EPUB: To Go With The Flow, Or Not?

In my labs and sessions at MAX2015, it was pleasing to see that there is still a lot of interest around reflowable EPUB. It seems that many people have forgotten that reflowable EPUB exists, or that it has in some way been replaced by the fixed-layout variety that’s all the rage with kids these days.

So why would we use one over the other?

Fixed Layout

If your publication relies upon layout to communicate it’s message(s)—in pretty much the way that a magazine does—then fixed layout (FXL EPUB) is most likely going to be the choice for you (that’s why the format is often referred to as a print-replica). Image-heavy designs with text overlays are perfect candidates for the fixed layout format; you can also add animations directly from InDesign or from Edge Animate to make your document even more engaging. The main downside of FXL EPUB is that the entire spread scales on smaller screens; while it is true that you can zoom in, prolonged reading becomes tiring.


If your document is primarily text-based, with supporting assets (which could include not only images, but audio and video) and the information is precedent over the layout—there isn’t any layout as such in reflowable—then this could be the best choice for you. Reflowable makes it easier to accommodate the visual requirements of readers, as the text size (among other things) can easily be changed by the user—this is especially useful on small screens, and reflowable epub is a lot easier to make accessible without using the Articles Panel, if you’re authoring directly for the format (although repurposing from print still requires this step). In this post we’re going to look at some topics that are good to know for EPUB production generally but especially apply to working reflowable.

Setting up InDesign for EPUB Production

You won’t need some of InDesign’s panels when authoring for reflowable, and some that are tucked away are very useful—so it makes sense to optimise your workspace and you’ll find that creating your own workspace is simple.001interface

Build Your Ideal Working Environment

  1. Close any panels you aren’t likely to need.
  2. Right-click any panel tab and choose Close from the context menu.
  3. Open any panels you do need.
  4. Choose the panels you want from the Window menu.
  5. Arrange the panels as desired.
  6. Drag the panels into place, use the blue-highlighting as a clue to where the panels will end up; nest panels too.
  7. Go to the Workspace Switcher at the top-right of the interface and select the “New Workspace…” option.
  8. Give the workspace a name, and that’s it—you’re done! Switching between workspaces takes mere seconds, and you can have as many as you need.

Creating a New Document

Reflowable EPUB means that the content will reflow to adapt to the screen it is displayed on, at the text size chosen by the user (you can override this but it is unwise to do so, and book stores don’t like publishers to do it). That means that you’re not “designing” a layout as you are with fixed layout versions, but “formatting” for ease of consumption, and adding a little bit of personality into the text, whilst respecting its fluidity. You could use whatever page size you want, given what has just been stated, but personally I find it easier to work with something fairly representative of the device it will be viewed on, in the main.02New

  1. Create a new Document from the File menu (-N)
  2. Choose the Digital Publishing intent—this turns off some options that you really don’t need at all, such as “facing pages” which is more applicable to a printed booklet
  3. Choose a page size preset, or enter your own values
  4. My preference is to use the iPad preset, but modified to be portrait oriented rather than landscape, which is how most people read text
  5. Ignore columns—you only need one
  6. Margins can be whatever you want, but I tend to use 80px all around—there’s nothing really there for them to be guides for, as I won’t be positioning content; you can also ignore any bleed or slug values, too—and pixels are the only units you’ll need, screens don’t know what points, picas or inches are, as such
  7. To save yourself the effort of doing this again, create a preset
  8. That small button next to the preset drop-down at the top of the dialog, means that next time you do this, it’ll be just a matter of choosing that preset, or if it’s there already, hitting RETURN

Importing a Word Processing Document

There’s a reasonable chance that you haven’t prepared your manuscript inside of InDesign—although you could if you wanted to—and have instead used a word-processing application, or maybe you have been supplied with a file by another author. You’ll need to get that file into InDesign; fortunately you can use the auto-place mode to place the text, automatically generate the pages to accommodate it, and thread the frames all in one go.

  1. Go to File > Place… (-D) and navigate to your text file
  2. Make sure that Show Import Options is checked in the dialog
  3. The Import Options Dialog can save you time—especially if you get text in the same way every time you work with it—save a preset based on the options you choose in the dialog.
  4. With a loaded place-cursor, go to the top-left corner of your margins
  5. Hold down SHIFT and click—the auto function will run and your text will be threaded throughout your document

Cleaning Up The Oopsies

In almost every case of text that I have imported, there are two things that are very common:

  • Multiple returns used to separate paragraphs
  • Multiple spaces used after periods ate the end of sentences, or in place of tabs

Neither of these will work in EPUB, so they need to be “cleaned”, and fortunately InDesign has some built in functions that will do this in seconds, both can be found in the Find/Change… dialog, located in the Edit menu (-F). At the top of the dialog, you’ll see a drop-down and in that you’ll find:

  • Multiple Return to Single Return
  • Multiple Space to Single Space

Run each of these in turn and you’ll clean up a lot of garbage in two sweeps.

Find/Change by List

You can do a lot more automatic clean up using the FindChangeByList script, that can be found in the Application  > Javascript section of the Scripts Panel (which itself can be found under Window > Utilities)—it requires a bit of learning but it’s well worth investigating.


You can’t just use any font you like in an EPUB. There are specific conditions as to when, where and how font software can be used and the vast majority of vendors at the current time sell an additional license to use their fonts in EPUB, often with an impression-related fee, so you buy a license to distribute so many copies, and then get a new license. It’s a complicated area and it is something that requires a bit of extra reading—you can take the time to do that or as you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber, you could look at Typekit fonts.–

Typekit 003typekit

Typekit is a subscription service for fonts which you can sync to your computer, use on a website or in an EPUB. If you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber, you already have access to Typekit; just sign into Typekit.com with your Adobe ID or start a search from within the Type menu or drop-down. Unlike fonts from many vendors, Typekit fonts are licensed for use in EPUB—no separate license is required. You have a hundreds of fonts to choose from, and syncing them is as quick—if not quicker—than installing an “ordinary” font.

Styles Are Essential

Where using styles in print is often considered useful or optional, they are essential in EPUB workflows. Paragraph styles are used to set the appearance attributes for blocks of text, and character styles are used to format fragments of text in those blocks. This paragraph has a style, and the word “essential” in the opening sentence has a character style that modifies it from the rest of the text. Character styles should be versatile wherever possible, as the user should always be able to change the nature of the paragraph text to meet their own viewing requirements—some stores actually prefer you not to style your body text to this end. Also, some less-than-obvious features of styles are shown below.

Paragraph Styles

  • Paragraph (and character) styles map to CSS—EPUB files are really self-contained websites in a special wrapper, CSS is the language that modifies their appearance attributes
  • Page Breaks (screen breaks sounds weird) can be determined from a Paragraph Style—this is useful if you perhaps want to start a new chapter at the top of a new screen
  • Paragraph styles drive your Table of Contents!

Character Styles

  • Character styles are used for text variants like bold and italic—it’s the best-practice way to control attributes like bold, italic, color, etc.
  • Links and language-specific features can be determined by a character style—useful if you have words or phrases in a language different from the main body of the text (including hyperlinks!)


Technically there are four image formats that can be used in EPUB, but as the support for all four is limited to just a couple of device vendors at the moment, it’s safest to stick to just two, unless you’ve really done your homework, first—we’ll just look at the two safe bets here, JPEG and PNG.


The JPEG format (pronounced “jay-peg”) with the suffix normally shortened to .jpg is a format best used for continuous-tone images like photographs. It achieves excellent compression and small file sizes but does so by throwing away some data—it’s known as a “lossy” format for that reason—but how much data is discarded can be controlled via a quality setting in your image editor. Once the data is gone though, it’s gone. Jpeg doesn’t have any support for transparency—at least not the most widely-supported variant that we all know and love (ok, like—a bit).


PNG (Portable Network Graphic, pronounced “ping”) was developed as a replacement for GIF (Graphics Interchange Format, pronounced “gyff” with a hard “g” or “jiff”—it’s really the first one of the two) that supports 24-bit color, or 32-bit if you have transparency. This is the best format for graphics and illustrations that are not photographic in nature or appearance.

Anchoring Images004anchored

Images need to be anchored to points in the text, for them to appear where you expect; this used to be a real pain but fortunately these days is relatively simple, and just involves dragging a marker to the text. In the illustration above, you can see the blue marker that is dragged to a point in the text, as well as the tooltip that you’ll see if you hover over it.

Accessibility and Alt Text004baltText

You can’t get a braille version of an epub on your device, so people with low-or-no vision rely on the text being read out to them via an assistive technology, more commonly known as a ”screen reader”. Without any intervention from you, the file name would be read out in place of the image, which won’t be very descriptive of the content and most unsatisfactory for the reader. That’s where the Object Export Options dialog comes in, which these days is only a right-click away. You can either enter custom text, as in the example above, or choose from the metadata associated with the image. If you have a large bulk of images, you may find editing the metadata in Bridge to be more efficient before you place them.

Wrapping Up

There’s a lot to learn about EPUB but it’s a great way to communicate—in a future post we’ll be going step-by-step through producing a complete reflowable EPUB—coming up soon!

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