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Willus.com's PDF Conversion Tips
for e-readers
Last updated Dec 2020
Back to Willus.com's K2pdfopt
I've been on mobileread.com since 2011, regularly reading the PDF forum, and probably the most common question from new members regarding PDFs is about the best way to view them on e-readers such as the Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.

The number one most common response I've seen from experienced e-reader users is that PDF is just about the worst source format there is for displaying on e-readers or for converting to other e-reader-friendly formats (such as epub or mobi). The number two most common response is to recommend that if you are serious about reading PDFs, you should buy a tablet rather than an e-ink reader. But still there is no denying that PDF is probably the most common document format used today and that many users desire to use their (e-ink) e-readers to view PDF content.

So here are some tips and links to help you for converting / displaying PDF files on your e-reader. Be patient and persistent. It may take you more than one try to get something you find acceptable, because what is acceptable or a good solution for one person is often not a good solution for another person. It very much depends on your end goal (e.g. whether you want to convert PDF to a mobile format for a wide audience, or just for your own personal reading).

Let me preface this by saying that I prefer open-source solutions, and I of course think my own k2pdfopt is a very useful tool for reading PDFs on an e-reader. That said, if you want to truly convert your PDF to an e-reader format like epub or mobi, and you already have a recent version of MS Office, try loading your PDF directly into MS Word. MS Word can convert PDF files to Word documents amazingly well (another example here). Microsoft refers to this as PDF Reflow, and it has been available since MS Word 2013. Word's PDF Reflow even automatically finds the text in scanned/bitmapped PDFs and uses (quite accurate) optical character recognition (OCR) to convert it to editable text characters in the Word document. Once you have your PDF file in MS Word format, you'll have a lot more capability to manipulate it into other formats and/or form factors. For example, you can use the free e-book management utility, calibre, to convert .docx to epub/mobi, or you could use Writer2ePub, ePub Tools--a Word add-in, or pandoc (cross platform).

The grand central station for advice from experienced users on anything and everything about e-reading is mobileread.com. There you'll find a group of knowledgeable and helpful individuals who can offer you advice. In particular, try these links:
    E-reader formats forum
    PDF forum
    "Which one should I buy?" forum (often has questions about PDF viewing)
    MobileRead Wiki on E-book Conversion
    Here are some specific MR threads on the topic:
        Optimize PDFs form archive.org for E-Ink devices (last post Feb 2020--good discussion of using ScanTailor)
        Ultimate PDF to Epub/Mobi conversion tips (last post Dec 2016)
        Good way to convert PDFs to epubs on the mac(last post 2017)
        Perform OCR on PDF and convert to Text/Epub/HTML (last post Nov 2015)
        Converting PDF to Epub (last post Oct 2014)
        Convert PDF to readable format (started 20 July 2014)
        Crop PDF pages permanently (last post Nov 2015)
        Budget tablet to read scanned PDF (started 10 June 2014)
        Kindle keyboard vs. Paperwhite for PDFs (started 5 April 2014)
        Tutorial: Formulas to PNG (started 24 Sep 2013)
        Converting PDF to mobi and having it come out right (started 2 May 2013)
        Kindle Paperwhite and PDFs (started 18 Dec 2012)
        PDFs on a small screen (started 29 Dec 2012)
        Ultimate PDF to Epub/Mobi conversion tips (started 12 Dec 2011)

Stack exchange, a collection of question and answer sites, has an e-books site. Here are some examples:
    Reading PDFs on kindle devices
    How to crop PDFs permanently in Acrobat (from SuperUser.com)

One of the most popular cross-platform, open-source packages for converting among e-book formats, including PDF files, (and for maintaining e-reader libraries) is calibre. But you probably want to read these links first:
   MobileRead's "Read This First" Post about calibre PDF conversions
   calibre's PDF conversion "official statement"
   MobileRead's calibre forum

Another popular package is mobipocket creator, which is also free and imports PDF files, but is available only for MS Windows.

Some commonly used freeware PDF utilities, many of which are discussed on mobileread's PDF forum, are listed here. These can often be used either stand-alone or in conjunction with calibre to get a good conversion. I'm a little biased towards the first one. ;)
    k2pdfopt Optimize the PDF layout for a smaller screen
    Briss Crop PDFs using intuitive, Java-based GUI; no development since 2012
    PDFtk PDF tool kit
    Coherent PDF (cpdf) Command-line PDF manipulation utility to merge/split/encrypt/etc. based on an open source library written in Caml. This is the most powerful PDF command-line tool I've found--fast, efficient, and flexible. Unfortunately, the command-line binary is not open source and has a very restrictive demo license, so I also recommend qpdf, which is truly open source, but not quite as powerful. Here are several examples of what you can do with cpdf.

Example commands

Take pages 5-10 from file1.pdf and pages 4, 6, and 20 from file2.pdf and put them in out.pdf.
   cpdf file1.pdf 5-10 file2.pdf 4,6,20 -o out.pdf

Encrypt file.pdf password "mypassword" using AES-256. Output is out.pdf.
   cpdf -encrypt AES256ISO mypassword mypassword "" file.pdf -o out.pdf
    QPDF Recommended. Open-source, cross-platform, swiss-army-knife, command-line PDF manipulation utility to merge/split/encrypt/etc. Written in C++ and under active development as of 2018. Here is a statically compiled Win64 binary. Qpdf is much faster than java-based equivalents like jpdftweak and pdfsam.

The command-line syntax takes some getting used to. Examples help. Here are two.

Take pages 5-10 from file1.pdf and pages 4, 6, and 20 from file2.pdf and put them in out.pdf.
   qpdf --pages file1.pdf 5-10 file2.pdf 4,6,20 -- --empty out.pdf

Encrypt file.pdf password "mypassword" using AES-256. Output is out.pdf.
   qpdf --encrypt mypassword mypassword 256 -- file.pdf out.pdf
    Sejda Shell Interface    PDF command-line tool similar to PDFtk, java based
    Jpdftweak Java-based PDF manipulation utility like qpdf and pdfsam; GUI or command line.
Recommend qpdf instead if you are okay with the command line.
    PDFSAM PDF Split and Merge--open source and Java based; GUI or command line
I had trouble getting the command-line version to run. Recommend qpdf for that.
    PDF Scissors Similar to Briss; on-line tool
    ScanTailor Advanced (also ScanTailor) Interactive post-processing tool for scanned pages; open source; new development fork started 2017 after no development since 2012
    ReadablePDF Linux-based scanned PDF post processing (uses ScanTailor)
    PDFMasher Similar to k2pdfopt; no development since 2013
    PaperCrop Similar to k2pdfopt; no development since 2012
    Cut2Col Java based, similar to k2pdfopt; no development since 2012
    PDFRead Similar to k2pdfopt; no development since 2011
    SoPDF Similar to k2pdfopt; no development since 2008

There are several custom-written PDF reading apps for e-readers which have been designed to provide a better experience than the built-in readers. Many of these require you to jailbreak your reader, so they are not for the faint of heart:
   KOReader for the Kindle Touch and Paperwhite
   KOReader for Kobo
   Liberator for the Kindle 4

As stated at the top of this page, I've found that MS Office does very good PDF conversions. On mobileread.com, I'd estimate that by far the most commonly mentioned commercial software packages for handling PDF files are ABBYY Fine Reader (particularly for quality OCR) and Adobe Acrobat Professional. I've also tried Able2Extract and it worked well on both native and scanned PDFs and has a trial version.

For reading PDF files, I use Krzysztof Kowalczyk's Sumatra PDF reader: a small, efficient, yet feature-rich open-source PDF reader. Sumatra also displays several file types other than PDF, including XPS, DJVU, CBZ, CBR, and PS/EPS (PS/EPS requires Ghostscript), EPUB, and MOBI. As of 2016 the SumatraPDF install consumes 12 MB of disk space versus Adobe Acrobat Reader's 200 MB of disk space (Acrobat Reader also takes much longer to install).

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