Going Against the Flow: Reflowable vs. Fixed-Layout Ebooks

by | Sep 21, 2020

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.

Like a PDF, a fixed-layout ebook gives a consistent reading experience across platforms. Unlike a PDF, a fixed-layout ebook is an ePub file, a true ebook that can be (relatively) easily adapted to reflowable format — and that can be uploaded (in one format or the other) to every major retailer.

What Are the Disadvantages to a Fixed-Layout Ebook?

There are a number of real downsides to creating fixed-layout ebooks.

One is that, whatever platform the reader happens to be reading on, it will display exactly the same. Yes, that’s an upside as well, but it can be a problem. Look at that two-page spread above. Now image reading it on your phone. My eyes wince for you.

Another real disadvantage is that — as with enhanced ebooks — most retailers won’t accept them. Of the retailers I’ve worked with, only Apple and Kobo will accept fixed-layout ePub files, though I’m told Google Play and ScribD will as well. (Nook will accept them from major publishers only.) Amazon will only accept fixed-layout ebooks that have been created in their Kindle Create app — essentially, you load a PDF of the book into the app, which cuts the file into pages and then turns each page into a highly compressed JPG image. The problem with this is that the words go away. Oh, they appear on the page, but they’re just pixels. The file is no longer searchable. For a children’s picture book that might work — though the read-aloud function on Kindles won’t function anymore. But for textbooks or cookbooks? Not good.

All of which means creating multiple ebooks, which significantly increases the amount of time you’re spending — or, if you hire someone to do the job, significantly increases the cost.

Because — and this is the final disadvantage — creating fixed-layout ebooks, even with the best available tools, is not a simple or quick process.

However, they are still sometimes the best way to go! So next time, I’ll walk you through some resources for creating your own beautiful fixed-layout ebooks.

Click here to read more articles by David Kudler.
Photo: BigStockPhoto

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1 Comment

  1. Michael W. Perry, medical writer

    It’s unfortunate that there’s not a third ePub format, one modeled on how Framemaker handled its text. That would avoid many of the problems of both existing formats.

    Framemaker was designed to handle complex technical documents with numerous illustrations and that included text that might or might not be included in all versions. Even the page size could change and it would adapt, always following the specifications set by the person doing the layout. It avoided the twin errors of reflowing unintelligently and being rigidly locked into a specific page structure.

    It did that because technical documents (i.e. Boeing manuals) are long, complex and constantly changing. A tech writer could add another paragraph on page 87 secure in the fact that wouldn’t throw an illustration off a dozen pages later—a problem I constantly face with inDesign.



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