Saturday, September 3, 2011

VitalSource Books: Reading on a Kindle

This is a little article on how to take a VitalSource book downloaded with VitalSource Bookshelf and "print" chapters to a PDF that is readable using any device capable of viewing PDF files. It also discusses how to tweak the print options in order to make the PDF very readable on an Amazon Kindle.

Note: The intent of this how-to is not to subvert VitalSource in any way, shape or form. I strongly suggest looking at the tools already available such as the Online Bookshelf provided by VitalSource before doing this. In general, you will have a much better user experience. That being said, in some situations, such as mine (described below), having a PDF available can enhance the user experience.

I am currently attending DeVry University, who recently switched their textbook provider to VitalSource. In general, I'm very happy with VitalSource. So far it has been a much better user experience than their previous textbook provider, MyScribe. I am especially fond of the Online Bookshelf as it gives me access to my textbooks while I'm using Ubuntu, without having to jump through any hoops (as I had to with MyScribe). Nonetheless, my preferred place to read anything, textbooks included, is on my Amazon Kindle. You can open the Online Bookshelf using the Kindle's built-in web browser, but it is a very poor experience. Instead, I choose to "print" my books, a chapter at a time (as this is what is allowed by VitalSource), to PDF and copy the file to the Kindle. It works well for me.

What you will need:
VitalSource Bookshelf

Installing PDFCreator:

  1. Download the program from the link above
  2. Open the setup file
  3. Click next a lot
I will note that at one point in the install it has a check box asking if you want to make Yahoo your default search provider. You might want to watch out for that.

The next step is to find a chapter you want to print, and print away. I usually just click the chapter on the TOC to the left on the VitalSource Bookshelf, then go to File -> Print... This will allow you to print a chapter at a time, which works great for the weekly assigned chapters at DeVry.

Once you've printed the chapter, PDFCreator will come up with a window that lets you edit things like title and author(s) and so forth. It seems that VitalSource doesn't send this information along with print jobs, which is no surprise considering that they think you're printing to a piece of paper that has no use for metadata. Fill it in if you want, or if you just want to start reading go ahead and click the save button. It will then ask you where to save the file and all that good stuff that you should already understand if you've made it this far.

If all you're looking for is a basic PDF that can be used on any device, here you go. You're done. Again, this will only get you one chapter at a time (or one chapter per file). If you just have to have the entire book in a single PDF file, you're in for a bit of work. There are tools available that will allow you to merge PDFs, allowing you to take your many chapters and put them into a single file. This is too much work for me, and the benefits just aren't that great, so I won't get into that. I will say that on Linux the program PDFSAM has worked well for me in the past.

If you want to know how to tweak it so that the printed PDF is readable on a Kindle, read on.

Printing for the Amazon Kindle

The best way I've found to make Kindle friendly PDFs is to tweak the margins of the page. So, go to File -> Page Setup... At the bottom of the window that pops up, you'll see an area to change the margins. The best experience I've found is by setting the Left and Right margins to 2.5 and the Top and Bottom margins to 3.2, then click OK. Now, when you print, it will make a page that is roughly 3.6x4.8inches, the physical dimensions of a Kindle screen. Simply go to File -> Print.. and print the same way described above, what you'll get is a Kindle sized version of your chapter. Hook up your USB cable and copy it over, should work out great for you.

Even though with these margins the printed page should fit on a Kindle screen no problem, they technically don't. When viewing a PDF on the Kindle, it will automatically scale the page so that it all fits on the screen. This page will be small enough (though still a little larger than the Kindle's screen) that when scaled it is still perfectly readable, and the solution works for me well enough that I don't really have a desire to take the time to find the perfect margin sizes. If anyone feels like taking the time, feel free to post the margin sizes in the comments and I'll update this post to show what other's have found. In general, though, smaller margins will get you a smaller font size (thus allowing more words on the page), larger will get you closer to the Kindle's actual size.

Now, this isn't a perfect solution. For instance, VitalSource adds a header and footer to every page. At the top you will see a disclaimer telling you that you can't distribute the printed document. At the bottom you will see the book title and the page number you are on (page number in reference to the PDF, not the actual book). Typically, these aren't much of a bother, except that on the Kindle they take up a fair chunk of the screen (about an inch on top and bottom). Not ideal, but it works. Also, this is still in PDF form, which is not really the best for the Kindle to begin with. There are tools available that will allow you to convert from PDF to better, more Kindle friendly, formats. This is outside the scope of this post. I will likely add another post that talks about this later.


  1. I tried the Kindle route last year. Drove me nuts, especially with the print one chapter at a time. I didn't find PDF on a Kindle acceptable, might be on the DX. I took it back and bout an Acer 'droid tablet, which handles PDF very well.

    Just my 2 cents.


  2. I tend to agree, Moejj. The Kindle is not really a good candidate for PDF reading. This method, though, actually worked half decent. VitalSource would actually "reflow" their books, so if you had a PDF that matched the Kindle's screen resolution it was more along the lines of reading a typical Kindle book with slow page turns. Although, I also had a couple extra steps with mine if I remember correctly (that wasn't posted here) that would get rid of the "Printed for..." rot on every page, which gave an extra couple of lines of text per page. In the end, using VitalSource I prefer reading on a Kindle, it is much nicer on the eyes. For 99% of the PDFs out there, though, Kindle is not the answer.

    1. What extra steps you use to do this, Joe?

  3. Thanks for the info! After some experimentation would like to share what is working for me. Using two programs. K2pdfopt, Calibre and Nitro 8 (anything that will export to word will work.) Export to Word and hand delete page numbers, lines, and borders around text. Also, mass delete headers and footers. Create a new PDF from Word document. Drag and Drop onto K2pdfopt. When prompted type
    "-dpi 130" and press enter. The new file will end in _k2opt. Add to Calibre and convert to MOBI.
    I've found this to be very readable and with images preserved.