By David Kudler
In my discussions on ebook creation, I’ve largely focused on what are called reflowable ebooks — books designed like web pages to be responsive, adjusting to the size of the screen they’re being displayed on, the preferences of the reader, etc. Page breaks and image sizes may change radically, depending on whether the ebook is being read on a phone, a tablet, or a full-sized monitor. For most books, this is a great way to present the text — in the manner that best suits your reader. The vagaries of the reflowable ebook, however, do introduce uncertainty that doesn’t work for all ebooks.
But there’s a different kind of ebook where those kinds of uncertainties can be eliminated: the fixed-layout ebook.
This time out, I’ll discuss the advantages and challenges of the fixed-layout option; next time, I’ll share some tools and skills for creating them on your own.
What Are the Advantages to a Fixed-Layout Ebook?
99%+ of the ebooks created commercially are reflowable — and for good reason. If you’re publishing fiction or “narrative” non-fiction (like memoirs, biography, history, and most how-to/business books), then the focus is on the words, and making the words as easy for the reader to connect to is what you want. Reflowable is the way to go!
But sometimes, things are a bit more complicated. For that, you want fixed-layout.
A fixed-layout ebook is simply an ePub 3 file (or ePub variant) that has been set up in such a way that it looks like a print version of the book:
- The page “trim” size is set — it will always display as a certain number of pixels wide and a certain number of pixels tall, no matter what screen it is displayed on
- Typeface and font size are (more or less) set, so that the text will display (more or less) as designed, regardless of platform or user preferences.
- Text and other elements can be placed in front of images.
- The relationship of the text to the images will always remain the same.
That last item is probably the most important one — in my experience it has been the factor that tends to define whether an ebook should be fixed-layout or can be reflowable. Books where the images must be in a particular relationship to the text are good candidates for fixed-layout.
What are some good examples of this?
- Coffee-table-style photo books
- Graphic novels and comic books
- Textbooks that rely on full-page illustrations
- Some cookbooks
- Children’s picture books
These publications expect the reader to be able to read the text while viewing the image. In a reflowable ebook, you can keep image and text together under most circumstances — you can use CSS to have the image resize to stay on the same screen as a certain point in the text, for example, but, eventually, the screen may be too small or too large, or the reader’s preferences have set the text to a size that pushes the image out of context. These are extreme circumstances, but they need to be planned for.
Most of the fixed-layout ebooks that I’ve created have been children’s picture books. In most cases, I’ve had to create a reflowable version as well because not all retailers accept fixed-layout ebooks (see below). Let’s look at some screen shots of both versions to get a feel for the reasons fixed-layout can be important.
Here’s a two-page spread from my children’s picture book, The Seven Gods of Luck, beautifully illustrated by Linda Finch:
Note how the text and image are integrated. This book was intended for new readers — it’s ideal for the image and the text reinforce each other. The typeface is the same as that chosen for the print edition. (Note, too, the green triangle, a button that triggers audio of me reading the text aloud — this is both a fixed-layout and an enhanced ebook! But only on Apple.)
Here’s the same two pages in the reflowable version — no longer a “spread” — each “page” appears on its own screen, however large or small:
Now, I’m sure you can spot some advantages and disadvantages to each. The biggest problem with the reflowable version, from my point of view, is that I had to cut Linda’s lovely painting in half in order to make it work, and then I needed to put the two paragraphs below each part of the image, rather than placing them directly on top of the picture as I had been able to with the fixed-layout version.
Now, if the reader sets the text really big or the screen is really small (these screenshots were taken on an iPhone 11, so not tiny), then the text flows onto the next page. Again, not ideal.
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