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Generate PDF invoices from Markdown using Pandoc

martin_betz profile image Martin Betz Updated on ・7 min read

TL;DR

You can use Pandoc with WKHTMLTOPDF to generate nice-looking PDF invoices from Markdown files.

The context

I love simplicity, structure and I like good design. When it comes to invoices or other formal documents that you need to generate as a freelancer (such as status reports or fact sheets), these things do not get together easily:

The commercial or complicated way

Of course, you can fire up InDesign or Apple Pages and fine-tune your documents, but this comes at a price: you have to create every new document individually as templating and mail-merging is very basic in both programs. Also, you are stuck with proprietary file formats that you might not be able to open in the future (and your tax office may not be happy about that). On the other side, you have LaTeX which can output fantastic documents from marked up text but has a steep learning curve and also quite some weight (~ 1GB extra). Also, if you want to use system or OTF fonts, you quickly run into problems. Both programs also struggle with the generation of web-ready formats, most notably HTML5.

The (rather) easy way

Pandoc to the rescue. Pandoc is a handy command-line tool that converts text files between different formats. I use it to convert markdown files with YAML metadata blocks to PDF and HTML5 files. And I can style these documents via CSS3 so I can use all fonts simple. To use Avenir Next, which I installed on my machine, I just need 'font-family: 'Avenir Neue'' in my CSS.

So how would I create a nice looking invoice?

Here is the template markdown for a fixed-budget project that I did:

\--- # escaped intentionally
papersize: a4
margin-left: 20mm
margin-right: 25mm
margin-top: 10mm
margin-bottom: 20mm
\... # escaped

![](img/logo.png){ width=13.587mm height=13.559mm}

Martin Betz | Meine Straße 1 | 123456 Berlin

Mein Kunde
Kurfürstenstraße 123
10961 Berlin

Berlin, 07.01.2017

# Rechnung: Neugestaltung Webseite
## Rechnungsnummer: 170101

Guten Tag Herr Kunde,

für Ihren am 01.01.2017 per Mail erteilten Auftrag für die Neugestaltung der Webseite
[test.de](test.de) berechne ich Ihnen entsprechend Abmachung folgenden Pauschalbetrag:

**4.000€**

Entsprechend §19 UStG erhebe ich als Kleinunternehmer keine Umsatzsteuer.
Abgaben zur Künstlersozialkasse fallen nicht an.

Bitte überweisen Sie den Rechnungsbetrag innerhalb von 14 Tagen
auf untenstehendes Konto bei der Rich Bank.

Vielen Dank für die sehr gute Zusammenarbeit!

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

![](img/unterschrift_ex.png){ width=33.8mm }
(Martin Betz)

MARTIN BETZ | Meine Straße 1 | 123456 Berlin | (0000) 000 00 000 | xxx@martinbetz.eu
Steuer-Nummer: 00/000/00000 | Bankverbindung | IBAN DE00 0000 0000 0000 0000 00 | BIC XXXXXXXXXXX

Note that I entered all my personal, the project and the client data manually, but could have queried them from a database as well. Automation is easy in this workflow.

This is how my output PDF (format: A4, black border for contrast only) looks like:

Invoice Example

So how can you make an invoice as pretty or even prettier than this?

Instructions

  1. Install pandoc. If you are on Mac, get brew and install it via brew install pandoc. Otherwise, head over to Pandoc's website and get a package for your machine.
  2. Install wkhtmltopdf via brew install Caskroom/cask/wkhtmltopdf or via the right package from their website - this is an invisible (aka headless) browser which saves to PDF.
  3. pandoc invoice.m -t html5 d -o invoice.pdf to output your first version of the invoice PDF. -t is for 'to' and indicates the format, -o … *.pdf will automatically understand that you want to save it as a PDF
  4. To make the invoice prettier, you can add --css style.css to the pandoc command

Here is my final CSS. I will tell you about some problems, solutions and architecture decisions after the code.

@charset "utf-8";

body {
font-size: 10.5pt;
font-family: "Avenir Next", -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, "Segoe UI", "Roboto", "Oxygen", "Ubuntu", "Cantarell", "Fira Sans", "Droid Sans", "Helvetica Neue", sans-serif;
hyphens: auto;
height: 270mm; /* 297 - 10 (top) - 20 (bottom) */
line-height: 140%;
margin: 0;
padding: 0;
}

code {
font-family: "Source Sans Code", Courier New, Courier, monospace;
margin-left: 1pt;
}

a {
color: black;
margin-left: 1pt;
}

table {
width: 100%;
}

table:nth-of-type(3) {
border: 1px solid black;
padding: 5pt;
}

table:nth-of-type(3) td:nth-of-type(2) {
text-align: center;
}

h1 {
font-size: 13pt;
margin-top: 6pt;
margin-bottom: 0;
}

h2 {
font-size: 10.5pt;
font-weight: normal;
margin-top: 0;
margin-bottom: 20pt;
}

p {
width: 100%;
}

p:first-of-type {
font-size: 9pt;
word-spacing: 1pt;
}

/*p:first-of-type::after {
content: "\2014";
position: absolute;
top: 89mm; / 99mm - 10mm top /
right: 0mm;

}*/

p:nth-of-type(2) {
margin-top: 20mm;
}

p:nth-of-type(3) {
text-align: right;
}

p:nth-last-of-type(3) {
margin-top: 10mm;
}

p:last-of-type {
text-align: justify;
font-size: 9pt;
position: absolute;
bottom: 2mm;
margin-bottom: 0;
padding-bottom: 0;
/* word-spacing: 1pt; */
color: #444;
}

hr {
border: 1px solid #eee;
}

hr:last-of-type {
position: absolute;
bottom: 14mm;
width: 100%;
}

figure {
margin: 0;
}  

And now the making-of:

  1. Positioning elements was harder than expected: You set the paper size via the YAML metadata, so I thought I could just derive absolute values from there
  2. I believed that body height should be: 297 (A4 height) - 10 (margin-top) - 10 (margin-bottom) = 277mm.
  3. I tried to position a fold line at 99mm (297/3) via .foldline { position: absolute; top:99mm; }, but when I printed it, it showed up at 105mm.
  4. CSS understands mm and pt as values, so I used mm for positioning and pt for font sizes (exactly as in traditional DTP programs)
  5. Footer: I first thought about a Flexbox layout with fixed footer, but quickly settled on a position: absolute; solution as it is enough for my purpose. The calculations, however, were not working as expected so I had to tweak the bottom: xx mm settings by hand
  6. I tried to justify my footer, but… CSS cannot justify one-line paragraphs easily. Ouch…
  7. As you cannot set ids or classes in your markdown for the HTML, you end up with a lot of <p>s. I had to make excessive usage of :nth-of-type(), :first-of-type(), :last-of-type() and :nth-last-of-type. It would be nice to have a template for the HTML output (it's possible, more on this later)
  8. My logo is *.svg but that got totally skewed when getting rendered to PDF. I had to generate a high-resolution PNG to get around that.
  9. I made dozens of iterations of the CSS to get the design that I wanted. First I did it the hard way: Change CSS, run Pandoc command, open PDF. Then I found out that PDF Expert re-renders when the PDF has changed. Still, I had to fire Pandoc after each CSS change manually. So I was looking for "live reloading" and ended up with fswatch on Mac (or inotifywait on Linux). I put the actual Pandoc command in a Bash script and started the watcher with fswatch -o . | xargs -n1 ./compile.sh. It worked. The only downside I encountered was that the PDF would reload in PDF Expert every 2 seconds no matter whether there was a change in the CSS not. Flicker, flicker, flicker.

Make it safe(r)

Now you have a neat invoice PDF from a very simple Markdown file. But: The client could easily edit this PDF, change the cost or copy my signature. You cannot entirely prevent this to happen, but let`s make it a bit more secure.

  1. Get the command-line tool pdftk brew install https://raw.githubusercontent.com/turforlag/homebrew-cervezas/master/pdftk.rb
  2. pdftk invoice.pdf output invoice-protected.pdf allow printing owner_pw "mysecretpassword"

The client can still print the secured invoice, but not to change it. Funnily, PDF Expert is ignoring these settings and still able to edit the file. I have no idea why.

Next steps

The invoice PDF is nice, but of course, we can make it even better. Here are some ideas:

  1. Set a base font size in pt and set the other sizes relative with em
  2. Switch the whole styling to Sass, predominantly for nesting the p { %:nth-of-type {} }
  3. Tables are a big thing in most non-fixed-price invoices. And a big CSS design challenge
  4. Tinkering with p:nth-of-type(10)-ish selectors is not too much fun, so probably using an HTML template with some smarter defaults would be good. I did not have much success with loading a new template from a different --data-dir but brew's, so I copied my template to /usr/local/Cellar/pandoc/1.16.0.2/share/x86_64-osx-ghc-7.10.3/pandoc-1.16.0.2/data/templates/
  5. Also, I found another nice template that I might learn a trick or two from
  6. Finally, for cross-media usage, I might add another stylesheet for the web or maybe media queries (but I have no clue whether that works…)

Q&A

  • Why didn't you use a styled OpenDocument template? I don't like the fact that you cannot delete standard style formats. I like lean templates. Otherwise, excellent choice!
  • Why not via LaTeX? Fonts, installation overhead {~900 MB), different markup (see above)

Do you use Pandoc in varying ways for invoice generation? Or do you have other comments or tips? I am very looking forward to your feedback!

Posted on by:

martin_betz profile

Martin Betz

@martin_betz

Laravel developer, agile organisation developer; Berlin, Germany, I coach Laravel newcomers via https://mentors.codingcoach.io/?name=Martin+Betz

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I prepare invoice data in my ruby web app and render pdf invoice using github.com/prawnpdf/prawn and github.com/prawnpdf/prawn-table ruby libraries.

The app manages the client database as well as the invoice item details and VAT summary. The Prawn could use the grid system similar to the Twitter Bootstrap so it's quite easy to do layout too.

 

Thanks for your answers. Did you write a whole own app for your client and financial management? Or is it an add-on on a SaSS solution where you already have the customer data?

 

Well, it's ultra minimalistic single purpose tool hacked together within few evenings and using for few years.

All customers / invoices data is in ruby source file so there is no need for CRUD code. Adding customer is just copy/paste in ruby file and editing few lines. Adding invoice is super easy copy/paste with just defining customer, date and invoice items. Good old copy/paste programming.

It's using Sinatra github.com/sinatra/sinatra which allows super short code. The main app which basically does just routing and params checking is under 80 lines including requires and some comments.

There is a few hundred lines of customers / invoices data too. It's growing quite slow since this is only side-job. All data are loaded into memory but I can spare few megabytes for the in memory data for sure.

The haml view files for rendering html app are under 4kB. Haml haml.info/ is saving lot of typing.

All magic happens in the invoice.prawn file which is 440 lines and about 11kB. There is the pdf layout filled with data from the customer and invoice data with lot of conditions controlling the optional data (for example VAT number is optional so I have to skip the space when there is no VAT number defined to retain the layout). There is also 15 lines dealing with preparing the VAT summary for 0/10/20% VAT per each item defined.

This prawn file generates the pdf which is shown in the Chrome so I can preview it and then save and send to customer.

 

Hi,

There are readily available letter templates for pandoc that you can customize, e.g this. Any reason to do it using css?

Just asking because I am new to all this and have no idea about css

 

I want to customize the design of the output, so I will need CSS or TeX. I feel a lot more comfortable with CSS than with TeX. So I choose CSS.

 

Is this only a layout template or does it also automate the content, e.g. incrementing invoice number, using today's date, et cetera?

 

Right now the markdown is static, so you have to edit invoice number, date, etc. on your own. The script is just transforming the text only to a layouted PDF.