Convert PDF files (on Mac) to MOBI/EPUB for iPad

Occasionally, it may be desirable to convert a PDF file to the MOBI for EPUB format for use on an iPad (or even an iPhone) with, say, the Kindle Reader or iBooks. Here's how to do the conversion on a Mac and load the document onto your iPad or iPhone.

First, why might one want to do that conversion? The reason is that, in general, PDF documents don't allow you to modify the font size. If you want to make the text larger on an iPad, for easier reading, you can pinch-zoom, but that often results in the edges of the document sliding off the display.  Here's a partial screen shot of the PDF user manual for MacJournal 6 from an iPad. The full page is shown.

Section of PDF displayed on iPad

If we expand it for easier viewing, we lose content on the edges.

Text is readable, but content is lost.

One way to solve this problem is to convert the PDF document to EPUB for reading in Apple's iBooks app or to the MOBI format for use with the Kindle app. (For notes on eBook terminology, see "Everything About eBooks & eReaders, Pt 2: eBook Types")

There are several ways to do the conversion on a Mac, then transfer to your iPad, but I'll just focus on one technique that I like and is easy to follow. It may be helpful to have the PDF file in a handy place, say your Mac's Desktop. You'll need:

  • A Mac
  • iTunes 10 or 11
  • Calibre eBook reader for OS X by Kovid Goyal, currently at version 0.9.18.  It's free.
  • iBooks app on iPad (optional)
  • Kindle app on iPad (optional)

For simplicity, I'm going to focus on the iPad in this How-to.

1. Load PDF file into Calibre. After you launch Calibre, it looks like this. Notice the "Add books" icon at the top left.

After you've navigated to the PDF file and loaded it, the file will appear in the library list in the center as shown above.

2. Convert to EPUB or MOBI format. Select the document, then right click it. You'll see some contextual options that look like this:

Right click the document to bring up this menu.

After you select "Convert Individually, a conversion page will appear.

Conversion page. Options are on the left. Take defauts for starters.

At the top right is a popup button where you'll select the destination format. In this case, I'm showing MOBI. There are lots of conversion options on the left side, but for now, for the sake of the demo, we can go with all the defaults. At the bottom right, click "OK."

For a simple one page PDF, the conversion will go quickly, but if you have a complex, many page PDF manual or book, the conversion will take several minutes even on a fast Mac. And there are limits to what Calibre can do with the defaults, so large, complex PDFs may have conversion issues. When the conversion is done, the job count at the bottom right will drop to zero.

3. Navigate to Converted File. Calibre stores each document in /Users/YourAccountName/Documents/Calibre Library. Navigate to the folder containing your original PDF, and you'll find the companion converted file. Mine looked like this.

Note the path at the top.  Converted file is highlighted.

4. Transfer to iPad. You might think about emailing the converted document to the iPad, then opening it in the app of your choice. That will work for small documents. However, some of these documents, manuals and books can be quite large, much too large to email. So here's how to transfer large files.

5. Transfer MOBI file to iPad. Connect your iPad to your Mac, and select it in the device list in the left of iTunes. Select the "apps" tab and scroll down until you see the File Sharing section as shown below.

In iTunes, apps tab, scroll down to File Sharing.

The apps listed in the left column can transfer files between your iPad and the Mac. Click on Kindle, then click on the button "Add..." at the bottom and navigate to the converted MOBI file. It will appear in the list on the right, in this case, "Kindle Documents." Then go back to your iPad in the Device list and click the Sync button on the bottom right for your iPad.

When the sync is done, launch your Kindle app on the iPad and be sure to select the "Device" tab at the bottom. You should see your converted document along with your other Kindle items in the "All Items" page.

Voila!  The MOBI file is in Kindle app.

6. Transfer EPUB file to iPad. This procedure is slightly different.

In iTunes, in the sidebar on the left, under "Library," select "Books." You'll see a grid or list of your books in iBooks.

Your iTunes Book Library. (iTunes 10 shown.)

  • Drag your converted EPUB file onto the grid.
  • Go back to the iPad under "Devices" in the sidebar, and Sync.
  • Launch iBooks, and you should see your converted EPUB in your iBooks library.

This is the PDF of my manual, but the EPUB will look similar.

Wrap Up

There are probably several different ways to accomplish this kind of task, but I picked on that I like and is easy to demo. If you like other tools and methods, you're welcome to share in the comments below.