Fill InDesign's Fixed-Layout EPUB Gaps with CircularFLO

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.

Pariah Burke

Author, consultant, trainer, guru: Digital Publishing, ePub, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark. Empowering, Informing, Connecting Creative Professionals™

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3 Responses

  1. Great arti­cle, helped me a lot by ver­i­fy­ing and solv­ing the prob­lems I (and my stu­dents) encounter in cre­at­ing ePubs with InDesign CC 2014.1 ! The ques­tion is how­ev­er: will InDesign 2015 tack­le this, imple­ment Circular Flo, or keep rely­ing on third par­ty stuff to do their house-cleaning ?

  2. Pariah Burke says:

    Hi, Peter. I’m glad my arti­cle helped. As far as what the next ver­sion of InDesign will do, I can’t quite say, but we should­n’t have to wait long to find out.

  3. Dinesh M says:

    Excellent arti­cle and very easy to under­stand the prob­lems in the ePub export­ed from INDD. Thanks a lot Pariah.…