Seems like just yesterday I was super excited about the future of Fixed Layout EPUB. Looking back, though, it was more than three years ago, so in that sense, the future is now.
Truth be told, I’m still excited about it—the interactive features and the user experience is terrific—but when I wrote my original article in 2014, I expected things to get better over time and unfortunately, they haven’t. In fact, in one very important way, they’ve gotten worse.
What’s got me down?
If you know anything about EPUB (and if you’re still reading I’ll go out on a limb and assume you do), you know that the quality of the user experience, especially when it comes to fixed layout, is highly dependent upon the reader application. Back in 2014 when Adobe first added interactive Fixed Layout capabilities to InDesign, my go-to EPUB reader on Windows was Readium and on Mac and iOS, iBooks was the best choice. Android to the best of my knowledge has never been overly friendly for Fixed Layout EPUB. The bonus for iBooks was it was pre-installed on every Mac, iPad and iPhone.
iBooks on iOS and MacOS are still terrific. They render everything beautifully and honor all of the animations that are supported in InDesign. Readium on the other hand has gone straight to hell. It doesn’t work at all, anymore. Why? Ask the developers because I don’t know. But, that really shouldn’t matter. You see, Adobe has its own reader for EPUBs – Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). It’s available on all platforms. Since Adobe is creating the output and developing the reader, everything should be fine, right? Well, yeah…it should be.
Bad news; it’s not.
To be perfectly blunt, Fixed Layout EPUB pretty much sucks on Windows and Android—not because of something inherently wrong with the format (though, there are purists that will tell you it’s an abomination) but because there’s no reliable reader application for it. While I don’t normally put a tremendous amount of weight into user reviews, it’s really hard to ignore the number of one-star Google Play reviews for ADE. On Windows, it’s not much better. Let’s take a quick look at what I’m referring to.
The screenshot on the left is from iBooks on iOS; MacOS is identical. The one on the right is from Adobe Digital Editions on Windows.
To call that kind of output unacceptable is an understatement. This creates a huge hole in the Windows and Android markets.
Developers, including, and especially, Adobe have had years to get this right and we’re still stuck with sub-standard EPUB readers on Windows and Android. Microsoft touted Edge as not only a great browser (it’s not, but that’s a story for a different day) but an EPUB reader as well. While it’s pretty good for reflowable EPUB, for fixed layout it’s so bad that my test files didn’t render anything worthy of a screenshot. I even tweeted about it a while back and got a response which has left me at least a bit hopeful that somebody is listening.
Well, since you asked…Nice job so far of supporting EPUB in Edge. Any chance that might advance to support fixed layout epub? https://t.co/HReAATFegi
— Bob Levine (@idguy) January 31, 2018
If you’re interested, click on that tweet to read the entire conversation. Of course, listening and acting are two different things and while I’d love to see Microsoft get this right (because a pre-installed reader would be huge), my real disappointment lies with Adobe Digital Editions. It’s so close to being where it needs to be. It handles interactivity fine, but text rendering is hit or miss at best. Some text is fine, other text looks like that screenshot I posted above. (And yes, I’m using OpenType fonts) I understand that it takes time to develop an application like this, but we’ve gone way past version one and I haven’t seen much in the way of improvement over the last couple of years.
So, what does the future hold?
I’d love to tell you that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but I can’t. I just know that my enthusiasm for widespread acceptance of this format is waning. Until there’s a reliable way to view these things on all platforms (think PDF), it will remain a niche format.
Before I wrap up, I don’t want anyone thinking that is a complete condemnation of Fixed Layout EPUB. The potential is still there. If you can control the output devices, it’s fabulous. I’ve done some work on sales materials and trade show kiosks where iPads were the only hardware used and everyone was happy with the results using iBooks. It’s capable of things that previously could only be done with DPS-type apps and the cost is negligible.
Finally, if anyone does know of a reliable Windows and/or Android reader for Fixed Layout EPUB, please let me know. I’ll be happy to spread the word.
It’s indeed unbelievable, the long-standing negligence of Adobe towards their own ADE reader.
In addition, the sheer ignorance of Microsoft towards their support of ePub FXL is just as baffling.
I’ve also given up hope, and decided to tout the ePub FXL strictly as a “reasonably useful format” for exclusive viewing on iPads. On the other hand, many requests for such content involve online resources (like YouTube videos, HTML5 animations, etc.) which are not allowed in an ePub. That leaves us with InDesign’s Publish Online platform, which lacks an immersive experience on tablets.
Missing pieces, everywhere…
It’s insane. They don’t even need to create a reader for Mac or iOS. Apple’s taken of that. That leaves Android and Windows. I’d still love to know what happened to Readium.
Yes, what happened to Readium? It worked perfectly, bu now it is just static, like no Java script runs at all. I recommended it for Windows users as the most reliable viewer, but it is doing nothing at all anymore. Is it the plug-in or is it Chrome…? Sad… :-(
I wish I knew. It was a fabulous FXL EPUB reader. Every bit as good on Windows as iBooks is on Mac or iOS.
Hi Bob and others. I agree that Adobe Digital Editions has always been disappointing, and remains so, but I must disagree about Readium! As I understand it, they have been forced to stop developing the Readium Chrome plug-in due to some Google changes / restrictions but the Readium project is still alive and well and is still moving forward in interesting ways.
The Readium cloud reader still works well, is still being actively developed by EDRLab’s Readium Foundation, and is not limited to Chrome. Check out this example of Readium being used to display a customer’s interactive ebook using any modern browser https://www.galdosgift.com/book-sample?mp=Client3333/Job9781999857608/016
But it doesn’t stop there, EDRLab are taking on the big topics such as DRM and creating installed cross platform and mobile device reader apps, including Windows and Android. I remain hopeful that they are set to give us a free and vendor neutral well-featured ebook reader available to every desktop and device later this year. The promise is that they will support fixed layout too. Take a look at their parent organisation (EDRLab) website for news on Readium 2 https://www.edrlab.org/readium/readium-2/ and to get on the beta program.
I wrote more about this and my opinions on fixed layout here http://epubsecrets.com/in-defence-of-fixed-layout-ebooks.php
I’m due to be talking about this subject in a twitter #eprdctn hour on May 23rd and also at CreativePro Week too in this session https://creativeproweek.com/session/interactive-illustrated-ebooks/ on June 7th but just let me know directly if you’d like more info or help.
Thanks for popping in, Ken! It’s good to know there’s some real hope for this.
Ok guys–I need some advice. I spent seven years researching and writing a book. Originally I wrote it in Word. Then I discovered InDesign and taught myself how to use it, styled my manuscript there and designed and created my book cover all in two months. WOw, was I ever proud of myself. I published my book and accompanying workbook in CreateSpace and IngramSpark. Then I bellied up to the bar (er dashboard) and pushed export for it to convert to ePUB. Holy cow, what a bloody mess. I’ve worked on it till my eyes bled. It still looks hella wonky. I’ve tried using Calibre to convert a pdf of it to ePUB, also a no-go. Are there ANY other options??? Thank you in advance.
Well, first congrats on getting that book done. It’s no small task and you should be proud of yourself.
On to your issues. This blog post was specific to fixed layout epub and it sounds like you’re referring to reflowable epub which requires very specific formatting for your document. I would strongly encourage you to check out Anne Marie Concepcion’s EPUB course on LinkedIn Learning (formerly lynda.com).
If you’re referring to fixed layout, then re-read this post. There’s a shortage of good epub reader applications but the good news is that Windows users will soon have a good reader as Microsoft has made great progress with Edge.
I purchased an fixed layout epub book thinking it would be easy to ready on Android, but quickly found out finding a good fixed layout reader was hard. Several were close, but had word/character spacing issues. One I found that seems to work flawless, with the expection that the feature set seems limited on it – but it displays correctly – is from Kobo. https://www.kobo.com/us/en I haven’t tried the Windows readers, but they do have some. The app allows importing of your own epub books.
Thanks for dropping by and adding your experience with fixed layout epub readers. Hopefully others will benefit from it.
Hi, I have found a book in epub format created by kindle children’s book creator. It shows perfectly in Kindle Previewer, but I have not found any other reader for it, regardless of OS, including iBook, R2 (from Readium), Calibre and various other I found, Icecream, Sumatra.. The epub file was originally inside the azw structure.
Is that different than the epub you are talking about? Is Kindle using epub in a non-standard way for fixed layouts? or why is ibook not working? are there any better readers?
October 2020 and there still isnt a reliable cross platform ePub fixed layout reader
Have you tried Thorium https://www.edrlab.org/software/thorium-reader/
and in the browser https://demo.colibrio.com
Have you tried Thorium https://www.edrlab.org/software/thorium-reader/
and in the browser Colibrio Reader https://demo.colibrio.com
Hi Ken, Thorium is showing some serious promise.
It’s still mindboggling to me that Adobe can’t get their act together and put out a quality cross-platform epub reader. It’s embarrassing!
I’m so glad I found this thread! I’ve been searching for a fixed layout epub reader for Windows and was appalled until now…. Whew, I think I heard angels singing when my epub file played in Thorium!
Thorium is just what I was searching for, thanks for the pointer!
3 years after your original (VERY helpful) article, Bob, and this exact problem is still occurring in ADE. But really, as bad and annoying as the font issue is in ADE, it’s the whole platform that stinks. It seems to exist only to help you see what the most badly-rendered version of your ePub will look like out there. Which is, at least, what I though until my FXL showed up just as badly on Kindle for iPad. Same exact font issue and anchored images overlaying themselves in most bizarre ways. And my FXL passed (and looked great on) Kindle Previewer, so I am thoroughly confused. Aside from creating outlines for ALL the text in a 400 page book, what does one do? Create the whole thing over in KindIe Create? Or is it worth moving to re-flowable and *hoping* your anchored images and other items end up in the correct places? Thank you for listening and for any suggestions!
Unfortunately, it’s still the wild west out there. The biggest disappointment is the hot mess of ADE. You’d think Adobe could come up with a reliable reader for its own output.
Try Thorium: https://www.edrlab.org/software/thorium-reader/
Thorium is a wonderful product. The best fixed layout ePub reader that I have found, for Windows, by a long shot. It astonishes me that Adobe has seemingly not bothered to improve fixed layout performance in ADE. Also amazes me that on searches for “ePub readers” Thorium rarely gets a mention.
Agreed on Thorium. It has become the gold standard, especially on Windows.
As far as ADE is concerned, the less said, the better. Adobe should embarrassed to have their name on it.
Hi Bob, Any newsworthy updates on an FXL Epub reader for Android?
None that I know of, but to be honest, I’ve pretty much given up.
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