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The Problem with Fixed Layout eBooks

Originally created to replace PDFs, fixed layout has become one of the standard methods to build an ebook. This format is used for everything from textbooks to cookbooks, and while it hasn’t actually supplanted PDF it has been made the centerpoint of Apple’s ebook efforts (iBooks Author).


But even though fixed layout is widely used (or perhaps because of it), FXL has its detractors.

On Saturday Alberto Petterin posted a critique of  fixed layout ebooks and asks whether FXL is accomplishing its original goals:

What are the advantages of a FXL eBook over the corresponding PDF?

The really interesting answer here is that (EPUB) FXL, being built with Web technologies (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), allows the author/publisher to semantically tag the contents, which in turn allows the user to personalize the "reading" experience according to her needs.

That is true, in theory.

In fact, almost all the FXL files currently on the market are not really fulfilling that vision. Even worse, they are limiting the user freedom, rather than augmenting it. Sometimes they are even inferior to their PDF version.

Pettarin goes on to detail two of the problems with FXL, including that it’s used in situations where it’s not necessary and that the code inside most fixed layout Epub files look like it was written by  a middle-school student.

He missed a couple of FXL’s shortcomings, namely that the major platforms have made poor decisions in developing support.

For example, Amazon’s fixed layout can’t be used in the same ebook as embedded audio and video. Also, Apple’s iBooks format can’t be read on the iPhone, meaning that all those pretty textbooks don’t even work across Apple’s entire platform.

All in all, his critique is a good read, and it’s worth your time.

But before you head over and read it, I have one last thought.

As I was reading his post earlier, it struck me as rather odd that digital publishing was using the latest web technologies to support a concept which most web developers no longer accept as valid.

At one point the standard for website design was to build websites with fixed width (this is similar in concept to FXL ebooks). But that started going away about 4 years ago as the idea of responsive design, or building websites that work with any screen size, became the standard.

It’s now 2015, and almost no web developer will make a fixed width website if they can avoid it (I have no explanation for why DBW chose to do so). The new standard is for websites to support visitors no matter the size of the screen they use.

And yet in 2015, FXL ebooks are one of the accepted ways to make an ebook.

Folks, it’s almost as if the digital publishing industry is fifteen years behind the cutting edge of web design. It’s gone from simple reflowable designs (circa 1995) to fixed width designs (circa 2000).

Don’t you think it would be a good idea for the industry to skip the subsequent 15 years and join the rest of us in 2015?

There’s some really interesting ideas floating around right now which would make nifty ebooks, including smart ways to reflow complex content based on the geometry of a device’s screen. (Plus, we have cookies).

Really, what’s holding you to fixed layout? Is it the similarity to print?

That strikes me as a poor justification, resulting more from a lack of vision than from any useful features which fixed layout may bring to the table.

image by Sergei Golyshev

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Sturmund Drang February 22, 2015 um 6:21 pm

I really wish the world cared more about the wholesale attack against user freedoms. I wish the bloggers would write about it more.

I’ll give two examples. I buy a book from Amazon. Amazon DRMs it. Okay, I can understand that. But my version of Kindle reads the book just fine, until Amazon decides they want to upgrade the app and then my kindle app is "fixed" to refuse to read my book until after I upgrade; at Amazon’s complete discretion and with no chance for involvement upon my part. Second example: I have windows 10. I want to download the Kindle Windows 7 app. Amazon doesn’t want to let me. They insist I download the Windows 8 app. Why? The Windows 7 app will work just fine. Why? Because the choice, the power, the freedom, the right is all on their side. I’m only allowed rights they wish to allow, nay temporarily permit me.

Yet all I hear about from sites like Ars is the reasons I simply must upgrade to Windows 10. All I hear about from the blogger sites is the wonderful added features in the latest Kindle "upgrade". Features? All I want to do is be able to read the books, I bought, when I want to, without having to ask Amazon "pretty please".

Nate Hoffelder February 22, 2015 um 6:42 pm

Amazon doesn’t DRM ebooks; publishers do. And I’ve tilted at that windmill enough times that I’ve gotten bored with it.

And I’ve railed at Kobo before when they locked me out of the Kobo PC app in a similar situation. Get me some screenshots (or connect me with someone who can send me the screenshots) and I’ll rail at Amazon.

TheSFReader February 23, 2015 um 9:30 am

"Amazon doesn’t DRM ebooks; publishers do"

Actually, that’s not *completely* true. There are sometimes problems between publisher, distributor and e-booksellers WRT the DRM-status.

(Distributor) ,
e-bookseller 1) and
e-bookseller 2) (hope you can get access to the links)
e-bookseller 3) (no DRM here)

There is some problem between the distributor and the "major" booksellers WRT DRM status/metadata handling, which makes the book have DRM at Amazon’s and Kobo’s…

And in the case where the publisher asks for Watermarks, it’s simply replaced by encryption based DRM at Amazon, Kobo, Apple, Google…

Until MAJOR publishers (and their distributors) ask to have DRM as an exception rather than the rule, Amazon (and other big e-booksellers) will keep putting DRM as a rule.

Sturmund Drang February 22, 2015 um 7:54 pm

Next time it happens I will. But, I don’t buy books often, it’s too disagreeable and there’s plenty of really good stuff I want to read for free. And, I don’t use the kindle app for anything besides downloading the book the first time.

Speaking of rights and freedom, it’s not just cyberspace of course. I downloaded an Oxford University press Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wild Fell Hall. The copyright page, from what I assume to be the printed version, says I must not circulate the book in any other binding or cover and that I must impose the same requirement on any other acquirer. This from Oxford University and over a book originally written 150 years ago.

Imagine a world where the laws protected the creator and the purchaser and not just the corporation.

Obi-wan Kenobi February 23, 2015 um 5:30 am


Sorry! But It might be (finally) time to stop to see the FXL epub as an epub with a fixed layout. "Think different!"

Ben Hollingum February 23, 2015 um 9:11 am

I’ve been meaning to familiarise myself with FXL ebooks for a while, but have never quite been able to summon the motivation. I think they sound like a pointless step backward – a filetype with all the rigidity of PDF but with none of the cross-platform support.

I find this all extremely frustrating because my corner of the publishing world (illustrated reference) is very poorly served by the current technology. Even when using CSS media-queries and other semi-experimental elements of the Epub3 spec – most of which are badly and inconsistently supported – it’s not really possible to present illustrated content in a user-friendly and consistent manner.

I’m holding out for the CSS3 Paged Media Module, which looks like it has promise, but I think most of the companies in my field will have gone out of business before that gains widespread industry acceptance.

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2015 um 12:45 pm

"I think they sound like a pointless step backward – a filetype with all the rigidity of PDF but with none of the cross-platform support."

And that’s why I still have a fondness for PDFs. They work anywhere and can be made with anything.

Evan February 23, 2015 um 11:14 am

Your point that FXL is a step backward is well taken. iBooks currently is so deeply flawed on so many levels that the painful process of publishing there is hardly worth the effort. More troubling is Apple’s apparent indifference to the weakness in their product line. It took them several versions to get iTunes commercially successful, but I don’t see a similar effort being put forward for iBooks

Nate Hoffelder February 23, 2015 um 12:41 pm

I don’t see Apple fixing it either. Instead they’ve partnered with companies like Pearson to combine its content with iPads and pitch the bundle to schools.

Tom Semple February 26, 2015 um 1:48 am

You probably saw that they recently pulled the plug on a large Pearson/iPad program in LA, I believe it was. Not surprisingly, it was too costly.

Amanda Greenslade February 26, 2015 um 12:13 am

Some books are best displayed as fixed layout. There’s no argument to that. It simply looks better. We usually recommend reflowing because its a more comfortable experience for the reader, but for some books, if they really want it designed a certain way, fixed layout is the way to go. I made a video about the difference between reflowing and fixed layout ebooks a few months ago which some of you might find interesting: See

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