Adobe’s New FXL Export
Today, Adobe releases a significant update to InDesign. One of the new features is a fixed-layout EPUB export option. This much anticipated feature is set to have a big impact on this ebook niche market.
The resulting EPUBs are pixel-perfect, EPUB3 reflections of the print InDesign layout. Really really. Objects are exported as if “Preserve Appearance from Layout” is checked, and “CSS Size” is set to fixed. The positioning is absolute and controlled at the word level via span tags with positioning and inline styling. Master page items will export and hold their spatial relationships as well.
The EPUB maintains the relationship between all the objects on the page with absolute pixel positioning. The text is live and searchable. This is big! Fixed-layout epubs have landed!
The export options windows are going to look very familiar to users who have been generating reflowable EPUBs from InDesign CC. There are a couple of key differences.
There are choices for how to export the document – as spreads, single landscape pages, and synthetic spreads. This decision is important as fixed-layout epub is one HTML file per page. How you choose to define that page affects the HTML setup. Synthetic spreads are two XHTML files which will display as a spread in locked-lansdcape orientation.
There is also a new option under the navigation TOC. When “none” is chosen, there will be no navigation document, only a thumbnail navigation on device. This option makes sense for children’s and other very simple content.
The conversion settings menu has nothing new. Under the CSS options, there is the option to add CSS but there is no way to disable CSS output altogether. This change is important to understand. Because of the way that InDesign renders the content, the CSS is critical to the rendering of the file. The position of the various page elements comes from there. The file will be a mess without the InDesign generated CSS. You can add another style sheet here that will apply to the whole document, but that’s your only option. The InDesign generated CSS looks like this:
As you can see, you can export a pretty full set of metadata from here.
This new export option creates positioning instructions at the word level, stopping at a word space. This is a critical piece of information. Anything that interrupts the width of the word will mess with the layout. Some layout habits will interfere with a clean export. Horizontal and vertical scaling is one good example. Scaling won’t export to epub – reflowable or fixed-layout. Why it is important to avoid it in a project destined for FXL is that an exported word will take up less space than expected causing a gappy layout.
This set of images is from Owl Kids book called Draw Out the Story. The first example shows the table of contents page exported as is with scaling in place. There are lots of unappealing gaps in the way the text is rendered. I got a message warning me that the scaling wouldn’t export.
When I re-export with the scaling removed, I get a cleaner page.
Where this potential export quirk is also important to keep in mind in with fonts. All of the fonts in your project must be TTF or OTF, must be packaged with the font and available for export and embedding. If the font is missing, the font won’t render in the correct width at the other end and you will get gaps or, worse, overlapping text. You’ve been warned!
Also be aware that white space will not export as expected. Tabs, em- and en-spaces and other white space will mess you up. Use first-line indent to create and indent, for example.
Layers and Transparencies
Complex layouts with layers that are expected to behave well with transparencies will trip you up in FXL EPUB. They won’t work as expected and will not knock-out in the way the print layout will.
This snippet is from an ID document with the frames on, illustrating all the layers and transparencies at work in this file.
Without any intervention, this ID file will export to FXL EPUB with this result.
Not quite right, as you can see. My workaround is to flatten all the artwork in this page into one background JPEG, setting behind the text in the ID files and in the resulting EPUB as well, giving me a nicer picture that looks as the designer intended.
Really complex layering from the ID file will also result is a faulty z-index making the addition of hyperlinks difficult.
Cross-references, text-based hyperlinks, and indexes don’t export at all in FXL EPUB. Hyperlinks applied to an object which go out to a URL are, at this point, the only kind of hyperlink that exports.
The HTML that comes out of this new export option is complex and painful to edit. Revision is best achieved by editing the InDesign file and re-exporting. Because the document is exported as a whole with styles numbering from beginning to end of a document, it’s not a good idea to export a single page with a changes but to re-run from scratch.
This FXL export gives you EPUBs that will work nicely in iBooks. They also work well on Kobo iOS and Android and in Google Play. They will not work at all on any Kindle devices and conversion to the KF8-FXL format will be difficult.
The export does not include any work-level IDs in the span tags, making the layering of media overlays a little tricky.
One Last Thought
Despite all of these cautions, this EPUB export option is really tremendous. It will be a very easy solution for a broad range of publishers. In fact, as I don’t actually like this format a lot and really think it should be used only in a very limited way, this new export option makes me uneasy. It will be too easy now to create a FXL EPUB!