What’s the difference between a PDF and a Flipbook? 

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Written by Paul McBride

Working with publishers, marketers, and content creators across different markets has given us the opportunity to check out a diverse collection of digital publications over the years.

As the variety of devices, from desktop to mobile, that people can read on and the digital publishing software industry itself has evolved over the last 10+ years, the question, “How can I publish digital content online?” has more answers than it once did. In this article we’ll take a look at two of the most common methods, and dig into the differences between a PDF and a flipbook.

A Brief History of the Flipbook

If the PDF opened the door to digital publishing, the flipbook can then be considered its spiritual successor. The flipbook came to the market in the late 90s and early 2000s.

What is a digital flipbook?

Product Catalog designed in PageRaft and displayed on an iPad and iPhone

A flipbook is a digital reading experience that recreates the layout of a print publication(like magazines, catalogs, brochures and more) or conventional digital PDF, by displaying content left to right, and usually having some sort of page flipping animation, as opposed to the scrolling nature of a PDF document.

The idea behind the flipbook concept was to create a more engaging and interactive digital experience that could go beyond simply having a digital document, by taking advantage of features available on the web at large.

Flipbooks generally start life as a PDF prior to being converted to the final product. The converted PDF can then be made interactive by adding elements such as email links, links to other web pages, animations, embedded videos, and other web specific features.

A Brief History of the PDF


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We’ll start with PDF, or portable document format, basics. If you’re on the internet, you’ve come across this file format. Adobe brought this solution to the public back in the early 90s as a way to remove paper from the workplace. If you’re counting, that means the technology is almost 30 years old.

Can you think of any other digital technology you’re using today that is 30 years old?

Aside from naming the keyboard and mouse, it might be tough to do!

To put it simply, the introduction of the PDF changed the digital landscape. The idea behind creating the PDF was that you could present or read a document exactly as it was designed, without having to own specific software, hardware, or operating systems. The PDF was a proprietary format for Adobe until 2008, when it was released as an open standard.

What Made the PDF Format So Popular?

From proprietary beginnings to near ubiquity, PDFs are everywhere. But what makes them so popular? There are a number of reasons PDFs remain popular today. Let’s take a look at a few:

PDFs are budget-friendly

As a digital publishing solution the PDF is definitely going to have the least impact on your budget, as you likely have at least one or two programs that already can create it on your computer right now. Most modern word processors or web browsers will let you save to a PDF or print to a PDF with the click of a button.

PDFs are versatile

Beyond being relatively inexpensive, the PDF is also fairly versatile in that it can be emailed (as long as it’s not too large of a file), downloaded to most devices for offline reading, and also retains all fonts and design elements from device-to-device. It’s not difficult to understand how to make a brochure, magazine or eBook using PDFs.

PDFs are old

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons PDFs are still so common is simply that they’ve become ingrained in the way marketers and publishers do business. It’s just standard practice to save out your ebook, white paper, digital report, newsletter, or magazine into a PDF and post it online without thinking twice about whether that’s the best experience for your audience.

Will PDFs Become Obsolete?

PDFs do have their benefits. They also have some downsides. They are a nightmare for version control, they can’t be edited easily, once downloaded they can be shared without permission, they are difficult to read on mobile devices due to the lack of responsive design, analytics and user engagement metrics are limited, the list goes on.

For these reasons, other technologies started to pop up in the late 1990s and even newer technology is popping up today. One of the technologies that popped up in the late 90s is the flipbook.

Flipbooks’ Benefits Over PDFs

As we outlined earlier, PDFs are immensely popular because they are budget-friendly, versatile and ingrained in the way many people do business. So why would someone choose a flipbook over a PDF? There are a number of reasons. Let’s take a look at a few.

Flipbooks are more engaging than PDFs

Stein Mart's digital catalog on PageRaft

While PDFs are pretty solid when it comes to maintaining content as it is designed, they don’t have a lot to offer in the way of interactivity, useability, or engagement. Flipbooks on the other hand, offer a richer, more interactive experience.

They allow for embedded videos, animations that can make the content come to life, and more recently have even been able to create responsive content that adapts to the screen on which it’s viewed. That last one is a big plus for an increasingly mobile-first audience.

Digital Flipbook Examples

Take a look below at the same content packaged in a PDF, as a digital flipbook on our nxtbook4 platform, and in our fully responsive, digital-first PageRaft platform. Click each one to see the differences.

Example published as a pdf
Example published using nxtbook4
Example published using pageraft

Flipbooks have better analytics than PDFs

This online reading experience also gives content creators the ability to then track content using analytics software. With PDFs you are basically limited to one metric, downloads. Beyond that, it’s tough to know whether anyone actually read your content at all. With a flipbook though, you have access to much deeper insights including how long they stayed in your content, which articles they viewed, which links they clicked, and more.

That information can be a powerful tool in helping you understand and better market content to your audience (not to mention getting that raise!).

Flipbooks are more easily accessed than PDFs

Have you ever gotten a brochure file from your designer, went to send it to a prospect and realized the file is 100 megabytes or more? Graphic-intensive PDFs can become remarkably large if they aren’t saved for web usage.

No Need for Downloads

Most flipbook software hosts the content at a URL which doesn’t require the end user to actually download a file to read the content. This can be a big plus for mobile users who may not have a ton of data or a weak cell signal.

Easily Share Links

Another plus? Many flipbooks will allow you to share a link to a specific page in your content. No more telling someone to flip to page 17 only to realize that something happened in creating the PDF and page 17 is actually page 19 (even though the numbers on the page say otherwise!).

With flipbooks, you can point your audience directly to the content you want them to see (this is a great way to reel your audience in on social media).

Easy Version Control

Let’s throw in a bonus plus! Because this content lives online. You only have to update it once to have the most current version available to your audience. You don’t have to worry about outdated PDFs floating around on the web somewhere. Just make your updates and publish them and everyone who has access will see the newest version.

Flipbooks are more secure than PDFs

PDFs are a double-edged sword when it comes to security. They can be easily shared once downloaded and that can be great if you’re looking to freely distribute something. It can be a nightmare though if you’re looking to keep it secure.

That’s where flipbooks have the advantage. Because they reside entirely online there isn’t an easy way to download and openly distribute the content unless you want it to be easy!

If you only want people with certain credentials to read your content, that can be arranged. If you’d rather anyone be able to access it or search for it online, that too, can be arranged. In this way flipbooks are more flexible than a typical PDF.

Oh and one more thing, if after all of that, you like flipbooks but still have a need for PDFs, you can configure your content to allow users to download it as a PDF.

How to Create Digital Flipbooks from PDFs

Nxtbook Media has been in the digital publishing market since 2003. We love working with customers to create engaging experiences for their audience. We’d love to work with you to find the right solution for your content. If you’re looking to learn more about the difference between the many digital publishing options that are out there, contact us today!

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