A hidden cost in PDF documentation

TidBITS magazine's "Publish (Electronically) and Perish?" is a cautionary tale of distributing printed works in PDF format. The authors of Real World GoLive 6 released a PDF version of their book and were swamped with so many download requests that they're facing bandwidth charges in the neighborhood of US$15,000.

The authors, Carlson and Fleishman, should be applauded for their pioneering efforts, and I hope some of the "blame" for the unintended consequence is attributed to the format they used -- PDF. Since Real World GoLive 6 was written for the printed page -- it's a 922 page book -- the decision to use PDF was a pragmatic choice. I'm sure it was a lot of work to create the PDF file, but certainly less work than exporting in a different format.

And that's a shame, because PDF files are inherently big. Especially when they're created from templates and source material that are optimized for the printed page. High resolution images, embedded fonts, footers and headers, page margins and numbers, -- all in the name of simulating a printed page in the onscreen world -- add to the size of the file. While it's possible to create a slimmer PDF that is optimized for onscreen use, it is rarely done because it mitigates the "publish anywhere with one source" mantra that is a cornerstone of the PDF story.

Carlson and Fleishman's intent was honorable. Do something nice and hope it spurs sales and good will. (A technique used by Cory Doctorow as well.) But while the siren lure of "let's make a PDF from our book" is strong, it is never without consequence.

Posted: March 25, 2003 link to this item, Tweet this item, respond to this item