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You’re Printing it Wrong

30 January 2012

I have a real love-hate relationship with pdf E-books.  After designing my first book outline for a diary, I developed an appreciation (contempt) for the difference between MS Word and publishing software.  Every time I made the slightest change, it would throw off the whole rest of the document and expand my vocabulary.  Once I did get it all correct, I “printed” it to a pdf and the formatting was locked, avoiding any surprises when the printer opened the file.  I totally understand the value of the pdf ideals.

On the other hand, frustration is inevitable when trying to view a pdf on a tablet or E-reader.  You have to zoom, twist, or wait to see the blasted thing.  The difficulty in viewing pdf files on these devices made me think that it was time to move on.  The problem is that other E-book styles (EPUB and Mobi) either don’t have very good tools for creation, or the fluid formatting can limit the look and style.  Sure you could tell me about great Apple products for creating E-books, but my experience leads me to believe that “Standards Compliant” is a term not included in Apple’s lexicon.

Then it occurred to me that the problem wasn’t the pdf, it was that most people were still writing for standard sheets of paper.  One night while trying to get to sleep, I wondered what the diagonal “screen” size of a piece of paper was.  I’ll ignore the whole aspect of trying to read a document in portrait orientation on a wide (landscape) screen for now, but here are a few calculations I made.






8.5” x 11”


Approx 3:4


Half Letter

5.5” x 8.5”


Non standard screen ratio


Quarter Letter

4.25” x 5.5”


Approx 3:4


Put simply, a letter sized sheet of paper is twice the size of an iPad, and four times the size as a 7” tablet screen.  Your well formatted paper will either be shrunk or the reader will have to scroll to see it all.  I’ve used the smaller paper sizes for ages because I envisioned my work as a paperback and having never thought of screens.  I realize now that I might keep these styles for any electronic publications I might produce.

So I go back to my little nod of the Steve Jobs explanation about holding the iPhone 4 incorrectly.  The problem with pdf E-books isn’t the format but the paradigm of writing for paper.  Some professionals may already know all about this (and do it anyway).  For the occasional publisher of E-books and documents, consider the media as well as your audience.  Changing your paper size could make your work a lot easier to read and create a better experience.


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