Forging a Way Forward for Fixed-Layout Ebooks

Fixed-layout digital content has remained a stubbornly niche format in the broader ereading marketplace, and it always may. But their prevalence could soon be expanding, and according to Laura Brady, ebook production expert and Principal at Brady Type who joined Digital Book World for a live webcast yesterday, the Adobe Creative Cloud’s June update to InDesign represents a big step in that direction.

Related: Why Enhanced Ebooks Are Stuck in Neutral

“This is big. I mean really big,” Brady said, referring to the fixed-layout export feature instituted with the upgrade.

The main reason: until recently, ebook developers needed either to hand-build the HTML or use plug-ins in order to convert their work in Adobe InDesign into fixed-layout digital content. Now, the export feature creates “pixel-perfect layouts” in EPUB3 code, with the relationships between elements delineated in pixels, not percentages.

And because style sheets–central to reflowable ebook production–matter less than structure and good typography do in the new export, “even the messiest files will export well,” Brady said, “at least up to a point.”

Here are six other tips and caveats (expanding on some earlier tidbits) Brady offered for ebook designers getting acquainted with the new export:

  • Hyperlinks aren’t exporting. This is one of the biggest issues with the new feature, and it’s one Adobe engineers are working on resolving. Until they do, ebook developers will need to go into the code to manually insert links. Speaking of which…
  • “Editing the code is hard,” Brady conceded, especially for designers more familiar with InDesign than with traditional ebook production. But sometimes the trickiest challenges are best surmounted with the simplest solutions: pinpoint where in the code an issue is arising, and address it with trial and error.
  • Accessibility issues need further exploring. But that should be seen as an opportunity, Brady said, not a hindrance. As one attendee pointed out on Twitter during yesterday’s webcast:

  • Understand typography limitations. Don’t use horizontal or vertical scaling. And effects like kerning and skewing won’t export from InDesign. Designers can use OpenType fonts, but certain features (alternate glyphs, small caps, fractions) aren’t supported. Mathematical elements, though, should export just fine.
  • Enhance away! Fixed-layout content needn’t be completely static by any means. You can add extra CSS that applies to the entire book, plus Javascript to enable animation and simple interactivities.
  • Testing, testing, testing. As every professional ebook developer knows, it’s crucial to test all your work on the full range of devices readers will use to access it. The spec varies among the major retailers’ formats, with Kindle’s KF8 by far the most different. Be advised, and proceed accordingly.

Ultimately and needless to say, the fate of fixed-layout digital content in the ebook market is still very much in the hands of publishers, many of whom haven’t seen great returns so far. The new export feature is likely to lower costs by making the production process easier for a wider range of designers, and the quality of the fixed-layout content it will help them create may also attract more publishers’ notice and spark more readers’ interest.

In that sense, then, the future of fixed-layout ebooks rests in developers’ hands–and is far from fixed.

4 thoughts on “Forging a Way Forward for Fixed-Layout Ebooks

  1. Michael W. Perry

    I’m absolutely delighted by the new fixed-layout features of InDesign. For ebooks that need more complex formatting (children’s, cookbooks, how-to books, academic and textbooks), it has turned the entire ebook creation process on its head.
    Until this release, the incentive for the publishers of such ebooks was to hire a third-party firm to create, at great expense, a hand-coded, fixed-format ebook. With Amazon owning about 70% of the market, its version came first and sometimes not enough money remained to create epub versions for iPads and Nooks. At no cost to itself, Amazon got an exclusive.
    That’s no longer true. Now, all the design and layout work to create a print version exports, almost perfectly, to a fixed layout epub that displays marvelously on Apple devices and, I am told, some Nooks. Publishers who use InDesign–and there are a lot of them–can with almost no effort or cost–create versions for platforms other than Amazon. Amazon has become the sticking point. Fixed layout versions of its proprietary KF8 format will be delayed and, in some cases, not created at all.
    Amazon’s \does not play well with others\ attitude is now becoming costly. Having a proprietary format and refusing to work with Adobe to add KF8 export to InDesign will soon mean that editions of ebooks will either not be available for Kindles or available only in an inferior format.
    That said, there is a downside to creating fixed-layout epubs. They’ll certainly display in iBooks on an iPhone. I tried it with mine. But a 6×9-inch book reduced to a tiny screen is illegible. To really be useful for consumers, ebooks need to retail in both reflowable and fixed-layout at one and the same time. Buying one should also mean you’ve bought the other.
    I’ve talked with Apple about that, and that’s not currently the situation. Publishers must upload each version separately as if they were two different books. Even the display pages are different. They can only link them by making them part of the same series. And readers who buy one gain no access to the other. If they want to read on both their iPad and their iPhone, they must pay twice. No one likes that.
    It’s part and parcel of something Apple needs to do. It’s retail store needs to add a host of new features. The free review copy process needs to be more flexible. Buying the first ebook in a series should allow discounts for later versions. Apple should also enable authors to build more extensive relationships with their leaders.
    Apple may not be able to compete with Amazon as the Everything Store, but it can certainly make itself into an ebook retailer with a host of better features for authors and readers. Fixed-layout epub is a giant step in that direction.

    1. Theresa M. Moore

      An ebook is a separate entity and is considered an option to the print book, not an add-on. No particular ereader or phone can flow the content the same way, and in Apple’s case, must be compatible with Apple software to be displayed in the first place. Fxl epub is currently a developer’s dream, but it may not work with most devices currently on the market. I don’t know why you want an ebook to become in integral part of the print book. Most people see it as a useless extra they can’t use. Besides, the way the market functions right now, you are not going to convince most publishers that an ebook is a part of the print book. Better to leave things the way they are for now until the market focus shifts. A print book is basically a Barbie doll. The ebook is like an extra costume or prop, and the customer still has to pay for it, because the costume is an accessory. Think of an ebook that way, and you see why it must be bought separately.

  2. Steve Scott

    The conflict between fixed layout and accessibility simply cannot be ignored. This is almost as bad as an un-tagged PDF – OK actually it might be worse. Not only should both a semantically correct version of the book be available, it should be part of the same file. Until we can produce a beautiful page layout WHILE keeping the semantic relationship and reading order intact, we are sacrificing 15-20% of the community.

    1. John


      We all know fixed-layout is a huge challenge as regards accessibility and it is a real problem, even when you are doing your best to make a fixed-layout EPUB the more accessible it can be.

      When you are discussing this problem with the Adobe guys they just say “don’t worry, EPUB is accessible by nature” but that is an insane lie we must condemn. It takes expertise and good practices to *really* make an EPUB accessible, either reflow or fxl.

      We must not forget that picking a color which is legible on an eInkScreen or in night mode is already doing accessibility. So no, an EPUB file isn’t necessarily accessible by nature.

      Adobe’s answer just proves their lack of **competency** and they *have to* hire experts like Laura to stop making what low quality stuff which screws users AND readers—if they don’t, I am ready to challenge Douglas Waterfall to a boxing match: he wins, I quit the only job I am competent in (eProduction) and go work at McDonald’s; I win, he quits.



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