In Defence of Fixed-Layout Ebooks
Some people really dislike fixed-layout ebooks, how do you defend them?
I usually start off by agreeing with those people! Let me be the first to say that fixed layout should not be used for text-heavy books or read on a phone. The simple reflowable ebook along with all the great work coming through with EPUB4/PWP and accessibility are all vital but I’d also argue that is not the full story.
When done well they are not old fashioned or symptomatic of publisher simply holding on to their print design.
Yes, the fixed-layout EPUB3 format is for a larger screen and for people whose sight is unimpaired but that said as increasing numbers of schools, offices and homes in the western world have large screen and good web connections so why not use our rich illustration, photography, design and layout skills along with animation, video, audio and interactions to make modern illustrated and non-fiction publishing that is visually appealing and/or helps communicate complex information. When done well they are not old fashioned or symptomatic of publisher simply holding on to their print design.
So, doesn’t the lack of support for fixed layout put people off making them?
In a word, yes. It is a real shame that Amazon is dominating the ebook industry whilst simultaneously having a really poor fixed-layout ebook format. CircularFLO does export to the Amazon fixed-layout KF8 straight from InDesign but it is severely hamstrung by Amazon’s poor file format. Audio, video, animation, read aloud and all but the most basic interactions are missing. Publishers often tell me they need to make a lowest common denominator ‘dumbed down’ ebook for Amazon and then complain they don’t see the sales they want.
The great work being done by EDRLab with Readium 2 looks set to give us a free and ‘vendor neutral’ well-featured ebook reader available to every desktop and device later this year.
But… I do see a rosier future. Just last week we saw the news that Apple seem to be revamping their Books software to challenge Amazon’s dominance. Also the great work being done by EDRLab with Readium 2 looks set to give us a free and ‘vendor neutral’ well-featured ebook reader available to every desktop and device later this year. This has lots of potential. Beyond that I have faith that the W3C will bring browser-based ebooks and offline reading to all in a few years time. In the meantime using the EPUB3 standard is the best way to make our publications future proof.
Using the EPUB3 standard is the best way to make our publications future proof.
What are your favourite features of fixed-layout EPUB3?
My favourite feature has to be read aloud. Picture book publishers such as Nosy Crow, Pan Macmillan and Kids Can Press have used CircularFLO to automate the process of adding read aloud text highlighting to their InDesign files and exporting out to fixed layout EPUB3. ‘Media overlays’ as the they are called in the standard are supported in iBooks and Readium. In fact with the same read aloud code we have been able to highlight sheet music as well as text and with Readium the music and highlights can also be slowed down, sped up and skipped too. It’s very cool.
Also, as it is all standards based, the way that HTML5 and CSS3 web code can be placed into EPUB3 means that complex animations and interactions can be brought in from other apps such as Hype and sites such as Codepen making it really powerful.
Why have you decided to reduce the price of CircularFLO?
Pricing software is a really tricky business. It can be both too expensive and too cheap at the same time! As ebook software is pretty niche we have always charged by the book. This means larger publisher pay more but we also offer discounts based on volume. For a specialist book or a self-publisher just starting out or looking to experiment we wanted to make it possible for them to make a well featured beautiful ebook from as little as $50 / £35. More on that here.
Do you have a favourite fixed layout ebook?
That’s easy. I have recently been involved in the finest example of interactive children’s story telling ever seen – Galdo’s Gift from UK design and animation studio Tapocketa contains custom movies on every spread, background audio, professional narration and read text highlighting, placed web code, personalisation and interactive animations and puzzles! All wrapped up in a valid fixed-layout EPUB3 for the iBooks Store.
Starting off from InDesign and CircularFLO, we then did a lot of hand coding. Working within the restrictions of Apple iPad and selling through the iBooks Store was a frustrating education at times but the results are definitely worth it. It comes out next week and is already available for free preview. I recommend it as a great advert for what is possible with fixed-layout EPUB3.