To Flow or Not to Flow: Why Is That the Question?

More than a year ago I wrote about options for creating digital art books. A key consideration when choosing a format is whether to let go of control over the layout and create a reflowable ebook, or to retain control with a fixed-layout, non-reflowable ebook. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. But with Apple’s free iBooks Author app, you can create Multi-Touch iBooks that contain both reflowable text and a fixed layout. I’ll explain below.

First, in case it wasn’t clear in my previous post, I am an epub enthusiast, as well as an epub developer. An open standard compatible with the majority of ereaders, epub is the most widely accepted and distributed format for digital books. Beautiful epubs have been, and continue to be, produced by people who care enough to spend time making them so. As much as I’d love to produce museum publications as reflowable epubs, I’ve yet to get beyond the samples stage, usually because there’s not enough control over layout. Fixed-layout epubs can provide that control, but the format is best suited for photo books or children’s books and just doesn’t work well with text-heavy books. Letting go of some control over layout is essential if you want to produce widely read ebooks.

But this post is not about open-standard epub; it’s about dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBooks (a mouthful, I know). The one major drawback of these ebooks is that they can currently only be viewed on iPads or Macs running the latest operating system. However, these dual-orientation ebooks are unique in that they provide the best of both ebook worlds: reflowable text (portrait orientation) and fixed layout (landscape orientation), allowing the reader to easily switch between the two as desired.

Recently, some beautiful Multi-Touch iBooks have been produced in landscape orientation, including Graphite (Indianapolis Museum of Art) and 90° (Andrew Kim). These ebooks push the boundaries of the format, using the available tools in unique ways. However, as much as I appreciate the creativity behind these innovative ebooks, it is still iBooks Author’s dual-orientation option that most intrigues me and leads me to believe that this format is a great option for digital art books.

I’ve produced a few of these myself, but let’s examine Getty Publications’ Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia (edited by Ruth Evans Lane and designed by Jim Drobka). When Looking East was released, I was excited to see the combination of gorgeous imagery, expert typography, and well-thought-out interactivity.

The design of the ebook follows that of the print version. Here’s a lovely chapter opener in both landscape and portrait orientations.

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Most figures are shown both in their entirety (zoomable to full screen) and as an Interactive Image (see “Open to Explore”).

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The Interactive Image contains the entire figure at a much larger size, allowing the viewer to scroll around and explore the image in close detail.

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Here is the same content in portrait orientation, which iBooks Author automatically creates while the designer constructs the ebook in landscape orientation. Figures are moved into the margin and the text becomes scrollable; page numbers from the landscape layout are shown at the bottom right.

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The landscape orientation remains fixed, while, in portrait orientation, the reader can adjust the text size, allowing the text to reflow.

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Looking East is a lovely example of the dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBook. The interactivity makes sense for the content and the layout is clean and open. My one criticism is that they could have improved this ebook by linking the footnotes to their respective in-text references, although I know from experience that linking in iBooks Author is an arduous task.

A small book like Looking East (128 paperback pages) is an ideal size for a Multi-Touch iBook. Trying to recreate a 400-page exhibition catalogue as a Multi-Touch iBook is quite an endeavor and could result in a file too large for the iBookstore. One idea is to use just a few sections of the print catalogue, as we did with African Cosmos, but perhaps a better idea is to rethink the content, reducing the overall size but adding interactive elements that make sense. For example, in an upcoming Multi-Touch iBook for MFA Boston (Jim Dine Printmaker: Leaving My Tracks, shown below), we replaced transcripts of artist interviews from the print book with videos of the interviews. Other books might benefit from interactive maps, links to online content, or 360-degree object views.

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For other important considerations before publishing with iBooks Author (or Adobe’s DPS), see Greg Albers’ post here. (And, if you are considering a DPS book app, see the tips I’ve collected here for getting your app approved by Apple.)

Beautiful, logical layouts created by the designer in addition to reflowable text for easier, more immersive reading fuses the best aspects of both ebook worlds. So, with the caveat that they can only be viewed on the iPad or a Mac running the latest operating system, the dual-orientation Multi-Touch iBook is the format I recommend for text-heavy digital art books.

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