Before You Make a Fixed-Layout Ebook: Five Things to Watch Out For

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

ebook, epub, fixed layout, ebook software, ebook creatorSo you want to make a fixed-layout ebook?

For starters, are you sure? Publishers aren’t yet convinced that the format is much more than a niche market. But as technology evolves and ebook developers get better at producing more sophisticated FXL EPUB content more efficiently, change could soon be nearer at hand.

Fixed layout is a complex, print-replica format designed primarily to accommodate children’s picture books, manga and digital comics. That lineup could expand with the latest update to the Adobe Creative Cloud version of InDesign (the build), released this June, as the feature will allow a much broader range of publishers to create ebooks from complex print layouts.

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Previously, ebook developers relied on InDesign plug-ins in order to create the HTML and CSS needed to build an FXL EPUB, but InDesign has almost completely erased any need for those with its new export feature, which now creates pixel-perfect fixed-layout EPUBs from complex print layouts. In addition to making fixed-layout production easier for experienced ebook developers, it could also open the door to more print designers experimenting with digital content.

But publishers, designers and ebook developers looking to take advantage of the new feature and plan for the next generation of illustrated digital content will have a few kinks to work out first. Here are five of them:

  • The code produced by this export positions text on a word-by-word basis. This makes for fairly ponderous, hard-to-edit code.
  • Everything on the layout page is exported based on the order of items according to the z-index. Complex pages will have many pieces, some of them overlapping, and not necessarily in a logical reading order.
  • Images with transparency won’t export as expected.
  • Some typography practices are not EPUB-supported and so won’t export at all.
  • Hyperlinks aren’t exporting at all at the moment.

Fortunately, none of these challenges are insurmountable, and resolving them can lead to a great wealth of new digital content.

Join me on August 26th for live webcast in which I’ll offer a set of tips, tools and best practices to get the best possible products straight out of Adobe InDesign. Here’s how to sign up.

13 thoughts on “Before You Make a Fixed-Layout Ebook: Five Things to Watch Out For

  1. Dave Bricker

    What’s the big deal about fixed layout eBooks? PDF has done a perfect job with fixed layout for years. EBooks evolved to display paginated, reflowable text—something web browsers couldn’t do until recently. Now, instead of simply empowering eReaders to display PDF files (an open standard), we get layers of clunky HTML5 technology that are inconsistently supported. With EPub3 features only about 60% supported by popular eReading devices, why would a publisher take the risk?

    I’m glad Adobe is trying to give us better eBook production tools, but while Indesign is excellent for print, it’s a clunky starting point for making eBooks. Meanwhile, tools and formats like PubML make it easy and intuitive for publishers to create elegant ePub files that work within the limitations of popular eReader devices, and browser-based HTML5 eBooks that support the enhanced media features (video, web fonts, photo galleries, footnotes, etc.) that eReaders don’t (but should) support.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    One of the big deals about fixed layout epub is textbooks . InDesign can create digital versions that closely resemble the print versions. That not only makes it easier for teacher and students to literally remain on the same page, it eliminates what research seems in indicate is a major downside to reflowable digital. Part of our memory of what we read in linked to where text is on a page. By fixing content in place down to the line and page breaks, that problem goes away.

    Both Laura Brady of Brady Type and Dave Bricker, who claims that InDesign is a \clunky starting point for making eBooks,\ seem to have a vested interest in the status quo, which involves hiring experts to either create a complex ebook from scratch or massage the former code InDesign produced into an ebooks. That is still the situation with Amazon’s fixed format for KF8. I know, I recently asked Kindle staff how to create a fixed-format book and was given a link to those third-party companies.

    That is most emphatically not the case with fixed format for iBooks created by the 2014 upgrade to InDesign. I know. I’ve taken my two more recent print books and, without doing a thing, used them to create a version that displays pixel perfect on an iPad. The few typographical features that don’t come through, mostly custom kerning and text scaling (width, height, slant) are hardly an issue.

    From what I have seen so far, the results are excellent, in fact far better than PDF in the early days when sending one to a printer could be a major hassle. Keep in mind what is really happening.

    * When I send a fixed format epub to the iBookstore, I’m releasing it for one app that was created by one company that controls every aspect of the hardware and software. It’s not going into the mess than is Android or all the various Kindle apps and devices. For a time, this is going to give Apple an advantage in the children’s book, textbooks, and complex ebook markets (i.e. cookbooks). And well it ought. Apple worked with Adobe to make this upgrade work with their products. Amazon, whose corporate offices are just minutes away from where Adobe develops InDesign, stood off and sneered. It will soon face the consequences of that arrogance.

    * Much like Adobe and Pagemaker created an in-practice PDF standard that everyone can target for compatibility with their print software, so Adobe and InDesign are now creating (via InDesign) a standard for fixed-format that others, such as Nooks and Kobo, can aim at meeting. A real-life standard is vastly better than one on paper. Adobe is giving companies other than Amazon a reason to get their readers up to epub specs.

    * The loser is now Amazon. Six months ago, creating visually rich ebooks for any ebook platform was a hassle. InDesign only created reflowable epub. Most ebook front ends from Amazon to Smashwords emphasized Word for input and dull and limited ebooks as the output. If you wanted more, you hired companies to hand-code. Amazon loved that because, with perhaps 70% of the ebook market, publishers who want to create complex ebooks had to create a Kindle edition, first and foremost. Amazon benefitted from that being expensive, since it meant that a publisher didn’t have the money to create editions for the other 30% of the market.

    That is no longer true. Design the template for an InDesign print version right (not that hard to do), and creating reflowable and fixed format epub version is trivial, taking literally a few minutes. From what I have seen, those versions look excellent on Apple devices. As I pointed out, that also gives other companies that use epub a target for their ereaders.

    And it leaves Amazon standing out in the cold. The reflowable version of Amazon’s KF8 format seems to be close enough to epub, that Amazon has no problem converting a reflowable epub from publishers into it. But I have been told that the same is not true for fixed-format KF8. It’s neither like nor as robust as fixed format epub. If Amazon wants publishers to have the same ease of creation, they’ll need to work with Adobe to add KF8 export to InDesign.

    Otherwise, for some publishers the Kindle edition of their ebooks will come out late if at all. And keep in mind something that’s of critical importance. An ebook sold by the iBookstore can only display on Apple devices. Whether that will remain the case only Apple knows. But if that same fixed-format epub can be displayed on Nook, Kobo and other readers, which run on almost every platform, then a publisher who releases an ebook with InDesign epub has reached almost every potential customer.

    The 2014 upgrade to InDesign is truly groundbreaking. Adobe is rapidly creating software that will do what I thought a few years ago was impossible, one document (a single-source to edit) that creates print and digital books of every sort. That’s an enormous time and cost-saver.

    Google: indesign fixed layout

    And you’ll find a wealth of material from various sources.

    1. Susan M Warren

      HTML 5 along with CSS3 and fixed layout capability will open the door to entirely new and rich e-book reading experiences. Epub3 will very quickly become fully supported on all e-readers, so rather than ask “why take the risk?” we should be asking why not? Check out the brilliance of our web-based publishing tool Publisher+ which renders beautiful design and text, and with its proprietary 2 and 3D storytelling, the completed book can be migrated to a range of eReading devices depending on what the storyteller or publisher wants.

    2. Laura Brady

      Hey Michael. I don’t know you at all, and I don’t think you know me which makes me wonder why you would presume to know my motivations for writing this piece, for exploring Adobe’s FXL export, and for leading the upcoming webcast. I would urge you to drop this new hobby as it only serves to point out what you don’t know.

      I use InDesign in some meaningful way every day. As Joshua points out below, I work closely with the Adobe engineers to make InDesign the best possible tool it can be. This first iteration of the FXL export is a tremendous thing, but it is not without some pitfalls. I encourage you to attend the webinar to hear in depth what I think works well and what will require some developer intervention.

    3. Dave Bricker

      Vested interest? Yes, but not in the status quo. I think eReader manufacturers can be more readily accused of that. After all, support for ePub3 is weak and inconsistent and this has paved the way for proprietary formats like Apple iBooks. PubML (Publishing with HTML) is a web-based HTML5 eBook format that bypasses all that mess—and the format is open source. The PubML publishing tools offer an intuitive, visual workflow that guides amateurs through the process of designing beautiful ePub and PubML eBooks—WITHOUT having to hire an expert.

      I create beautiful printed book layouts in Indesign and I love the software, but trying to get eBooks out of it (or eBooks in general that look good, nevermind consistent from one eReader to another) is a nightmare. I’ve made it my mission to make the web browser the most powerful and consistent platform for reflowable eBooks. Most eBooks look like data. Converting elegant printed books set in Indesign into ugly eBooks was actually what drove me to develop an alternative.

      1. Rachel Di Salle

        David, no disrespect at all, but I do believe you’ve missed the point — if a publisher is going to start developing content in one application, it makes the most sense that the tool it was created in should be the launching pad to deliver that same content to all the other required platforms. Adobe may not have it exactly right yet, but what they are understanding is thinned to create the tool that helps publishers streamline their workflows.

        Also, having known and worked with Laura Brady for years, I think it’s safe to say her goal has been to fight tooth and nail for publishers to bring their content into the digital space while retaining the integrity of the written word.

  3. John

    \it eliminates what research seems in indicate is a major downside to reflowable digital. Part of our memory of what we read in linked to where text is on a page. By fixing content in place down to the line and page breaks, that problem goes away.\

    Absolutely not, you are quoting pieces out of context. It’s not really about the page number but about volume. Sensing and manipulating a print book actually helps process information dramatically. Besides, research has been done on PDF files, which were fixed and paginated. In other words, allow me to call fool on anyone believing this fix this issue. It doesn’t at all, we must find a real solution.

    \Much like Adobe and Pagemaker created an in-practice PDF standard that everyone can target for compatibility with their print software, so Adobe and InDesign are now creating (via InDesign) a standard for fixed-format that others, such as Nooks and Kobo, can aim at meeting. A real-life standard is vastly better than one on paper. Adobe is giving companies other than Amazon a reason to get their readers up to epub specs.\

    No it isn’t, and there were a lot of problems with PDF features implementation in real life (like reflowable PDF for instance, which is a mess of gigantic proportion).

    If retailers aim at ID FXL only, then we are in big trouble. It means everyone is going to support hacks and markup that doesn’t make sense, and leave accessibility behind (ID team says accessibility is OK, it’s utter bullshit if you’re looking at the output closely). In other words, we will create the conditions for a collapse as it may well turn well-made files into a huge mess. It’s like promoting low quality and telling yourself it is OK if customers are sold a bad product.

    \those versions look excellent on Apple devices\

    Ebooks are not about looks, they are about substance. No matter how beautiful an EPUB is, if it’s not correctly marked-up it’s a really bad product. That is why it was so infuriating to see ID team privilege pixel-perfect over anything else : they have some big responsibility and actually making a case for ebook files so messed up that you just can’t make anything out of ID.

    There are some great minds at Adobe ID team but there is also a lot of incompetence judging by their actual work. If they were clever, they would hire a consultant as Laura Brady in my humblest opinion. This team needs expertise that it doesn’t really have as a matter of fact, especially as you think \better code\ is \code which looks nice\ — this is wrong on so many levels!

  4. Joshua Tallent

    @Michael Perry:

    I take issue with a lot of the assertions you make in your comment, but I’m going to address the one that I think is the most egregious: your low view of the work and contributions of professional eBook developers.

    Laura Brady, who is an excellent eBook developer and an even more excellent person, does not have \a vested interest in the status quo\ (and, as a side note, your view of the \status quo\ is completely wrong). Laura has done extensive testing on InDesign’s new export since before it was even released and is probably the one person outside of Adobe who actually knows well all of the things that the export does and does not do. Heck, she *created* the sample docs that Adobe is using in its marketing of the new version! I think that gives her a bullet-proof platform from which to talk about the export and explain what publishers need to know to be able to get the most out of it.

    See, that’s why you (yes, *you*) need professional eBook developers, whether they are independent or work for a publisher. Those of us who labor in the proper formatting of eBook files every day are the ones who have pushed and pushed to have more consistent standards, better formatting abilities, and more functionality, both in EPUB as an industry standard and in InDesign’s export. EPUB fixed layout did not just come out of nowhere. You seem to think that Adobe has somehow created this amazing thing all on its own. Actually, it is following an industry standard (EPUB 3), which is a direct result of years of hard work by many professionals in the publishing industry, including professional eBook developers. Adobe is also acting on the direct input of many professional eBook developers, including Laura, who sit in rooms with the InDesign team every year and say \here are the things we want to see you support in InDesign\, who send emails and bug reports and donate hours and hours of their own time to testing, tweaking, and understanding all of the intricacies of how these systems work.

    People (like you) who rely heavily on tools to do all the work will benefit every time a professional eBook developer like Laura Brady sits down, cracks open the code, and dissects what actually works and what actually does not work in the output from those tools. You should not be berating and bashing her in a public forum, you should be thanking her for the countless hours she spent testing and working with Adobe to ensure that what they have created is something that you and just push a button and use.

  5. Tom Semple

    Amazon’s current solution for textbooks is called ‘Print Replica’. It is basically a PDF with a wrapper that adds metadata and Amazon’s DRM. It also enables additional features such as ‘Xray’, Notebook and rental options. If you search for ‘etextbooks’ on, you can find more information. Not all etextbooks use Print Replica format, but thousands of them do. Device support is restricted to tablets and the Kindle desktop apps for PC and Mac. Of course PDF is trivial for publishers to supply, as compared with ePub 3 FXL.

    Amazon’s fixed-layout format is quite inadequate for textbooks, and I see it as mainly a stopgap to allow them to publish comic books and children’s books easily (and it is very easy to create these compared to ePub fixed layou). But they don’t have ‘accessible’ text, hyperlinks, annotation etc. that would open up more possibilities. I think more could be done with a vector format (e.g. SVG), since that can scale to different screen sizes smoothly, can be much less bulky, and can be made accessible to screen readers and mobile device accessibility features.

    I’m a EPUB FXL skeptic at this point, much in the spirit of David Bricker’s comment above. It’s not clear to me that Amazon should feel any need to support something similar at this point, in absence of evidence that it will actually catch on.

    But I’m also skeptical that stuffing reflowable epubs with multimedia and interactive features can make for a compelling and effective replacement for physical textbooks. Perhaps the trend is more towards web based learning like Khan Academy or MOOC’s to supplement classroom experience, rather than static ‘textbooks’.

    1. Ori Idan

      Tom Semple says he is skeptical about EPUB3 FXL, I can understand it since FXL is relatively complicated format which as inferred from Laura’s words, is not easy to create from inDesign.
      However, I think that the fact that Adobe as invested so much to create what they call “pixel perfect” output of inDesign to Fixed Layout EPUB3, shows that Adobe believes in this Format.
      As for Amazon, I hope they will in the future support the EPUB3 standard instead of creating their own version of everything, contributing to the segmentation of the eBook world

  6. Carl Diltz

    As a former InDesign user—I’m retired now—I applaud Adobe’s efforts to continue development of InDesign’s ebook export capabilities, though I must admit, I too am a skeptic when it comes to fixed layout epub. I just don’t see how it’s much better than a pdf if you design the pdf as an ebook, not a print book (and it’s not that much more work to design for both if you design for the ebook concurrently, not as an afterthought). The tools have been in place for some time for doing that. And as for textbooks, the verdict is obviously still out and it seems to me that the main sticking point there is not what tools or formats you use but, rather, what students want and what they can afford to pay. I do agree with Mr. Perry that the iPad is a great platform for textbooks. The E.O. Wilson Biology textbook is just amazing! I don’t agree with Mr. Perry that expertise in ebook production, well-represented in this thread by Laura Brady and Joshua Tallent, is at all irrelevant or somehow a prop for the status quo. Au contraire, the history of ebooks is littered with flotsam and jetsam of people (and companies) who didn’t know what they were doing. Expert help is always needed. Even the experts need expert help!

  7. Jenniferr Rene

    I simply cannot afford Adobe inDesign. So i was looking for an alternative and found Ultimate eBook Creator (UEC). I have several children’s ebooks that I created for Kindle using Ultimate eBook Creator.

    They have all turned out very well. Its not 100% perfect but the end results are amazing considering I just have to copy and paste into UEC and then click the generate for MOBI or EPUB or PDF.




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