Keeping up with Fixed Layout Support: What, Where, and Huh?
At BEA last week I spent a lot of time with publishers looking for eBook fixed layout format enlightenment and discussing the finer points of fixed layout support for dedicated devices and cross-platform apps. As you’ve likely heard by now, there are multiple fixed layout book formats containing different approaches to similar features. Further, in some cases, just because one feature of an eBook format is supported by a brand or device on one platform does not mean the feature is supported across all platforms.
Confused yet? You’re not alone.
- The Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for iPad apps do support audio and video features in reflowable text books.
- The Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for iPad apps do not support fixed layout typography and pages.
- The Kindle Fire device and Kindle for Android app do not support audio and video features at all.
- The Kindle Fire device, and Kindle for Android app do support fixed layout typography and pages.
Got it? Yeah. I’m still shaking my head, too. How do I know this to be true? Because I’ve checked, been asked to recheck, and finally, tested, each truth listed above.
OK… So beyond this initial confusion, let’s try to clear-up some of the general confusion around fixed layout format eBooks.
Fixed layout eBooks differ from traditional reflowable text eBooks in the following ways:
- Content is fixed in the reading application “page.” Fixed can mean to a region on a single page, the left or right hand page of a page spread, or down to pixel positioning driven by pre-determined screen resolutions.
- Layout is integral to the reading experience; the layout of the page is actually part of the context and meaning of the overall content.
- When fixed layout production is required, emphasis shifts away from producing eBooks that are layout agnostic and suitable for any eBook reading device or application. Every detail of a fixed layout format is specified by either the content creator or eBook designer.
In short, fixed layout eBook formats are best suited for books in which typographic layout adds additional semantic value to the content that would otherwise be lost in a reflowable eBook layout.
The following content types are well suited, and sometimes even designed, with fixed layout in mind:
- Children’s story books
- Graphic novels and Manga
- The proverbial “Coffee Table” book
- Scientific, technical, and medical textbooks
- K-12 textbooks incorporating pedagogy that requires specific placement of text in relation to image or table objects
- Books where complex table-based or mathematical content is the star attraction
There’s a time and a place for the fixed layout typography treatment, however. For instance, fixed layout typography is not appropriate on all reading devices. Specifically, devices with smaller screens are simply too small for readers to comprehend the full context and value of fixed layout typography.
Fixed layout displays are so well defined that targeted eReading devices and apps need to be capable of supporting specifically fixed resolutions, requiring minimal need for the reader to zoom and scroll. When a screen is too small, users can get contextually lost since the zoom required to read the text results in content that can no longer be seen in context of the page or full page spread. This is especially important as we embark on a new era of “phablet” devices – cell phones that are too large to just be phones, but too small to be classified as a tablet.
A rule of thumb for deciding whether or not a fixed layout eBook is appropriate for display on a device is this: Can you read the content as it was originally intended to be seen by the author and designer? If you can’t read it on a Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, or Kobo Vox, don’t expect the experience to be improved if a reader attempts to view the same content on a smaller cell phone with a 4 or 5 inch screen, Retina Display or not.
The four major eBook retail vendors (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) all support fixed layout eBook displays across a variety of dedicated devices, as well as retailer specific apps intended to extend a retailer’s support across a variety of operating systems and device form factors (e.g., cell phones and tablets vs. laptop screens and widescreen monitors).
But (and you knew this was coming)… the four major eBook retail vendors have not settled on a common, and entirely open fixed layout format. This is keeping publishers and their eBook production partners on their toes in order to support multiple fixed layout formats, based on targeted device reading platforms and apps, and depending on the fixed layout typographic specifications of the eBook.
In response to publisher and content producer demand, the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) started working on an EPUB-based fixed layout specification recommendation in 2011. In the meantime, retailers following publisher and content producer demand got a head start producing and selling fixed layout format eBooks. Publishing realities demanded fixed layout support in reading devices and applications long before the IDPF finally approved the EPUB 3 Fixed Layout Documents specification on March 13, 2012.
So now there are multiple fixed layout formats on the market with varying support for special features such as multimedia and interactivity across device reader platforms and apps. At this point, publishers and content producers do not see a clear path toward adoption of the official EPUB 3 Fixed Layout Documents specification.
But all is not lost. The path toward standardization may not be clear, but that’s only a surface observation. In fact, commonalities do exist between Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo’s fixed layout formats.
In truth, with the exception of Amazon, each retailer started executing their support for fixed layouts based on a similar point: marked up XHTML, with intent to package the XHTML as an enhanced EPUB eBook. Each retailer implemented their own take on specific features and made extensions to the EPUB 2 specification to support additional features that best facilitated support of their flagship hardware products.
This makes perfect sense from a retail perspective, as hardware and unique functionality differentiates one eReading device from the other in the market. The unique fixed layout typographic feature implementations are essentially, part of each retailer’s “super secret special sauce,” providing the necessary edge to compete in a crowded market.
Further, even Amazon is capable of converting EPUB files despite the preference to continue supporting, and enhancing a legacy file format to provide both forward and backward compatibility across the entire series of Kindle® eReaders and apps. (Note: I said Amazon is capable of converting an EPUB file. I said nothing about the reality of the results of using Kindle tools to process an EPUB file.) It is inevitable that each targeted reading platform will always require additional work to tweak and customize files, but it is possible to adopt best practices for creating eBooks in each fixed layout format; it all comes down to the quality of the source content.
The key to supporting multiple fixed layout reading platforms is the same key to all published content requiring multiple formats: an XML-first workflow driven by business requirements, content typographic specifications, and targeted device and app feature requirements of a basic EPUB eBook. If required, publishers and content vendors can then deconstruct the EPUB and further tailor the content markup and packaging features to support fixed layout formatting, multimedia, and interactive features to provide consumers with an optimum experience on their platform of choice. Is this easy? No. But what worth doing is?
Caveat utilitor: As most people in the #eprdctn community already know, If you want to produce fixed layout eBooks, be prepared to assess business requirements, typographic specifications, and targeted reading devices for your project before you start. When it comes to highly interactive features and fixed layouts in apps across devices and platforms, the sooner you start, the longer it takes.
I’m not going to leave you on that note, though. I’m going to come back around to where I started: with some specifics about what is and is not supported in the four major retailers’ fixed layout implementations for dedicated devices and cross-platform apps. I hope it’s a helpful reference for those times when you are caught in “Fixed Layout Dyslexia.”
Charting the Fixed Layout Landscape
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