit in landscape mode.

I opened the same PDF on an iPad and a two notebooks (one Mac, one Windows). They all zoomed in, so that the text appeared quite large, but it wasn’t outrageously so. I think I’ve found my optimal page size.

HTML is still my preferred format, even for long texts, but I accept that some readers would prefer an offline-readable version of the text, contained in a single document. For these purposes, I’ve concluded that PDF is a less unsatisfactory format than ePub. Besides, it gives me an excuse to play with the Paged Media module of CSS.

Posted by Art on 27-Jun-2020.