PDF is still preferable to ePub
But maybe the optimal page size is larger than I thought
This piece was originally posted on Medium in February 2021. I thought I was going to move my posts off Medium and delete my profile there, so I reposted this here. Then I decided instead to keep my Medium profile but use it with my own domain, so I’ve now posted this on Medium again!
Last summer, I wrote a post claiming that PDF is better than ePub, even on small screens. I argued that, though screen sizes vary widely, from 5” phone screens (or smaller) to 27” desktop monitors and above, most people don’t want to read a book or long document in a window that’s much different in size or shape from a typical book. I had been looking for the optimal, one-size-fits-all dimensions that would be readable on any sized screen, and I concluded that 4” by 6” was probably the best fit. But a few days ago, I was converting some HTML documents to PDF for the first time in a few months, and I noticed that I was finding that page size a bit too small.
At the same time, I had been thinking that anything that requires deep concentration — like reading a book or other long, complex document — was something that had probably best not be done on a phone. I’d recently been reading The Margins’ Ranjan Roy on the subject of Robinhood, the app that had been at the centre of the market turmoil over the short squeeze on GameStop stock. I was struck by this paragraph:
I opened up a Robinhood account very early on, but for me, the mobile-only functionality was a dealbreaker. I didn’t want to be trading “on-the-go”. If I wasn’t sitting at a desk, in front of a large screen, fully at attention, it was best not to trade. Sitting at a desktop is a different mindset, and that’s where I wanted to be if I was transacting.
I hadn’t given enough weight to the idea that reading something on a phone is a qualitatively different experience from reading the same thing on a tablet or larger screen. This was brought home to me more forcefully when I realized that Clubhouse, the newest app that’s supposed to revolutionize everything, is available on iPhone only. A babble of voices in a labyrinth of (who knows how many?) “rooms”, none of which can be recorded. Navigating that on a phone would be a real challenge to anyone’s concentration. How are you supposed to take notes?
What I’m trying to say is that, most of the time, people do different things on their phones than they do on larger-screened devices; and one of the things they’re unlikely to be doing on their phones is immersing themselves in your book, story or essay. So you don’t really need a version that can be read on a 5” screen.
To test this out, I redid two of the PDFs that are available for download on my website. Instead of 4” by 6”, the page size is now 5” by 7.5”. I doubled the margins from 18pt to 36pt. At first, I made them wider but I think that ½” is wide enough. Here are the two PDFs that I’ve republished with larger pages:
“Protected” (PDF): a longish short story (about 9,500 words) about a man who has been in witness protection since he gave evidence against his former friend and boss, a major VAT fraudster. Our narrator is back in Dublin after many years away, determined to tell the truth and nothing but. There’s a web version (in five parts) here.
“Sally Rooney: short story writer” (PDF): a discussion of three of Rooney’s short stories that can be read online (including “Mr Salary”). Here’s the web version.