When you want to create a high design eBook the workflow just screams “use fixed layout” format. Until now, InDesign users had to be HTML experts to get their finely crafted pages to view reliably on electronic devices. This was the only way one could get a layout where page items were “fixed” to positions on the page. Other than that, there was little in the way of options.

Face it, reflowable ePub is simply HTML styled with CSS and wrapped with some instructions to the ePub reading device. This puts your designs at the mercy of the device reader and the Adobe ePub export.

The simple answer may now be to use the new Fixed Layout format export which came with the 2014 release of Adobe InDesign (June 18). With this format, all of your page items, down to each individual word and graphic item, is viewed on the electronic page precisely as designed. How does InDesign do it? Well, except for text and text styling, everything else is exported as png or jpeg images. This includes everything from graphic lines to bullet icons (those little fancy dots you might put in front of a bulleted text item). These items are converted to an image file, given a CSS class, and positioned in the ePub document using absolute positioning (X and Y coordinates).

Each and every word of the text is also given a span class and positioned on the page using absolute positioning. With all of this code and image files, comes a beautiful layout pretty much guaranteed to look the same on whatever device it may be viewed, just reduced in size as needed. It’s more like a PDF but with a lot more capability. There are some caveats though: type fonts must be TTF or OTF (and embeddable), and text hyperlinking is out of the question (for now). Also, you just don’t want to scale your text, and stay away from complex layouts having transparency.

Should your project’s sheer amount of text or the lack of hyperlink capability dictate using the reflowable format, there are some things you can do to help control what happens when the user decides to resize the text.

Reflowable Format Do’s and Don’ts.

  • Plan on breaking your book up into discrete files. You can do this two ways: (1) create your spreads so the export mechanism will create the files for you; (2) create each section (or page) as a separate file, combine the files into a book, and export the book.
  • Provide for text expansion if, and when, text is enlarged.
  • If you use individual text frames for text and images, the Articles panel is the only way to guarantee what will be exported and in what order.
  • Long text that needs to flow from page to page requires images be anchored so they can move when text reflows.
  • Don’t expect reflowable ePubs to be the same as a fixed layout. They can have much of the same features as their fixed counterparts but so much depends on the reading device. For instance, on the iPad, text can highlighted, converted to a note, defined in a dictionary, and searched. When searched, located text is listed in a popup menu. The user then clicks on its entry to jump to that location.

Hybrid Layouts

The IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) has been working on what is called a Hybrid Layout since 2012. The idea is to support comic book and fixed layout with HTML and CSS just as we are now able to use polygons for text and image containers. The specification is looking promising but it is a work in progress.

Until hybrid layouts becomes a standard, you can create a reflowable book that looks like a fixed layout and be quite successful. But there are limitations. One is with landscape orientation. The reflowable export format assumes that your pages will be read vertically. If you create your pages with horizontal orientation, the InDesign export will divide the page into two vertical facing pages.

The Original Layout

The Resulting Export

Forcing Page Breaks

With InDesign CC you have several options for telling the ePub export to break a document into separate HTML files.

Images and Graphic containers:

You can tell an individual page item to act as a page break using the Object Export Options dialog. Open this dialog from InDesign’s Options menu. Click on the EPUB and HTML tab and check Custom Layout. Here you can check the Insert Page Break option and select Before Image, After Image, or Before and After Image. Optionally you can select Float Left or Float Right to cause text to run around a page item.

You can also set up an object style that will globally cause each page item assigned the style to act as a page break. As part of creating the style, check EPUB and HTML under Export Options. Select the entry to open a panel where you can enable the Custom Layout option. Here you can set Alignment and Spacing with the Insert Page Break. You also have the option of setting up a Float Left or Float right as with the individual page item.

 Object Style Options Dialog

Designate Text for Page Breaks:

You can designate one or more paragraph styles to act as a page break.

For a single paragraph style, check Split Document in the General Tab for Reflowable Layout Export Options and choose the paragraph style from the Single Paragraph Style drop down list.

For more than one paragraph style, check Split Document (EPUB only) in the Export Tagging tab for Paragraph Style Options as part of setting up the style. Next enable the Based on Paragraph Style Export Tags option in the Export Options General tab when you export. Of course, you need to assign the styles to the appropriate text in your document.

Placing Images

To have an image flow with the text, it must be anchored. With InDesign CS5.5 and above, this is done by dragging the little blue box from the image container to the desired location in the text flow.

In the example below the top image is anchored to the text and given a Float Right export option. The image at the bottom was anchored to the text but without a float option. Lastly, the two images at the end were grouped to place the items side by side.


Examples of image placement

Reflowable ePub Guidelines

There is little to be said about guidelines for a reflowable ePub document. In the end, page size will be controlled by the device. Use whatever page size gives you a good indication of your page design. You might want to start with some sample pages before you get involved with a project and test your layouts on as many devices as you have at your disposal. For text size, plan on the export size to be 1.6 times the size of your text. Why 1.6? Most print documents use 10 pt on 12 pt lead as a standard. But electronic devices suggest no less than 16 point (10 pts x 1.6 = 16 pts). So the export does this conversion for you.

In Parting

By all means, take advantage of the new fixed layout export format for InDesign. But don’t give up on reflowable. After all, the way technology changes almost daily, there may be a time in the not so distant future when we will be able to mix the two together to get everything we want from our ePub exports.