Keeping up with Fixed Layout Support: What, Where, and Huh?

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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.

Amazon has released the KF8 format to support fixed layout in children’s picture books and graphic novels. That said, the following statements are true:

  • 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
May 2012

Apple iBooks® 
  • The EPUB 2 with Apple-specific enhancements format supports audio, video, and read-aloud features, in addition to fixed layout formatting.
  • The iBA format produced with Apple iBooks Author supports audio, video, and interactive multimedia features. The iBA format is similar to EPUB 3, but contains enough Apple-specific extensions to be considered a proprietary format. iBA format eBooks are only supported on an Apple iPad® running the iBooks 2 app.
Barnes & Noble Nook™ 
  • Barnes & Noble has separate fixed layout support across applications and readers for Nook Study, Nook Kids, Nook Comics, and Nook PagePerfect™.
  • Region magnification and panel view features are specific to Nook Kids and Comics eBooks.
  • ‘Read to me’ Nook book functionality is specific to Nook Kids eBooks.
  • Barnes and Noble’s Nook Kids and Comics formats are essentially EPUB books with extensions to support Barnes and Noble features specific to the Nook Color, Nook Tablet, and Nook Kids for iPad, Nook for iPad, Nook for iPhone, and Nook for Android. Not all features are supported on all platforms. For example, Nook for Android can read Nook Comics, but does not support ‘read to me’ functionality in Nook Kids books.
  • Nook Study and Nook PagePerfect™ fixed layout formats are PDF-based. Barnes and Noble currently provide production and conversion services to publishers and production vendors who need to create Nook Study and Nook PagePerfect™ fixed layout eBooks.
Amazon Kindle 
  • Amazon developed the proprietary KF8 fixed layout format based on the original Kindle MOBI format used for reflowable text eBooks.
  • KF8 was originally designed to support fixed layout format books on the Kindle Fire.
  • KF8 supports region magnification areas to display text at a comfortable reading font size in children’s books, and panel view areas in graphic novels and comics that can guide the reader through the proper reading order of panels on a fixed layout page.
  • Amazon has rolled out various KF8 features on a hardware and app basis. For example, fixed layout eBooks including audio and video features are currently only supported on Kindle for iPad and Kindle for iPhone devices.
  • Amazon most recently released KF8 fixed layout format support in new versions of Kindle for Android and Kindle Touch software (March and April 2012).
  • Audio and video are not supported on Kindle eInk devices, or the Kindle Fire.
  • KF8 files contain elements from EPUB, HTML5, CSS3, and MOBI files. It is possible to generate a KF8 file from an EPUB file using a variety of tools including Amazon’s KindleGen and Kindle Previewer, but this is where any similarity to EPUB ends. Amazon’s fixed layout format and multimedia support are based far more on the old Mobi format and CSS than on EPUB.
  • Every KF8 file produced from Amazon’s KindleGen or Kindle Previewer tools via an EPUB source contains:
    – the source EPUB
    – the KF8 file
    – a “fallback” version of the eBook as a MOBI 7 file for distribution to devices that do not yet support, or will not support KF8 format features.
Kobo 
  • Kobo’s fixed layout format is referred to as FLEPUB. For the most part, this file format is very similar to Apple’s EPUB 2 with Apple-specific enhancements. The two formats are differentiated primarily by accepted metadata values.
  • The Kobo FLEPUB fixed layout format is only supported on the Kobo Vox Tablet reader.
  • Kobo’s read-aloud functionality in children’s books is part of the FLEPUB format.

Jean Kaplansky

About Jean Kaplansky

Jean Kaplansky is a Solutions Architect at Aptara, which provides digital publishing solutions to content providers for capitalizing on new digital and mobile mediums. Jean is an avid reader and early adopter of eBooks and eBook-related technology, going back to 1996. Her publishing production past includes work as an XML Architect for Cengage Learning, a Systems Analyst for Pfizer Global Research and Development, and an XML Consultant at Arbortext. Jean’s introduction to typography and publishing production involved a calculator, some printed galleys, and a pica stick back in 1992. Follow her occasional tweets at @JeanKaplansky.

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13 thoughts on “Keeping up with Fixed Layout Support: What, Where, and Huh?

  1. Overall I think this is a great help, thanks for pulling this together!

    I think, though, that there are too many fixed layout EPUBs out there that shouldn’t have been. Books with dense passages of text, multiple columns of 10 or 12-pt. type such as is found in \scientific, technical, and medical textbooks,\ or even verbose cookbooks, are almost impossible to read for longer than a few minutes even on a relatively large screen like an iPad; and so are little more than a curiosity for the reader and a pretty showpiece for the publisher. Instead they should be redesigned for the medium (there are some great reflowable cookbooks and travel guides out there;) or sold and distributed as a PDF from the publisher’s own site, until a better solution is found.

    Back to the FLE landscape, it’s also useful to know which devices and readers support JavaScript/CSS3 interactivity. Many of our clients (authors and publishers) are very interested in FLE for the iPad specifically, because they can add touch-screen animation to their eBooks without having to go the App Store route. If you ever update your table, it would be wonderful if you could include information about Javascript support, as well as support for SVG type and graphics, and for Read-Aloud features (which are an offshoot of general audio support—just because a reseller supports audio in their eBooks doesn’t mean they support SMIL markup, required for a Read-Aloud book—at least that’s what I assume.)

    I know your audience at BEA was probably made up of large publishers, but it would also be useful to know which companies provide FLE/Read-Aloud guidelines to self-publishing authors and small-medium publishers, or even simply accept files in that format. As far as I know, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt portal does not, but Apple’s iTunes Connect does.

  2. @Anne-Marie:

    You’re welcome! I totally agree with you regarding the number of fixed layout EPUBs out there. There is a place and a time for fixed layout, but not at the expense of context and content. Liza Daly said it best in here \What We Can Do with ‘Books’\ article in the O’Reilly TOC _Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto,\_ (2011):

    \I propose that digital-only additions to texts should pass a two-fold test utility. First, such additions should be _immersive:_ they should appear to be natural extensions of the work, satisfying the curiosity of readers at the moment that these curiosities naturally arrive in the course of consuming the text.
    \Enhancements must also be _nontrivial._ ….\

    Region magnifications are OK for children’s books, and even an enhancement for graphic novels/Manga/comics, but a book designer should insist on drawing a line in the sand, at some point with non-fiction titles.

    As for Javascript/CSS3 activity, I can tell you this much: Amazon KF8, Kobo FLEPUB, and Barnes and Noble Kids and PagePerfect titles don’t support it at all, Apple’s support in enhanced EPUB2 books is limited (if it isn’t in their guidance, there’s a pretty good chance it’s _not_ supported). Read aloud functionality has varied support depending on the platform. For further information, take a look at the Book Industry Study Group’s brand new EPUB 3 Support Grid (http://www.bisg.org/publications/product.php?p=26&c=437). This is the most complete attempt at charting functionality and EPUB3 support across the board that I’ve seen.

    And finally… Regarding guidance. The fact that guidance is not made equally available to the public is extremely frustrating. What is the point of keeping this _very_ important information from self-publishing and small-medium publishers? It’s not like the little guy is going to learn something that will suddenly take business away from someone else, here.

    The only way to get fixed layout with Barnes and Noble is to either work directly with Barnes and Noble (for PagePerfect books), or become part of the Barnes and Noble Kids program. B&N does their own conversion for PagePerfect books, and they provide an actual app for assembling Kids books. PubIt is for reflowable books, only.

    With regard to guidance, this is the one thing that Amazon has done above and beyond everyone else; Amazon’s KF8 guidance and tools are easy to find, and you don’t have to have any special account or inside contact information to gain access to the information.

    Baldur Bjarnason had some great observations about the eBook developer’s landscape a few weeks ago here: http://www.baldurbjarnason.com/notes/end-of-ebook-dev/

    Hope you find these additional links helpful.

    Best Regards,
    Jean

  3. One more thing… someone just pointed out to me what I failed to state myself: Aptara does eBook projects for all sizes of publisher. We are size agnostic. (And I know this to be true, because I’ve worked with some _very_ small publishers on some very cool projects.)

    I talked to pretty much one from every group at BEA – from the largest publishers, down to the guy who owns the ebook rights to his own non-fiction book, and is just starting to investigate what it will take to publish and distribute an ebook.

    -JK

  4. Jean: You’ve managed to be incredibly comprehensive and completely terrifying at the same time.

    I too worry that the device manufacturers are in fact lessening the opportunity for publishers by creating this degree of complexity. The data shows that there really isn’t a business model for supporting these many variations unless the book is already at the top of the bestsellers lists. As Ted Nelson said many years ago: “Here we are using some of the finest technology of the 20th century to recreate the experience of reading on paper.”

    • Hi Thad – Thanks for reading… I didn’t mean to be completely terrifying. I was going for realistic…

      I agree that it’s not a good business model for publishers, but publishers are not driving the device market. The device vendors are. We’ve always had to deal with multiple formats in eBooks. It’s the number of formats, and the fact that apps do not support the same things across the platform board that worries me.

      Someone has to be on top of the # of apps X # of platforms X functionality matrix. That’s what I tried to do here. This will be something that I will keep updating as the landscape changes. Please stay tuned.

  5. Hi Jean, great summary, but I have an addition for you: the day after you published this the Kobo iOS app (v5.5 http://itunes.apple.com/app/id301259483?mt=8) was updated to include fixed layout support, both Kobo FLEPUBs and basic support for the EPUB3 fixed layout standard. SMIL / read-along, embedded audio, and embedded video are all supported as well.

    Cheers,
    Charles

    • Yep! and Amazon released a new Kindle for iPad app that supports some fixed layout books, but not others. Things are changing on a day to day basis. Welcome to the Wild Wild West of Fixed Layout eReading Support…

  6. I have been scratching my head for days about this issue. I recently uploaded my wife’s children’s book onto the KDP and it’s only available on these devices, Android and the Kindle Fire, not the ipad. I’m also getting mixed answers from the KDP. One time they say, no it’s not supported on iOS and then another will return and say:
    Once you have published your title through KDP, KDP lets you publish in our Amazon Kindle Stores for use with the Amazon Kindle, Kindle Cloud Reader, and Kindle Applications for PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7. Hence, I can assure you that your title is available for use on all Kindle devices and Apps. But it’s not. Another Blogger-Author wrote me saying he believes The device availability on your product page should update soon to reflect the additional avenue. It took a while for the Android one to appear, perhaps because they want to make sure everyone has a chance to update the app first, or they just hadn’t finished building the app support pages yet. In a way that makes sense. But I have seen other fixed layout children’s book already available for iOS and the Kindle Fire. My belief is that there is something in the metadata order that has to do with being able to read available said devices, that’s not in the Amazon Guidelines. Nothing and nowhere has this been referred to or written about as to how this can be. I have looked everywhere and I’m beginning to have nightmares. I feel I have followed everything the Amazon Guidelines said I needed to do. But I feel cheated and not rewarded. It’s not fare if only the publishing companies have this answer and get to sell on both iOS and the Kindle Fire, if that’s the case. As my wife has done her do diligence in promoting her book, she is also losing out in sales. She has had many inquiries about the availability on the ipad. I feel I should reward her by investigating this matter as best I can, since I did the code. I am by no means considered a hard core coder. I just learned this stuff not to long ago. Is there any answers, tips or know hows you can give me?

    Thank you.

  7. Hello Ma’am, That was really an informative post.
    My question is: There are plenty of resources instructing about fixed layout of mobi and epub.
    There are also plenty of resources that tell about region magnification, but only for Amazon Kindle.

    An OPF file just instructs devices that incoming book is a FL. But what about the HTML part?
    What to add in HTML so that region magnifies?
    For Kindle its “app-amzn-magnify” thing, but for ePub…what??

    I still have not come across any information regarding region magnification in epub(x), whether it be for B&N, iBooks, Sony or Kobo.

    Please suggest me any resource that gives quality info about any(or all) of above mentioned devices.

  8. The whole thing is still a minefield, and of course Amazon charge per mb of download, making one project non-viable, as the download fee was double the proposed sale price!

    For the smaller publisher or individual, a text-first publication seems to be the best present solution, with a minimum of visual material.

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