Fixed Layout or Reflowable

Today, fixed layout or Reflowable eBooks, seems to be a big question now that Adobe InDesign CC 2014 supports a fixed layout export format for EPUB 3.0. Yes, we have had the ability to create fixed layout ePubs for “ever”, but it involved having to know how to write HTML and CSS. This is certainly not the kind of thing most designers would want to tackle. Even for the tried and true reflowable format, creating eBooks has never been point-and-click easy.

Fixed Layout Ups and Downs

If you are intending to create a design-intensive eBook, the great thing about this new fixed layout format is that it is super easy to do. Just place images and text anywhere on your pages and export. A few simple settings in the export dialog and you are done. Best of all, the result, when viewed in a compatible reader, will be as designed. The definitive word here is “compatible”, as Apple’s iBook is the only reader that we know of that currently fits within that category.

Additionally, there are a few things you must be aware of when creating your masterpiece.

  • You must use either TrueType or OpenType type fonts. And don’t mess with the font’s horizontal or vertical sizing. Of course, you also need to make sure font licensing will allow embedding in your document.
  • Some formatting options are not supported, notably drop shadow for text or page items.
  • Of the formatting options that are supported, some may only be supported using image files created during the export process. This includes design items such as borders, rules, and bullets.
  • Page item hyperlinks are supposed to be supported, but tests made so far have failed. This includes page links for table of content items. But then, your highly designed fixed format eBook may not need a table of contents or hyperlinks.
  • If you enjoy the support for text and object styling for reflowable eBooks, you will be disappointed to discover that the fixed layout export ignores your style/class names, so complementing the export with your own CSS style sheets is pretty much out of the question. That is, unless you want to crack open the EPUB and edit the HTML.

EPUB 3.0

The anticipation with EPUB 3.0 was to have new features that would greatly enhance the reader experience, such as embedded audio, video, and interactivity. Along with this, the new standard was sure to fix some of the frustration with files behaving differently depending on the reading system involved. Admittedly, as designers we were anxious to see what the reality would bring and how much of CSS3 would be supported. The June 18 announcement was music to our ears. Would InDesign’s support for EPUB 3.0 be all that was anticipated? We are still creating test documents just to explore the possibilities. Along with testing the resulting eBooks on the iPad, we were also curious to see how the design elements were being supported in code. 

Imagine, popping open a fixed layout EPUB package to find a gazillion image files created to support every line, circle, paragraph rule, or transparency found in the document. What is amazing is how fast the export does create all of these files. The next question remains if all of these files actually affect performance. That is yet to be evaluated. As compared with a small reflowable EPUB, the same document exported as fixed layout took considerably longer to attach to an email. Once received on the iPad, it did not seem to take any longer for one format to open than the other.

I realize this is a first release for InDesign fixed layout support. I am sure there will be many more layout features and interactive items to come with future releases. It’s just that with all that is now supported in CSS3, reverting back to displaying every graphic item with an image file seems to be a step backward. But it works, and for sure, these image files will display the design elements as created no matter the reader used.

Reflowable eBook Format

The reflowable eBook format is well established and definitely supported by most major readers. Users on mobile devices who want to read the content easily should not be put aside for the sake of an attractive layout. This is where the combined techniques of CSS3 layout and responsive eBook design can come together. The only layout element that can’t be supported with the reflowable eBook format is text layered over images. EPUB 3 and its use of HTML5 and CSS3 enable advanced design possibilities. 
With regions, shapes, and exclusions now part of the CSS3 specification, high design layouts can be created for reflowable eBooks. The problem is that it takes some doing to make the designs work and is not a task for the novice user. And then, there is the problem of device reader support.

Going Forward

Even with the concerns surrounding the new fixed layout format, just for the sake of simplicity, I would definitely use it for eBooks that have little text and lots of images. In doing so, I would tend to shy away from using a lot of lines or graphic elements in my layouts just to minimize the number of image files generated. For me, the idea would be to favor artsy layouts featuring images and limited text when it comes to using the Fixed Layout export format in InDesign. Until more readers support EPUB 3 and its advanced styling features, you may want to limit your market to the iPad, however Google‘s reader for Android may soon be a contender.


In the previous blog (July 1) it was mentioned that the Fixed Layout export retained the names of object styles in the HTML. This is not the case. The names are given generic indexed names similar to the paragraph and character styles. The only way we were able to get drop shadows on rectangles was to change the class designation in the HTML file to correspond with our custom css file style class.