Turning an epub into an attractive PDF

Turning an epub into an attractive PDF

(A technical post for those seriously interested in e-reading. Feel free to move on if you’re here for other things!)

I like the convenience of reading on a tablet, but I prefer annotating PDFs to reading in Kindle or epub. If I’m buying a book and taking notes, I want to save and read my notes right alongside the text and in the file later. I also want a visually appealing page, and a fixed layout. Yet often I can only get ebooks in epub. This means I often need to save websites, Word docs, and epubs to PDF before I read them on my tablet.

At first, I found it hard to get a “pretty” PDF from an epub file; the default conversion in Calibre produced ugly results. Because it took me a while to develop my system, I’m sharing what I’ve learned with other academic / non-fiction reading people, below!

How to Convert ePubs to an Attractive PDF

1) Download and install Calibre, a respected free application that will convert ebooks to and from many formats.

1.5) Buy ebooks that are DRM-free, so you can annotate, highlight, print, and convert at will. (Here I’d like to honor the publisher Verso for their 90% off Christmas sale last year, as well as for selling DRM-free ebooks that identified me as the purchaser, but let me fully modify them for my own use!)

2) Tick the red Add Books icon (top left) to import your ebooks. If you need a classic ebook to follow along, use the free ePub books at Project Gutenberg.

3) Once you’ve added 1+ books, select it or them, and tick the brown Convert Books button:

calibre convert books icon

4) In the pop-up window, stop and change output format to PDF,  top right. Do this before you change any other conversion settings:

calibre select convert to pdf

5) On the left, select Look and Feel (colorful paint jar). Under “fonts,” adjust your minimum line height to 130% to space out the text.

6) On the left, select Page Setup (the gears). Change your page margins to something like 50.0 pt on all sides, to get a white border for adding notes. (You can also “set output profile” here for e.g. “iPad 3.” But I find it easier to change page size in the next step.)

7) Select PDF output (blue arrow icon on left menu), then change settings:

calibre to pdf formatting page size and font

– first, tick “override page size set in output profile” to enter a custom page size. I use 6×9 inches for a full-size iPad.

– add page numbers for convenience — although they won’t match the printed book.

– set a “serif family” font. I use Book Antiqua. You can also download and try free reading fonts like Cambria, Musica, Bembo, and Remington.

– set a “sans family” font. Calibri is simple and easy; Arial is another good option.

– set a default font size. The best size all depends on the font you use. I usually go with 16 px or 18 px depending on the book; your eyes may want a bigger font.

Tip: Play with the page and font settings. You can always delete the PDF and re-convert, till you get something pleasing and comfortable for you to read.

8) Last, select OK at the bottom of the pop-up, and Calibre will convert your book. When it’s done, click on PDF or path to open. Below is what I created, which works well for me:

sample PDF page from White Noise by Don Delillo

Bonus: Automate these settings!  

Once you’ve played around and know what you like, expand the header bar and go to Preferences (gears): 

calibre preferences

Under Conversion — Common Options, change your default line height and margins. Under Output Options, change your PDF-specific settings, as above:

conversion change common options calibre

Once you’ve set these defaults in preference, the only thing you need to do is: Select as many books as you want –> Convert Books –> select “PDF” at the top right of the conversion pop-up. Everything else should be set!

(Sources consulted: GitHub, Maxrohde.com, MobileRead)


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