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?
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