ePubs from InDesign, workflow and problems

14 12 2010

This week I’m aiming to get an ePub format of the University study guides in working order. So far it’s been VERY surprising how difficult it is to take even a fairly simple previously-print-based document and export it to the ePub format whilst still making sure it looks nice and is bug-free.

The study guides are InDesign documents, and I’ve heard/read good comments regarding ePub support and so on. But so far, I really have been un-impressed.. annoyed more often than not actually.

Naturally then, this post specifically relates to creating ePubs from InDesign and the associated problems.

Lack of documentation;

I couldn’t find any documentation that explained the relationship between the InDesign document’s Styles, Tags, or XML structure, and the CSS that get’s packaged in the ePub export. So, I had no idea what classes to use when creating my own CSS without actually reverse engineering – creating an ePub, telling InDesign to automatically create the css, unpacking the ePub file, and looking at that to create my own version. An bunch of unnecessary steps really.

Packaging of the ePub file?

I thought ePubs were supposed to be a simple package, a normal old zip file? Strangely, I couldn’t unzip my ePub file at all (it just made a junk file appear), unless I used Terminal! Now that’s annoying.. At least Terminal worked with the simple old ‘unzip’ command. Again, some small but annoying and seemingly unnecessary steps.

Practical, or not?

I also thought, that if I made this nice little ePub file, I could just pop that in to an email and open it up on one of our mobile devices (iPad for example).. It seemed not. I emailed my InDesign ePub to an iPad user; and the iPad did some very strange things:

  • Didn’t offer iBooks as a program that could view the ePub.. (I thought that was the point of iBooks?). I must be mistaken… even so, it seems stupid that the iPad wouldn’t allow iBooks to open an ePub file.. never mind..
  • Instead, it offered two other programs; optional installs of course; GoodReader and another one called PDFsomethingorrather. Now, the latter of these two simply couldn’t open the file; no error, it just did nothing. GoodReader would only display a completely white screen. No joke. It was so bad, I couldn’t get back to the main GoodReader UI and had to reset the iPad.

Pretty dodgy if you ask me. Aren’t ePubs supposed to be really standards-based? It should have just opened on any program correctly shouldn’t it have?

Standards and file formats/export options?

I noticed a few options in InDesign, one of which is to generate the format of the ePub content differently: XHTML or DTBook. Again I couldn’t find any documentation on the difference, but found the DTBook creates an XML file rather than an XHTML file for the content.. using this as my export option (the DTBook), I tried again on the iPad.

Nope, nothing can open it. Nothing. This is ridiculous. I’ll continue using Digital Editions for the meantime, which is displaying the ePubs on my laptop.

Content display bugs..

Simple things aren’t displaying properly in the ePub. Even with the automatic CSS export option in InDesign, I can’t get the ePub to display a simple table correctly.

As you can see from the screenshot the XML ePub content is very straight forward (far right); the InDesign doc is in the background showing the simple table; and to the left, you can see what the table looks like in the ePub (displayed in Adobe Digital Editions) – a mess. I’ve been messing around with the CSS for a while, but so far haven’t fixed this. I’m surprised that the automatic css from the InDesign export is actually even worse than what I’ve got at this point.

Table problems in ePub

To TOC or not to TOC?

I haven’t fixed the table CSS yet, but thought I’d side-step to look at the TOC stuff. InDesign has some options for including the TOC when you export the ePub. So I created a TOC in my InDesign doc and used this option to do a fresh export.

But, oh dear. InDesign simply says “Export Failed.” .. and I can’t export the ePub now.

After changing the content format option back to XHTML, I can now export the TOC okay. BUT, there’s always a but isn’t there?

It now IGNORES some of the CSS, heading colours are gone.. annoying, strange, but at least it has a TOC that works nicely.

ePub with TOC

Master page junk..

See in the above screenshot, the little page numbers to the right? What’s the go with that. I can’t even find them in the ePub markup, and the InDesign ePub export has no options to have master-page content (such as page numbers or page footers etc) removed when exporting. No idea how to get rid of them at this point, they’re ugly though that’s for sure.

Messing with the lists?

Another strange one, is that the numberical and alpha lists are converted (sort of) to bullet lists. It seems that InDesign has worked properly, the lists are ordered lists in the ePub’s markup; but getting the ordered list to display with the decimal list-style-type isn’t working so far.. I’m using the normal CSS to do this but the ePub reader I’m using (Adobe Digital Editions) seems to be ignoring it.

Shouldn’t the ePub reader do the smart thing on this anyway? It’s a bloody <ol>, it’s ordered and should be numbered, not bulleted! Far out.


Now, here I am trying to get something working, and I’m a little concerned that a lot of people around the net are editing their ePub xml/xhtml/css to get things to display correctly (or better) in their ePub documents. It’s quite a bit of manual stuffing around.

For us that’s going to be a massive NO; this all needs to be a seamless workflow; where InDesign spits out a perfect working ePub for hundreds of study guides. I’m worried that this’ll be too much to ask, but I hope not.

Back to the desktop anyway; gotta keep trying to get this all happening.




6 responses

30 12 2010
Colleen in MA

You might want to check out Elizabeth Castro’s book “EPUB: Stright to the Point” and her blog: http://www.pigsgourdsandwikis.com/. She addresses many of your concerns. The bottom line is that, yes, it’s true that all of us have to crack open the ePub file and manually fix formatting to clean it all up. The export button is jut the beginning … for now. Hopefully the InDesign export process will get easier in the future.

6 01 2011

Thanks Colleen : )
I’ll have a look at Elizabeth’s stuff!
I’m back at work this week and next week I’ll start trying again. I’m ever hopeful of a mostly-automatic and seamless solution though! 😀

10 01 2012

The list-style isn’t working because the xhtml has got a xml header. When that is deleted, the css list-style is working….

21 03 2012

Rolley, I had fully intended to get my study guides for ENVH12002 into epub format using InDesign 5.5 for this term, using a magazine style layout and incorporating videos. With my workload, it all seemed just too hard- even though the process of exporting to epub was made on the Adobe how-to instruction videos to look easy. Apparently it was also easy to turn them into iPad compatible files if you were using a Mac. You seem to be telling me that this isn’t the case…..

21 03 2012

Hey Lisa!
This post is really old, and since then Indesign has been updated and is able to produce better quality ePubs. Apple Pages also does quite a nice job of creating ePubs 😉
Have you already got your material in InDesign or? Best to chuck me an email at work and talk further 😉

21 03 2012

I’ll do that- I only realised the date on your post after I’d sent the message.

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