In this episode of the Digital Publishing Podcast (which you can find a full transcript of below), I talk about what PDF ebooks are still good for, the legality of selling Wikipedia content in an ebook, and a couple more great topics.

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You can also listen to the episode online by clicking the play button on the player below this. (If you don’t see the player, click here.) It’s about 18 minutes long.

  • 2:01 – 1. What are PDF ebooks still good for?
  • 8:14 – 2. When to start something new
  • 10:57 – 3. Selling Wikipedia content
  • 14:30 – 4. How to fail at creating a book series
  • 16:34 – Pick of the week

DPP044: Are PDF eBooks Worthless? Plus Selling Wikipedia Content and More

Hi everyone, I’m Tristan Higbee and this podcast is all about the things I see and would like to see in the world of digital publishing, including blogging, ebook and video creation, podcasting, and other things relating to internet business and online marketing. You can find a full transcript of each episode of this show at

I’m recording today in my hotel room in Kathmandu, Nepal, and this is not a quiet city, so I apologize if you hear bells, horns, construction, or voices in the background. Also, I’m holding the microphone in my hand because this hotel room doesn’t have a desk or table, so I also apologize if the volume varies slightly. This will actually be the last episode for a while, like 3 weeks or even a month. I’ll be trekking in the mountains here in Nepal and won’t have my computer or podcasting equipment with me. I will attempt to document my trekking adventure in blog form at The plan is to trek in the Everest region and possibly go to Everest Base Camp, weather and conditions permitting. I’ve already posted a couple updates there about Kathmandu, and you can check them out at

I’d really appreciate it if you rated this show in iTunes. Just go to and then click the blue “View in iTunes” button in the sidebar to rate and review the podcast in iTunes.

Ok, I’ve got 4 topics to talk about today, so let’s get started.

1. What are PDF ebooks still good for?

PDFI’m not a fan of PDF ebooks. I used to be. I still have a couple thousand of them sitting in a distant corner of my Dropbox account. The main reason I don’t like PDF ebooks is that they usually suck from a reader’s standpoint. When the person creating the ebook formatted the thing, they probably did it with a particular device in mind. So the ebook might look great and be very readable on a laptop, but it’s likely less than optimal on an iPad or Nexus 7 or smartphone.

On top of that, because you can create a PDF document as easily as a Word document, it’s really easy for people with no design experience to format a PDF ebook poorly with bad colors or unreadable fonts. I’ve probably seen more ugly PDF ebooks than good ones. Of course there are designers who can make great-looking PDFs, but the average person is not a designer. The situation reminds me of that famous Simpsons episode where Homer designs a car and it turns out to be this hideous monstrosity. He likes it, but no one else does. A lot of times, that’s what PDF ebooks look like when people who aren’t designers try to create them.

The PDF format itself was created to allow a document to be read on any device, but with more modern ebook-specific formats like MOBI and EPUB that provide much better reading experiences across devices, the question we need to answer is whether there is any place still in the world for a PDF ebook. Are there any circumstances in which you could or even should make a PDF ebook. My answer is… Yes. Possibly.

If I were giving away an ebook for free to a general audience and could for some reason only create a single version of it, I’d probably make it a PDF. If I were to charge for it, though, I’d also bundle with that PDF a MOBI and an EPUB version that people could load onto their portable devices and read more easily.

PDFs are a good choice if you want your ebook to have more advanced formatting. If you want multiple columns, for example, you’ll have to go with a PDF over something like the MOBI or EPUB. And if your book has a lot of detailed charts or graphs, PDF is the way to go. If your book has tons and tons of images, it might make sense to use the PDF format for file size reasons. What I mean by that is that the bigger the file size of your ebook (and usually a lot of images equate to a larger file size), the less money you’ll make from it if you sell it as a Kindle book, for example, because Amazon charges higher delivery fees for larger files and takes that fee out of your chunk of the commission. If your ebook gets to a certain point, it would make sense to go with Amazon’s 30% royalty option instead, as no delivery fees are charged then. I’ve never published on Apple’s iBookstore, but I’m fairly certain that for publishing an EPUB book there, there is no delivery fee, so even if your ebook is, heaven forbid, a gigabyte in size, you’ll still get a 70% royalty check. The downside is that if you create your ebook using Apple’s iBooks Author software, you can only sell your book in the iBookstore.

With a PDF, file size doesn’t really matter. Some of the services that host and let you charge for your ebook file may have a file size limit for individual pricing tiers, but if you need more storage, you can usually go up to the next tier with more space for a reasonable price increase. Like with e-Junkie, for example, their $5/month plan lets you sell files that are up to 50 MB in size. That should be plenty for the vast majority of ebooks out there, but if your ebook takes up 100 MB, you can go to the $10/month plan, or $15/month for the 250 MB plan. Or you can just store the ebook file on your own through something like Dropbox and then charge people through Gumroad for the link to that ebook. Then file size really doesn’t matter.

As much as I don’t like PDF ebooks, some people do like them. In the past, I’ve given away free PDF versions of an ebook that people buy through Amazon’s Kindle store.

Now having said all of that, I think that the number one reason to sell your book in an existing marketplace like Amazon’s Kindle Store is that those marketplaces already have audiences and customers. People who browse for things on Amazon are actively looking for something to buy. Don’t underestimate how much that can help drive sales. You don’t get that from selling a PDF on your own.

2. When to start something new

I’ve gotten really good over the past year or so at not starting new things that require serious time commitments. At least, I’ve gotten good at it compared to previous years. I’ve still created new ebooks and blogs, but they don’t require a whole lot of upkeep on my part, or in the case of some of the blogs, I created them for testing purposes and the plan from the beginning was to only have them going for a certain amount of time before finishing them. But I used to always be starting (or want to be starting) a big new project every couple weeks. I just had too many ideas and I wanted to do them all. The result was just about what you’d expect: none of them got the time or attention from me that they needed.

I do still have lots of ideas for things that I want to do. I just bought a new domain name from a guy for a new project, and it’s one that has a ton of potential and I’m really excited about it. But for the immediate future, I’ll just be sitting on the domain and not doing anything with it. One reason is that it more or less requires me to be in America and I won’t be back in America anytime soon. But I also just can’t justify the time away from my current projects. There is still so much that I have and want to do with what I’m already working on.

On top of all of that, even though it can be fun and exciting to work on a bunch of different things at once, it usually just ends up sucking because you feel like you’re spread too thin, and you can’t grow your projects to the point you’d like to. I have no interest in being in that position again.

One of the things that a lot of minimalist bloggers recommend when trying to manage clutter is the “one in, one out” policy. The idea is that if you buy something new, you need to get rid of something old. This way, the total amount of stuff you have won’t grow. I think the same principle is good for managing your workload clutter. Once you get to the point where you don’t really have any more time or energy for new projects but still want to do new things, stop one of your older existing projects before starting the new one.

3. Selling Wikipedia content

This is based on a blog post that I wrote a year and a half ago, but I wanted to revisit it. Here’s the question: Can you take Wikipedia content, repackage it, and sell it (as an ebook, for example)? Is that legal? I did some digging, but before I get to what I found out, I do have a disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. I am not providing legal advice here, and you should seek proper legal advice before taking any action based on what you hear here. In other words, don’t blame me if you get sued for stealing content.

So let’s say you want to take a bunch of different Wikipedia articles about volcanoes and combine them into a single ebook all about volcanoes. Maybe your plan is sell it as a cheap Kindle ebook or something. To answer the question of whether it’s legal to resell Wikipedia content, let’s turn to Wikipedia itself. From the Reusing Wikipedia Content page, we get the following:

“Wikipedia’s text content, in a nutshell, can be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (CC-BY-SA)”

Ok, so we need to figure out what the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license says. For that, let’s go to Wikipedia’s Text of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License page. And I’ll be linking to all of these pages in the show notes, of course. That page says:

“You are free to share or remix the work as long as you attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor. If you alter, transform, or build on the work, you can only distribute the resulting work under the same license. “

Note that there’s nothing about using the content for non-commercial purposes only. So if I understand it correctly, you can indeed take Wikipedia text content and sell it. That’s backed up by the following line from the Reusing content outside Wikimedia page.

“In the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC-BY-SA), re-users are free to make derivative works and copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, even commercially.”

It’s those last two words that we’re interested in—“even commercially.”

But according to the “share alike” clause mentioned, you can’t copyright your work. You couldn’t take a bunch of Wikipedia articles, combine them into an ebook and maybe edit them a bit, and then slap your copyright on there, saying that no one else can reproduce or copy the ebook. You’d still have to release the ebook under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. I suppose this means that other people could even take your ebook and sell it themselves.

So yes, you technically could sell Wikipedia content, but you’d have no real ownership over the content. You could sell it, but I don’t know if anyone would be interested in buying it. If you want to read more of what I wrote about this topic, including using images found on Wikipedia, I’ll include a link to my original article in the show notes.

4. How to fail at creating a book series

I’m not a fiction author. All of my 40-something ebooks are nonfiction, and you fiction authors out there have my admiration, because writing fiction is something that I’m almost physically incapable of. I’m horrible at it. But I do read fiction and I look at a whole lot of fiction on Amazon, and I want to issue a word of warning. You fiction authors need to be careful when writing a series of books. I’m seeing more and more bad reviews of what seem to be otherwise good books on Amazon where the reviewer is essentially mad that what is in the book isn’t a self-contained story. There’s no resolution, the readers are left hanging, and they need to buy the next book just to figure out what happens.

Readers don’t like this. If you’ve got a series of books, sure, not everything will be resolved in a single book. But you also can’t leave the readers hanging completely. Just think about the Harry Potter books. Each book has its own story arc that is completely resolved by the end. Throughout a single book, new things pop up that relate to the overall story that’s happening over the series of books, and readers usually have some new questions by the end of the book, but Harry’s year at Hogwarts has come to an end and main story of that particular book has been resolved. That’s how you keep readers happy but also keep them interested in picking up the next book. Otherwise, even if your story is compelling, people are going to be mad that what they paid for was unsatisfactory, and they’re being forced to buy the next book. The reviews of your book will reflect that dissatisfaction.

Pick of the week

Her Packing List

Her Packing List

And that now brings us to my pick of the week. This is where I pick one useful thing to share, and it can be an app, a website, a podcast, or anything else I find valuable. My pick this week is short and sweet. It’s a blog called Her Packing List, and it’s at It’s all about travel gear lists and gear reviews that are aimed specifically at women. Some of the recent blog posts there are How to Pack for Study Abroad in China, Five Items That Saved My Camping Trip in the Canadian Rockies, and a review of a travel clothes line made by Rick Steves. I think this blog is a great example of a niche within a niche within a niche. It’s not a general travel blog, it’s not even a blog about travel gear, but it’s a blog about travel gear for women. It’s a neat idea of how to create a blog in a niche that has a billion other blogs already, but do it in a way that is still different. Again, you can check it out at

Final words

And that’s all for episode 44 of the Digital Publishing Podcast. Be sure to check out for complete transcriptions and other blog posts there at the blog.

Please don’t hesitate to email me any questions you might have regarding digital publishing. I love talking about this stuff, and I’d love to help you out. You can follow me on Twitter by going to That will redirect you to my Twitter account, since my name is a bit tricky to spell. If you do follow me there, be sure to say hi. And again and as always, I’d really appreciate it if you went into iTunes and rated and reviewed this podcast, and thanks for listening.