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Fill InDesign’s Fixed-Layout EPUB Gaps with CircularFLO

Published By: CircularFLO
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Fixed-layout ebooks en­able the ex­pan­sion of the Visual Web in­to of­fline read­ing.

Ask any epub­lish­ing ex­pert: fixed-layout ebooks are the fu­ture of media-rich and in­ter­ac­tive dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions for wide dis­tri­b­u­tion. Standard EPUB ebooks, even with the EPUB 3.0 spec, are lim­it­ed to be­ing text-heavy con­tent with the op­tion for a few pho­tos here and there. Fixed-layout EPUB, how­ev­er, is a broad fea­ture set ex­pan­sion of stan­dard EPUB, but al­so still open source and stan­dard­ized un­der the EPUB file spec. Fixed-layout ebooks open an en­tire world of con­tent and in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty in the forms of full-page im­ages, lay­er­ing text over im­agery, an­i­ma­tions, em­bed­ded video, em­bed­ded au­dio, read-along au­dio, con­sis­tent cus­tom font use, and much more. The ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment pos­si­ble in fixed-layout ebooks is an or­der of mag­ni­tude above stan­dard EPUB, what we call “re­flow­able” EPUB, and en­ables au­thors, pub­lish­ers, and de­sign­ers to em­brace in ebooks the grow­ing trend of visually-based ed­u­ca­tion; fixed-layout ebooks en­able the ex­pan­sion of the Visual Web in­to of­fline read­ing.

If you still need con­vinc­ing of the pow­er of fixed-layout ebooks and what the for­mat can of­fer your next ebook project, have a look at the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples, which are all fixed-layout ebooks in a range of gen­res such as kid’s books with read aloud text high­light­ing, cook books with video step by steps, vi­su­al guide­books with hun­dreds of sound clips, and cof­fee ta­ble books full of pho­tog­ra­phy. Fixed-layout ebooks are sup­port­ed by new de­vices from all the ma­jor ebook­stores in­clud­ing Apple iBooks, Kobo, and, in the KF8 na­tive for­mat rather than EPUB, by Amazon Kindle.

Examples of fixed-layout ebooks. Click to view each book on iBooks or Amazon.

Disadvantages to Creating Fixed-Layout eBooks in InDesign Alone

Adobe InDesign is the in­dus­try stan­dard page lay­out tool for print de­sign and all forms of dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tion pro­duc­tion, so, nat­u­ral­ly, it’s the lay­out tool the world us­es to cre­ate fixed-layout ebooks… Well, it’s the tool the world’s ebook cre­ators use if they have the right ver­sion… And, even with the right ver­sion, they can’t use InDesign for the whole fixed-layout ebook cre­ation process. Most of the time oth­er pro­grams and hand-coding the ebook’s XML is re­quired.

Oh! And, of course, there’s the in­abil­i­ty to cre­ate a fixed-layout ebook for Amazon Kindle from InDesign.

InDesign CS6 can’t make fixed-layout ebooks na­tive­ly at all. Neither can InDesign CC’s 2012 through early-2014 ver­sions. The best workaround, with­out an add-in like the one I’ll dis­cuss be­low, is to ex­port to re­flow­able EPUB and per­form ele­phan­tine amounts of code writ­ing in the EPUB’s con­stituent XML, HTML, CSS, and Javascript files.

InDesign CC 2014, re­leased in June 2014, in­tro­duced the most rudi­men­ta­ry of fixed-layout sup­port but with­out even the abil­i­ty to cre­ate hyperlinks–internal or external–within the ebook. It al­so lacked the abil­i­ty to cre­ate any form of an­i­ma­tion in the ebook. Animation, sub­tle or strik­ing, is an in­cred­i­bly ef­fec­tive tool for in­creas­ing en­ter­tain­ment, en­hanc­ing and clar­i­fy­ing points made in the text, es­pe­cial­ly for adult learn­ers, and for en­rich­ing the de­sign aes­thet­ic. Animation can be in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to fixed-layout ebooks pro­duced with InDesign CC 2014, but the an­i­ma­tions must be cre­at­ed out­side of InDesign, in a pro­gram like Adobe Edge Animate or some oth­er HTML5 an­i­ma­tion tool, and then im­port­ed in­to the InDesign lay­out through a rather clunky process.

InDesign just can’t do the en­tire fixed-layout ebook cre­ation by it­self.

In InDesign’s CC 2014.1 (October 2014) re­lease, Adobe ex­pand­ed its fixed-layout cre­ation fea­ture set but still didn’t com­plete it. Decade old Flash SWF an­i­ma­tion pre­sets lan­guish­ing in InDesign since the func­tion­al demise of Flash as an an­i­ma­tion for­mat were fi­nal­ly re­cod­ed to en­able their use in fixed-layout ebooks, thus of­fer­ing the first in­te­grat­ed ebook an­i­ma­tion tools in­side InDesign. With the ex­cep­tion of Smoke and Fly and Blur, which re­main un­us­able for ebooks, all 42 an­i­ma­tion pre­sets can be ap­plied sin­gu­lar­ly to text frames, im­ages, and oth­er ob­jects. In ad­di­tion to un­lock­ing the Animation and Timing pan­els fea­tures for fixed-layout, Adobe al­so en­abled multi-state ob­jects (MSO), but­tons, and cross-reference, in­dex, and TOC links. And hy­per­links could fi­nal­ly be cre­at­ed di­rect­ly in InDesign (and ex­pect­ed to func­tion in the ex­port­ed EPUB) in­stead of hav­ing to man­u­al­ly code hy­per­links in­to the ex­port­ed EPUB.

Still, the cur­rent ver­sion of InDesign lacks es­sen­tial fea­tures such as the afore­men­tioned abil­i­ty to cre­ate KF8 ebooks, the for­mat re­quired by the world’s largest ebook re­tail­er. The Kindle Plugin for InDesign, which for­mer­ly al­lowed ex­port­ing di­rect­ly from InDesign to Kindle’s re­quired KF8 and MOBI for­mats, has long since been out of date–it hasn’t been up­dat­ed to be com­pat­i­ble with any ver­sion of CC–and nev­er sup­port­ed fixed-layout any­way. Even the KindleGen desk­top EPUB-to-KF8 con­ver­tor lacks re­li­able fixed-layout conversion–if it runs, which is hit or miss with mod­ern op­er­at­ing sys­tems like OS X Mavericks and Yosemite and Windows 8, all of which post-date KindleGen’s fi­nal 2009 up­date.

InDesign CC 2014 al­so lacks an ef­fec­tive way of cre­at­ing read-along–audio nar­ra­tion with per word or per sen­tence high­light­ing in time with the nar­ra­tor. Read-along is be­com­ing all but ex­pect­ed in children’s books while al­so in­creas­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty amongst busy, Audible- and Books-On-Disc-generation adults who en­joy the idea of a sin­gle ti­tle that they can choose to read or have read to them.

Where InDesign shines, of course, is in plac­ing text and im­agery on the would-be-ebook page and the un­fet­tered free­dom of­fered in ar­rang­ing and styling that text and im­agery. As the name im­plies, fixed-layout is, ex­cept­ing de­lib­er­ate an­i­ma­tions, video, and oth­er in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty, a sta­t­ic re­pro­duc­tion of the InDesign lay­out. Where one places an im­age in InDesign, read­ers see that im­age in an eread­er. Full-page back­ground im­ages set as 10% opaque in InDesign are 90% trans­par­ent, “ghost­ed” back­ground im­ages in an eread­er. Whichever–and how­ev­er many–fonts a de­sign­er us­es in InDesign, those same fonts, at the same sizes, us­ing the same lead­ing, in­dents, col­ors, and (most) trans­for­ma­tions ap­pear in eread­ers. In that re­spect, fixed-layout ebook bridges the gap be­tween re­flow­able EPUB and PDF. In short, fixed-layout is what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSISWYG). That’s what makes InDesign the ide­al tool for cre­at­ing fixed-layout ebooks. InDesign of­fers more cre­ative free­dom and cre­ative power–and greater ease-of-use–than any oth­er ap­pli­ca­tion in the page lay­out or ebook cre­ation spaces. InDesign just can’t do the en­tire fixed-layout ebook cre­ation by it­self.

Top 10 Things CircularFLO Can Do That InDesign Alone Can’t

  1. Fixed Layout from InDesign CS6 and CC 2013
  2. Export to Amazon KF8
  3. Read aloud text high­light­ing
  4. SVG live text on a path
  5. Easy to share CSS an­i­ma­tions
  6. Option to use live text fonts with­out ob­fus­ca­tion (re­quired for KF8 and Readium)
  7. Searchable ‘em­bed­ded’ text (re­quired for PostScript and fonts with­out a dig­i­tal li­cense)
  8. Live text trans­paren­cy and drop shad­ows
  9. Automatic epub­check val­i­da­tion
  10. Clean ed­itable code

Filling the InDesign Gaps

InDesign is the ab­solute best tool for cre­at­ing the base of fixed-layout ebooks–the page geom­e­try, the text, the im­agery. Beyond that, InDesign needs help. Many de­sign­ers fill in the miss­ing fea­tures by crack­ing open InDesign’s ex­port­ed EPUB and edit­ing the XML, HTML, CSS, and Javascript code by hand. That is a hor­ri­ble so­lu­tion for many, many rea­sons. Unfortunately, it’s the best so­lu­tion most know be­cause most haven’t heard of CircularFLO, which has been help­ing big pub­lish­ers like Hachette, Penguin Random House, and Pan Macmillan in the United Kingdom for years.

The CircularFLO in­tro­duc­tion video from YouTube.

CircularFLO, now in ver­sion 5, is an es­tab­lished add-in for InDesign CS6, CC, CC 2014, and fu­ture ver­sions of InDesign that fills in –and is com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ing to fill in — all the miss­ing fea­tures of fixed-layout cre­ation in InDesign. Moreover, CircularFLO runs in­side InDesign so that one need nev­er leave the book cre­ation en­vi­ron­ment.

CircularFLO’s fea­tures are so com­plete, in fact, that each of the fixed-layout ebook ex­am­ples I gave above was cre­at­ed en­tire­ly in InDesign with CircularFLO. They were all cre­at­ed be­fore InDesign CC 2014.1, with many made in InDesign CS6, which pre­dates any na­tive fixed-layout fea­tures. No ex­ter­nal an­i­ma­tion pro­grams were used, none re­quired hand-coding for full func­tion­al­i­ty, and ex­port­ing fixed-layout ebooks for Apple iBooks, Kobo, and Amazon Kindle was all done straight out of InDesign with a sin­gle click.

Even if the add-in did noth­ing else, the abil­i­ty to ex­port di­rect­ly to Kindle KF8 would jus­ti­fy its use. Like or not, Amazon is the world’s largest ebook sell­er by a hefty mar­gin. Trying to sell an ebook cre­ation prod­uct such as InDesign with­out the abil­i­ty to make an ebook that can be sold in that world’s largest ebook­store is ab­surd. Unfortunately, ab­surd or not, that’s InDesign. That, again, is the most valu­able fea­ture among many ad­van­tages to adding CircularFLO to an InDesign-based fixed-layout pro­duc­tion work­flow.

CircularFLO Creativity Enhancements

From a pure­ly cre­ative per­spec­tive, CircularFLO ver­sion 5 fills sev­er­al gaps while al­so ex­pand­ing on fea­tures al­ready in InDesign CC 2014.1.

Whereas InDesign of­fers 49 Javascript-based an­i­ma­tions, CircularFLO in­cludes more than 70 CSS an­i­ma­tions. Even bet­ter, these an­i­ma­tions can be chained to­geth­er. An ob­ject can zoom in from the left, pul­sate on the page for a user-definable amount of time, and then fade out to­ward the right. Only one na­tive InDesign an­i­ma­tion can be ap­plied to a sin­gle ob­ject, thus an ob­ject can zoom in or out, but not both. Applying the same an­i­ma­tion, or se­quence of an­i­ma­tions, to mul­ti­ple ob­jects and shar­ing an­i­ma­tion set­tings across pages and across dif­fer­ent books is al­so pos­si­ble with CircularFLO, with­out hav­ing to re­con­fig­ure all the set­tings every time as InDesign re­quires.

CircularFLO ful­ly em­pow­ers fixed-layout ebooks built in InDesign, but it al­so fa­cil­i­tates and eas­es the usu­al headaches from InDesign-based ebook pro­duc­tion.

It even en­hances font us­age all by it­self. EPUB can use any TrueType or OpenType font… as long as that font sup­ports em­bed­ding. If it doesn’t, well, it can’t be used in fixed-layout or there’s a sig­nif­i­cant risk of font sub­sti­tu­tion. PostScript Type 1 fonts can’t be used at all. Fortunately CircularFLO elim­i­nates both of those lim­i­ta­tions. Any font InDesign supports–TrueType, OpenType, or Type 1–with or with­out em­bed­ding al­lowed can be used re­li­ably with fixed-layout ebooks cre­at­ed by CircularFLO. And, of course, all that text, re­gard­less of font, is search­able text.

In fact, CircularFLO can do some­thing else InDesign can’t: it can ren­der the text in Type on a Path ob­jects. Type on a path is con­vert­ed to SVG, which, be­ing XML-based, en­ables eread­ers to search the text with­in as eas­i­ly as para­graph type. Searching is es­sen­tial for text­books and how-to books, among oth­ers.

Before CircularFLO v5, cre­at­ing read-along text was phe­nom­e­nal­ly ar­du­ous, re­quir­ing the use of the ob­scure prepa­ra­tion ap­pli­ca­tions like Audacity or iKaraoke to tran­scribe and in­sert au­dio mark­ers in­to a nar­ra­tion track. Then, the tran­scrip­tion had to be marked up with per-word start-time and end-time XML tags. The text be­ing nar­rat­ed had to be edit­ed on the page to wrap it in unique iden­ti­fy­ing XML tags as well by man­u­al­ly edit­ing the fixed-layout EPUB code af­ter ex­port. That was al­so how to in­sert cod­ing to mar­ry the tran­scrip­tion file with the au­dio and ac­ti­vate syn­chro­nized play­ing up­on page load or user ac­ti­va­tion. Now, thanks in no small part to me ex­plain­ing to the folks at Circular Software ex­act­ly how dif­fi­cult the usu­al process was, CircularFLO eas­es the pain by an or­der of mag­ni­tude and en­ables adding read-along to an ebook en­tire­ly with­in InDesign. The CircularFLO method is sim­ple and re­quires noth­ing more com­pli­cat­ed than click­ing a few but­tons on the Read Aloud Tools pan­el while se­lect­ing text frames that con­tain the text to be nar­rat­ed. Drag the nar­ra­tion au­dio file on­to the paste­board, pick a word high­light col­or, and press the down ar­row key a few times to com­plete the process. It re­al­ly is as sim­ple as that. Read-along au­dio, with word high­light­ing, even works on Type on a Path ob­jects and text em­bed­ded in­side im­ages!

The abil­i­ty to cre­ate read-along func­tion­al­i­ty im­plies that CircularFLO han­dles em­bed­ded au­dio. It does. It al­so sup­ports em­bed­ded video, which is an­oth­er huge ad­van­tage of fixed-layout for ed­u­ca­tion­al and en­ter­tain­ment pur­pos­es. Buttons and au­to­play au­dio and video are stan­dard, but au­dio can even be trig­gered to play from the read­er tap­ping spe­cif­ic ar­eas of an im­age. Reminiscent of Web im­agemap func­tion­al­i­ty but much eas­i­er to cre­ate, CircularFLO lets cre­ators place an im­age and then de­fine hotspot ar­eas that trig­ger au­dio or even hy­per­links to in­ter­nal or ex­ter­nal content.Last but not least, CircularFLO sup­ports trans­paren­cy and drop shad­ows on im­ages, text, and vec­tor ob­jects.

CircularFLO Production Enhancements

CircularFLO ful­ly em­pow­ers fixed-layout ebooks built in InDesign CS6 and lat­er, but it al­so fa­cil­i­tates and eas­es the usu­al headaches from InDesign-based ebook pro­duc­tion.

First, is the afore­men­tioned Kindle ex­port, of­fer­ing the on­ly ex­port op­tion of any ver­sion of InDesign of high qual­i­ty fixed-layout ebooks to Amazon Kindle KF8 file for­mat. Without it, there sim­ply isn’t a way to build fixed-layout for Kindle with­out div­ing in­to the code and re­con­fig­ur­ing it by hand from InDesign’s EPUB ex­port. Even third-party con­ver­tors like Calibre aren’t able to con­vert all the fea­tures of fixed-layout EPUB to KF8 re­li­ably and with­out hand-coding.

Complications caused by Adobe’s font ob­fus­ca­tion al­go­rithms aren’t a prob­lem with CircularFLO.

Books cre­at­ed by CircularFLO al­so con­tain clean­er, au­to­mat­i­cal­ly val­i­dat­ed code. Since EPUB ex­port was first in­tro­duced in InDesign, ebook cre­ators have strug­gled with the lack of ful­ly formed and valid EPUB code. Even with a re­flow­able EPUB, it’s usu­al­ly nec­es­sary to fix er­rors and omis­sions in the code gen­er­at­ed by InDesign. For this rea­son pro­fes­sion­al ebook de­vel­op­ers keep a copy of the free­ware, command-line util­i­ty EPUBChecker on hand. Every EPUB gets run through EPUBChecker to iden­ti­fy er­rors and omis­sions that keep the EPUB from be­ing ful­ly com­pli­ant with the EPUB stan­dard, and, more im­por­tant­ly, will pre­vent the ebook from be­ing ac­cept­ed by ebook­stores. CircularFLO in­cludes EPUBChecker built-in; every fixed-layout ebook–EPUB or KF8–is val­i­dat­ed au­to­mat­i­cal­ly dur­ing the ex­port process. Not on­ly does this save valu­able time over sep­a­rate­ly run­ning EPUBChecker, it saves a great deal of frus­tra­tion be­cause CircularFLO en­sures that the re­sult­ing ebook is valid and ready for up­load to ebook­stores. Creators will nev­er have an ebook sent back due to InDesign-generated code er­rors. Even the file sizes of CircularFLO ebooks are small­er be­cause of their tighter, clean­er code.

One of the most com­mon prob­lems with InDesign-generated EPUB code, one that is of­ten cit­ed as the sin­gle great­est im­ped­i­ment to au­to­mat­ed con­ver­sion of EPUB to Kindle for­mats, is the ob­fus­ca­tion of fonts. Embedded fonts may be ob­fus­cat­ed via en­crypt­ing to pre­vent their ex­trac­tion. Unfortunately, Adobe’s ob­fus­ca­tion al­go­rithm isn’t uni­ver­sal­ly used, so some eread­ers can’t de­crypt or de-obfuscate them. The best case re­sult when an eread­er can’t de­crypt the fonts is that it sim­ply ig­nores them, dis­play­ing the ebook with rea­son­able lo­cal sub­sti­tute fonts. Unfortunately, the best case sce­nar­ios isn’t al­ways what one gets. Some eread­ers mis­take the un­de­crypt­able code as in­dica­tive of DRM-managed con­tent ac­cessed with­out a DRM serv­er, thus think­ing the ebook is stolen and re­fus­ing to dis­play it. Kindle is com­plete­ly in­com­pat­i­ble with Adobe’s ob­fus­ca­tion method, which is why cus­tom fonts in un­cor­rect­ed InDesign EPUB code con­vert­ed au­to­mat­i­cal­ly to KF8 usu­al­ly cause Kindle to kick back ebooks as in­valid and un­pub­lish­able.

Complications caused by Adobe’s font ob­fus­ca­tion al­go­rithms aren’t a prob­lem with CircularFLO. CircularFLO solves them by ei­ther us­ing the em­bed­ded text op­tion or by giv­ing the op­tion to re­move the in­com­pat­i­ble font ob­fus­ca­tion, which is ac­tu­al­ly not re­quired for many pro­fes­sion­al font foundries in­clud­ing the en­tire Adobe Typekit li­brary.


InDesign is the world’s great­est lay­out ap­pli­ca­tion, but to be the world’s great­est ebook cre­ation platform–especially for fixed-layout ebooks–it needs the help of CircularFLO. With CircularFLO, the op­tions for cre­at­ing fixed-layout ebooks for all gen­res and ebook­stores are wide open.

Download a free tri­al of CircularFLO for Mac here. Download a free tri­al of InDesign here.

Pariah Burke lecturing at Harvard Medical SchoolPariah Burke is one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on epub­lish­ing, ebooks, fixed-layout ebooks, and tablet mag­a­zines. He is the au­thor of the book on the sub­ject of dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing, ePub­lish­ing with InDesign, which is al­so the ba­sis of epub­lish­ing cur­ric­u­la at Savannah College of Art & Design, ITT Tech, Workflow Creative, and nu­mer­ous oth­er col­leges, uni­ver­si­ties, and pro­fes­sion­al train­ing cen­ters around the world. In ad­di­tion to au­thor­ing 8 books and more than 450 ar­ti­cles, Pariah trav­els the world con­sult­ing and train­ing print and dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­als. Reach Pariah on Twitter @iampariah and on the Web at http://​iampar​i​ah​.com .

Full dis­clo­sure: As I in­ti­mat­ed above, I con­sult­ed with Circular Software dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of CircularFLO 5. I am al­so an ad­vi­sor to Adobe. Circular Software spon­sored this ar­ti­cle, though the opin­ions ex­pressed are my own. I ac­cept­ed the as­sign­ment be­cause I be­lieve strong­ly in CircularFLO and how it can ben­e­fit and un­shack­le ebook cre­ators. I stand be­hind this re­view.