Modern eBooks come in two general forms: Fixed Layout and Flowable. Each format has its pros and cons, but a good general rule is that for long form reading such as a novel you want a flowable text book while for academic or graphically oriented materials like text books and manuals you would want to use a fixed layout format.

The Book Industry Study Group, Inc. (BISG) has released a Field Guide to Fixed Layout for E-Books that can help publishers select the best format for their book. It also helps book producers understand potential drawbacks and limitations that may result from a book being used on various platforms.

Core to understanding this topic is in the Field Guide’s first section: When to Use Fixed Layout:

When Is Fixed Layout Most Appropriate?

A fixed layout that exactly replicates the print design is almost always best for Children’s picture books, Manga, Comics and Graphic novels. These books have art created at a particular aspect ratio, and almost always need the entire page to bleed. Retailers have shown that there has been a growing consumer acceptance of these genres in eBook form.

Sometimes using a fixed layout, but not fully replicating the print layout, may be a viable solution. The eBook text can use a bigger font, and the design can be engineered to avoid pinching and zooming, even on the smallest screens. This fixed-but-different approach can work well for cookbooks, gift books, and art books.

Keep in mind that a fixed layout should not be the automatic default for the conversion of all of these product types. Often, because we are so familiar with (and attached to) the print format, we cling to fixed layout when a reflowable digital product might be more appropriate.

When Is Fixed Layout Not As Appropriate?

While editors and designers may be most comfortable producing an exact page replica of a print book, this isn’t always the best solution for the content, and it can limit the book’s distribution potential.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind before deciding to go with fixed layout:

  • A text-heavy fixed-layout title can generate an unfriendly user experience because the customer continually has to pinch/zoom/pan the pages on the tablet in order to view the content. There can be a loss of some of the features available in reflowable e-books–for example, text-search functionality can be lost if the text is flattened as part of an image file. Additionally, a customer who expects a reflowable experience but encounters instead the print replica may experience confusion and disappointment.
  • From a production standpoint, fixed layout is labor-intensive and expensive. Fixed layout needs to accommodate the conversion and oversight of multiple formats–Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Kobo all support fixed-layout e-book files but use different formats, although widespread adoption of EPUB3 will help re-duce this fragmentation. Each format must be individually reviewed by the publisher for quality assurance, usually multiple times, thereby creating additional work and cost for content-management departments.
  • Fixed layout can also affect tight production schedules. Because the format relies heavily on the print layout, conversion efforts typically begin once the print file is finalized, even though the digital product often has to come out either at the same time, shortly thereafter, or even, in some cases, before the print edition. There is, therefore, a high risk of missing on-sale dates, which reduces the ability to capitalize on publicity and marketing.

For long term planning, remember that a reliance on fixed layout can hinder a publisher’s ability to innovate at a time when experimentation may be a critical part of digital migration. While fixed layout does not, in fact, prevent the inclusion of advanced features, a focus on replicating print, coupled with the complication of creating multiple versions for multiple platforms, often inhibits the inclusion of the very features that truly distinguish digital from print publications.

Download the Field Guide