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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://iampariah.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.