What’s the Difference Between an EPUB, a PDF and a Digital Publication?

Demystifying Electronic Publishing Formats

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It’s important to understand how to best publish learning materials for your organization’s employees. When creating a publication, you need to understand the differences between the various output formats and tools you can use.

What tools are best to create different publications? What are the differences between an EPUB, PDFs and digital publishing?

With so many options out there, it could take a while to discover what the differences are for each competing standard. Here are tips that will put you ahead of the learning curve as you assess your workflow and create your first publications.

When setting out to create such a publication, there are some important differences to consider, such as what platforms the publication will be viewed on, what will be the focus of the content, the design needed to reinforce your message and other factors related to content and business strategy.

Only when this decision-making process is completed will you truly be able to determine what the best tool is to create the publication and whether any additional features or development efforts outside of the design need to be included in the project plan.

An Introduction to Electronic Publishing (ePublishing) Technologies Formats

Let’s begin by defining EPUB, PDF and digital publications, thanks in part to DifferenceBetween.net:


The electronic publication format (EPUB) is one of the most popular file formats for e-books.

An EPUB is similar in some ways to a Web page, because it is based on HTML markup at its core. It is an open and freely available standard anyone can use that. An EPUB e-book is an archive containing several other files stored together using the common .zip format (and then changing the file suffix to .epub).

The files in an EPUB archive can include your words, images, tables of contents, style sheets, fonts and details or metadata about a book, such as an author or title.

EPUB’s standard format means your publication can be read on many e-readers or converted easily to other e-readers that don’t use EPUB directly. EPUB is a layout-agnostic format that allows the content to be read even on small screens.

EPUBs can be created for and sold on iBooks and Amazon for the Kindle among other monetization paths and digital publishing stores.

The EPUB specification continues to evolve. The current version of the specification, 3.0, was approved in 2011.


A Portable Document Format (PDF) is an open-specification file format maintained by Adobe that allows documents to be easily shared while keeping the same visual formatting. It is page-oriented and has a static layout, while an EPUB is display-oriented and allows content to be dynamic.

Although PDF files are read easily on computer screens, they are not compatible or very usable with some mobile devices that have smaller screens.

Digital Publications

Beyond standards like EPUB and PDF, there are some emerging “digital publication” formats competing for adoption.

These publications often focus around interactivity and rich media display, eschewing flexibility in a display for immersive and engaging design.

When creating a marketing publication, interactive elements that enrich the user’s experience such as video, audio, slideshows, and animation are beneficial to enhancing the user’s experience. Coupled with attractive navigation design option, the layouts and structure possible are virtually limitless.

These formats are becoming familiar to users since they are more and more popular in the publishing marketplace with major publishers like Condé Nast getting on board.

Authoring Tools

There are many different authoring tools to choose from when creating these publications. Some of the more popular tools out there are Sigil, Adobe Digital Publishing Suite, iBooks Author, and Adobe InDesign.

A sigil is a free tool with which to create EPUBs. The software was designed to allow designers to easily create great e-books using the EPUB format since the core of an EPUB is XHTML, SVG, and CSS.

Sigil has the following features:

  • Multi-platform authoring
  • Complete control over directly editing a code
  • Table of Contents generator
  • User interface translated into many languages
  • Supports import of HTML files, images, and style sheets
  • Documents can be validated

Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS), Adobe InDesign and Apple iBooks Author are examples of the tools you can use when creating a digital publication. These types of publications are great for magazines, catalogs or immersive interactive publishing experiences.

Using a cloud service called Adobe Site Catalyst, you can perform marketing analysis on the publication’s usage, which you can use for custom HTML tracking, determining the number of issues downloaded and purchased.

A table on Wikipedia listing of popular publication-editing software comprises tools available for both Mac and/or Windows platforms.

Content and Best Practices

No single set of best practices exists for creating all digital publications across the various platforms and delivery systems. It’s up to you to consider the different content you might have available or want to display when creating a publication. For example, a magazine, catalog, document, brochure, and book each have their own different set of best practices.

EPUBs are great for books while PDFs are best for documents and brochures. If the content requires enriched interaction or is appropriate as a magazine or immersive interactive experience, then a digital publication is what you want. Greg Albers, an admitted critic of DPS as publishing methods, discusses six things to keep in mind on his website.

Here are examples of different content types of publications:

  • Magazine
  • Catalog
  • Document
  • Brochure
  • Book

Let’s explore some professionally designed and publically available examples of each of these publication types:
Louis C.K. on the cover of Rolling Stone

Magazine: Rolling Stone Digital Edition

A magazine can be an experience with rich interactive elements to keep people intrigued and immersed. Rolling Stone has rock-star interviews, movie reviews, and coverage of rock music news that are engaging. The user can view photo slideshows, scroll through articles, watch videos, and listen to streaming samples of music. This type of publication is a great example of what you could create with Adobe Digital Publishing Suite or iBooks Author with some time, talent and access to great content

Asos digital publication

Catalog: ASOS

ASOS is the UK’s largest fashion design and beauty store, with publications tailored for both men and women. Their fashion/style catalog provides an interactive shopping experience for users. There are editorial pieces in the publication in addition to items for sale from the company in this app. After creating a DPS catalog, the company’s revenue increased, and orders placed through the app are 30 percent higher than those placed online (source). This is just one example of a unique take on the traditional catalog and shows some interesting possibility when the lines are blurred between catalogs and magazines. For more info on the ASOS publication, check out this video at Adobe’s site.


Brochure: Accenture Publication

An interactive EPUB example is an informational and educational learning application that can also be used for marketing. The Accenture application consists of their marketing strategy, eCommerce, social media, experience management, content and campaign management. Users can bookmark favorite articles, share articles, watch videos and listen to podcasts. This publication is one of the featured publications created with Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. However, it could also be created using a tool such as BlueGriffon.



Book: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Below is an example from Therese Anne Fowler’s historical novel, “Z: A Novel of Ella Fitzgerald.” You can see the cover on the left, the table of contents, and then the chapters on the right. Readers can also read Z at various sizes. BlueGriffon, Sigil or Calibre are examples of tools you could use to create this publication


Document: Frigoglass PDF Annual Report

An example of an interactive PDF is Frigoglass’ Annual Report. It allows users to easily access information that they want to view through section navigation through the Table of Contents page. Users can search, print and access Web links for additional information. This type of publication is what you could create with a program such as Adobe InDesign, Quark or Pages.

Tying It All Together

Still a bit confused? Here is a summary table of the differences between EPUB, PDFs and digital publications:

Category EPUB PDF Digital Publication
Viewable on Various Platforms
Popular Authoring Tool
Adobe Acrobat
Adobe InDesign
Custom XHML, CSS and JavaScript
Appropriate Content Types
Image Sequences
Pan & Zoom Images
Scrollable Frames
Embedded HTML
Immersive Experiences
Marketing Analytic Capabilities


So what type of digital publishing end product should you create? Hopefully, now with the information you know about the platforms and tools available, you’ll be able to answer that for yourself.

The correct platform choice depends greatly on the content you are designing for, the user experience you’re trying to create, and what type of market you are trying to reach. Once you determine these, you just need to choose the correct tool and delivery mechanism that can be used to develop the solution.

Hopefully, the information provided here will help steer you in the right direction and clear up any confusion on the differences between publication methods.

If you are ready to dive in and get designing, check out my previous post on How to Create an EPUB in Adobe Digital Publishing Suiteor if you’re curious to see what Adobe Digital Publishing Suite means for mobile learning, click here.

Are you creating great digital publications for use in your organization? Or do you need help getting going in the right direction? We want to know about it. Leave us a comment and send us links so we can check them out.

Meanwhile, download our free EPUB, Putting Learning Into Motion!

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Heather is a UI/UX specialist for Float. Heather takes the lead on all aspects of the user interface process including design and testing. She is responsible for providing the data layer design, resources and alternative paths in order to accomplish objectives using in-depth Web and application design and development experience.

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On May 9, 2013
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One Response to What’s the Difference Between an EPUB, a PDF and a Digital Publication?

  1. Tyus Durant says:

    Good article but some of the things you have listed are not exactly true. With ePub you can add slideshows, and other interactivity with JavaScript or jquery. It does take a few tweaks to the HTML that comes out of indesign or whatever you you are using to make it. There have been a series of articles on the web about how to do it and I personally have experimented with it. The real problem with epubs is they can not be viewed in the default browser. If they can ever find a way around that I really think you will see that standard take off.

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