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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.