Flipback Books: My Verdict

We all know that I am an unapologetic lover of books made from dead trees and that despite selling lots of e-books, I have – to date – read the sum total of two of them. One was only available in e-book and the other was too short for me to justify purchasing in print, and while I read them I had to actively push down my Kindle-induced rage.

These two exceptions aside, I buy every single book I read (when I don’t get them for free, to review) and I like my words on paper, not in computer code. This is because books themselves hold an appeal for me that is entirely separate to the experience of reading them. I like looking at them all lined up on my shelves. I just love books, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. (We all remember the Vintage Books/Jo Nesbo/mismatched cover fiasco, don’t we? Thanks again for my matching set, Vintage Books!)

So when I heard about these new “flipback” books, my first thought was “They. Are. So. CUTE!” and my second was, “I must have them.” The idea is that the books are small (about the size of an iPhone), light (they’re made from bible paper) and extremely portable, so they tick the convenience box while remaining a real, live book. Or a real dead book, to be more accurate. As the name suggests, you flip the cover up to read them top-to-bottom as opposed to left-to-right.

Personally I don’t think books as they currently exist are in any way broken and I don’t mind going on holidays with two outfits and laundry money because I’ve filled my suitcases with a stack of summer reads – in October I actually left clothes behind me in the States to make way for a haul of books from The Strand bookstore in New York and I DON’ REGRET IT ONE TINY BIT – but I acknowledge that other people might not feel the same way and flipbacks are certainly the non-Kindle solution to your holiday suitcase problem.

But there are three things I don’t like about them.

The first is the price, which for now I suppose can’t really be helped. All flipbacks are made by just one printer based in the Netherlands so this explains the €12.50 price tag (although not why The Book Depository can manage to sell them for €8.49.) Maybe – hopefully – that’ll change in the future, especially as they start to add more titles. (Hello? The Help? Would that not be the best flipback title ever?) But it’s a Catch-22 situation because in order for the price to be lower they’ll have to be mass produced on a larger scale, but in order for that to happen there’ll need to be a bigger demand, and in order for there to be a demand people have to rush out and buy them, which they’re dissuaded from doing now because of the high price.

The second is that while I love how the flipback looks as a physical book, it annoys me that the spine text is printed in the wrong direction. Call me crazy – I know you do – but yes, things like that annoy me. When a book is a on shelf, the text should be the right way up with the front cover to the right. On a flipback it’s only the right way up if the front cover is to the left. Maybe, again, this is related to their Dutch origins but if you want me to collect the whole set, the whole set is going to have to look cute on my bookshelves, not make me bristle with book-lover annoyance every time I see it.

Lastly, reading a flipback is easy and comfortable, but only when you get passed the first fourth or fifth of the book. At the beginning  the whole weight of the book is hanging by a page, and that just feels weird. Also I don’t believe this read-with-one-hand business. You can hold it with one hand, yes, but if you read quick there’s no point, because you’re turning the pages so quickly that it’s hardly worth your while putting down the other hand. And why are we aspiring to read with one hand? Because we can with a Kindle and the flipback is trying to compete? I hope so, because otherwise I have to ask: we’re talking about reading a book here. How lazy are you people?!

Having said all that, they do have a high novelty factor, they make a great present (they are much easier to post half way around the world than their bigger brothers) and they’re collectable. They are also so beautifully made that you can practically hear them whisper quality. As a cover junkie I particularly love how well the original cover designs have been so perfectly re-sized to fit the flipbacks, with Misery, one of my two flipback purchases, looking particularly good. But with only 12 titles available for now – and my local Waterstones only stocking four of them – I don’t think they’re quite there yet.

And I can only hope that the Guardian’s headline “Could this new book kill the Kindle?” was penned for effect and not because they actually think there’s a chance in hell the two things are related, because they’re not. It’s like asking, “Could this new spork kill the spoon?”

(Incidentally, my favorite line from that piece was, “Unlike an ordinary paperback, the book lies open without intervention on my part, due to its special spine.” This goes hand in hand – no pun intended, HA! – with the reading them with one hand thing. Again: how lazy a person do you have to be for this to be a selling point?!)

But I don’t doubt I’ll be buying more in the future though.

We all know I’m a sucker for a novelty item, especially if it’s book-related.

What do you think about them? Will you buying one? And what titles would you like to see in flipback form?

Find out more about flipback books here. The Book Depository seem to have the best deal on them and don’t forget they have free shipping worldwide.

(On a related note, I’m extremely disappointed that one of the flipback titles is A Million Little Pieces and that on the cover it’s referred to as a memoir, on its listing all the glowing reviews are pre-Smoking Gun exposé and so contain words like “memoir” and “honest”, and there is no mention of the fact that is a big stinky heap of complete and utter bullshit. A disclaimer inside the book is not enough if you’re going to act like it doesn’t exist whenever it suits you.)

17 thoughts on “Flipback Books: My Verdict

  1. michaelharling says:

    It occurs to me that, if they put the text in the book the correct way (edge of text to the spine–the way God intended) they would just be a little book. I think I might actually like that better, but I suppose their aim is to make it as different as possible from a traditional book yet still please the ‘dead tree’ crowd. I want one; but I’ll wait for the price to drop.

    • HCH says:

      I disagree. I like the way it’s printed right now, I think the pages are short enough as it is. And it would be d*mn near impossible to read it with one hand. I use my “Backflips” in a totally different way than my regular books…
      If you’re looking for small books that are printed “the correct way” keep an eye out for “Penguin 60s”. They aren’t new (1995), but I found a couple in second-hand bookstore in Belgium and as they were being sold for 60p, I can’t imagine these series being hard to come by in the UK. I have to add that they are all short stories. (FYI: The ones with black spines are classics and orange is 20th century.)

  2. Stevie Godson says:

    Great post, thanks. I don’t fancy them at all, Catherine. Here’s my recent newspaper column on the topic:
    IF YOU’RE still sitting on the fence over whether to stick to traditional books or get yourself an e-reader, you may be able to put off the decision for a while longer. At least, that’s what the inventor of the “revolutionary flipback book” wants you to think.
    Just released in England, flipback books are made of paper – just like “real” books – but, says the maker, they’re lighter than a Kindle, fit in your pocket, and don’t need recharging.
    And because these books are sideways-bound – they have especially thin printed pages and their spines are made of a cloth – it’s apparently easy to read two pages from top to bottom, like holding a very light paperback sideways.
    Apparently they’re already “all the rage” in Holland, where they’ve been available for a couple of years, which is not surprising, as they were invented there. Hugo van Woerden, who is chief of Christian printing house Jongbloed was apparently looking for ways to use excess Bible “onion skin” paper when he came up with the idea.
    As the Guardian newspaper’s Patrick Kingsley says, the flipback’s appeal is not only that it’s made of paper, not bytes, but also because it’s so convenient.
    “I can perch it in one fist, and keep my other hand free for shopping,” he says. “The paper is wafer-thin. ‘Great for making rollies,’ says my nicotine-addicted lunch date,” he adds.
    “Unlike an ordinary paperback, the book lies open without intervention on my part, due to its special spine. It’s handy on a rush-hour tube, too. Page-turning with paperbacks will see you elbowing your neighbour in the pancreas in no time. But the minuteness of this little beauty, with its pages that flip rather than turn, help me keep my elbows to myself and pancreases everywhere safe.”
    I’m still not convinced, especially as I don’t have to catch a rush-hour tube and these “little beauties”, which look as flimsy as a feather, cost slightly more than a regular book and around two-thirds more than most e-books.
    As Cory Doctorow on website boingboing says, the Guardian’s headline – Could this new book kill the Kindle? – must take the prize for that newspaper’s silliest headline of the year.
    Talking of headlines, one that did tickle my fancy was on book news website Teleread. New way to read dead trees, they proclaim.
    And that just about sums it up.
    Because however light they are, 3500 of them – the number of books I can load on my Kindle – would still use an awful lot of paper and take up an awful lot of physical space.
    The headline in the Sydney Morning Herald announced: Wee book versus e-book.
    According to their article, the flipback books measure 12cm x 8cm across the cover and the heaviest so far is Stephen King’s Misery, weighing in at 157gm, “which is marginally more than an iPhone”.
    And the best comment so far also came from the Sydney Morning Herald, but from a reader, “Eiszeit”, who says: “If you don’t have space in your bag for a book, then perhaps you are carrying too much crap around with you … most women carry bags large enough to conceal a corpse.”
    Hmmn, wonder who gave him permission to check out mine ….

  3. Karina Halle says:

    That’s pretty awesome – hadn’t even heard of Flipbacks before. I too would actually really be annoyed by the spine.

    I’ve got an e-reader now which is great for reading pdfs of other self-published books from Smashwords or wherever. But I would still rather have a physical book. Even though I share a 430 sq foot apartment, my books are still proudly displayed…and growing. I’m just old-fashioned that way, plus I never give books away and I treat them like furniture or art.

    I do the same for CDS too, so maybe it’s just an aesthetic thing. I like to be able to stare at it, pick it up, put it back down. Plus, I really don’t feel like the experience with an ereader is the same as a book. It feels…hollow. I don’t know. I also read about studies done saying that memory retention off the physical page is a LOT better than off of a Kindle or Nook. So that says something!

  4. mary hannon says:

    Just bought Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and think they are lovely!I adore all my books and for me this is just a different way of experiencing them. Have to say it was a very pleasurable hour spent reading from this in coffee shop earlier. Definitely agree its no threat to Kindle though and the spine thing I understand but perhaps its a bit OCD of me so will hold off on that. I think the fine bible paper brings something new to be savoured as well and anything that keeps people connected to the all things booky is good with me!

  5. Christopher Wills says:

    Hi interesting post; never seen these before. To me they shout gimmick. It’s an old marketing ploy in a shrinking market; throw in some gimmicks to spark interest and prop up the market for a while. They don’t even fulfil a need. Sorry but I will not be buying any.

  6. Keris says:

    I’m baffled by these books. Yes, they look really cute and they’re light, but I thought the selling point was that you could read them one-handed (I assumed that was aimed at commuters rather than anyone involved in, um, other one-handed activities) and you can’t. “Pages that flip rather than turn” – how? As far as I can tell you just have to turn the pages like an ordinary book. Unless I’m doing it wrong…

  7. laurastanfill says:

    Great post! I’m waiting for my copy of “Cloud Atlas” to arrive here in America. I ordered it June 30 directly from Hodder & Stoughton and have been assured that the package should arrive any day now. I’ve been blogging a lot about flipbacks over the past few months, including doing an interview with the international marketing manager at Jongbloed BV, the Bible publishing company that came up with the format. So I’m really excited to have my first real reading experience with one. (I have the Cambridge University Press Transetto Bible, but that’s not the same as sitting down with a novel.)

  8. ianf says:

    Your gut verdict of a year+ ago proved correct…
    the flipbacks do not appear to be going anywhere
    anytime soon, except into oblivion. I think I may
    know why… extremely narrow range of published
    titles underlines the format’s novelty – and that’s
    about it. Too few buyers/ readers of far too few
    titles put out not only by UK publishers, but also
    such in other languages in other EU countries
    where the flip format made a splashdown–possibly
    with exception for The Netherlands where they’ve
    been around for longer. None of that bides well for
    their future.

    Incidentally, paperbacks with pages printed parallel
    to the spine aren’t what’s new here—I’ve seen at
    least a couple odd volumes of such “spineways”
    prose and other genres 10-15 years in the past—
    but that the books now apparently are produced
    and bound on a dedicated flipbooks-printworks
    line capable of handling both super-thin bible
    stock AND cloth covers (previous ones were
    done on standard pulpy paperback lines).

    That said, I looked up by you recommended Book
    Depository outlet, and found just 10 odd flipback
    titles (one, Pride and Prejudice, not from Houghton;
    could well have been a test case for the other
    house–which didn’t pan out). I love Jane Austen
    like me sister, but, hey! I can get her FOR FREE
    from five dozen other places, and for £1 from any
    classics sale bin; what the hell were they ?thinking?
    of, a runaway sales stampede?

    PS. modify the search term under your link to
    The Book Depository – from plural »flipbacks«
    to singular »flipback«. The first does not return
    any results any more… one more sign that the
    format (also explicitly called »paperback« there)
    isn’t going places.

  9. ianf says:

    Here are a couple links that spell out the »destiny«
    of the Flipbacks: http://www.flipbackbooks.com/
    doesn’t even list where to buy them; and of a total
    of 18 http://www.flipbackbooks.com/titles.html
    published to date–in a year+ that’s all they could
    manage–fully half are not represented in The Book
    Depository – which means TBD doesn’t believe in
    the format’s survival, therefore has quit ordering
    new books.

    The “Pride and Prejudice” Flipback-edition mentioned
    by me above is from John Murray Publishers Ltd.
    Jane (and John), we hardly knew you.

    Keep an eye on TBD – maybe they will discount
    the remaining flickback stocks even more, then
    we could all make a one-off killing! (odd books like
    that will be fetching good prices 100 years hence)

  10. HCH says:

    As I’m Flemish, I own plenty of Dutch books and the print on their spines is usually the same as my English books (with the exception of my copy of “Marcus Antonius”). So my “Backflips” (“Dwarsliggers” in Dutch) cause constant struggles, because putting them next to my Dutch books wouldn’t look pretty and putting them next to my French books (whose spinetext is always flipped) would result in a mental breakdown every time I look at my bookshelf (I fully understand you). Even worse: If you lay it down flat, it’s upside down as well.
    In Dutch, we have more titles available, for instant “The Great Gatsby” and “Inferno”, all costing €12,50. But I found a couple of titles (maybe six or seven) at “Kruidvat” (the Dutch equivalent of “Superdrug”) for €5, as a temporary offer. I don’t get it either…
    You can read it with one hand, which is useful whilst commuting. You just use your thumb to flip the pages! You’re meant to be able to read on-the-go. You can read on the train and when you arrive at your stop, you can simply put it in your back pocket (or throw it in your handbag). So it’s not really about laziness, it’s more about reading in places where it used to be impossible to read.
    I love them! I think it’s weird that it hasn’t broken through yet. I absolutely love it. The only thing that puts me off is the price, because I know they’re trying to get rich fast.

  11. ianf says:

    Wonderful, a double-barrel shot in the chest from Flemish HCN in a comments thread I long thought dead (as is the Flipback format). Viva WWW! ;-))

    That said, you shouldn’t complain over the excessive €12.50 price for such an odd edition as that. Where I live in North-western EU, new ordinary hardbacks now easily cost €25+, paperbacks ~€18, and non-Amazon ebooks (i.e. ePub) of the same titles barely less – that is, if they’re available at all. In fact, even second-hand recent titles from Amazon Marketplace cost, with £4.02 postage, often over £15. So a Dwarsligger @ €12.50 is practically a steal!

    That said, having bought (but not read) 3 different Flipback titles, I think I figured out why they never caught on beyond The Netherlands (where there was a ready sales & distribution channel pushing them to bookstores initially at reduced prices):

    1. they are hard to read by older/ weaker eyes – book readers are by and large women in the mid to upper middle age bracket. Look around you, how many of those who fit that description wear glasses and require a second pair of reading glasses that are selected for the usual upright eye-to-book-in-lap distance? Flipbooks force one to hold them much higher up/ closer to eyes, to be readable.

    2. Flipbacks sound novel as an idea, but the novelty wears off after a while, esp. as there isn’t a large spectrum of new titles to choose from. It’s a two-way seesaw… the publishers look at how many copies an edition sells, and, if it underperforms vs. other formats, do not reprint them. The booksellers may request such, but it’s not their bailiwick to ensure that it won’t be remaindered and pulped. And so on… One of the flipbacks I bought for kicks has a sequel, only not in flipback, but in ordinary hardback and paperback. Last I looked at the Dutch original FB publisher’s list (4 years ago), it sported some 200 fiction titles. How many (more) are there now?

    3. Lastly, a flipback is not as robust, and replaceable, as a paperback. It’s not something that you can hand to a friend, and forget about it. It’s sort of… precious to hold and to own, the eye candy of any sitting room’s bookshelf. So it has lower utility than other types of run-of-the-printing-press volume.

    Go ahead, prove me wrong (in deeds preferably, as words are a dime a dozen).

  12. ianf says:

    PS. Lest you all think me a Flipback-format philistine, intent on painting its prospects black, I hasten to assure you that I am not, simply not given to pipe dreams in a rosy future. Years ago I came up with a REVOLUTIONARY! NOVEL! concept for books otherwise known as summer beach bestsellers: I’d publish sexy whodunits on immersible Tyvek® (plastic fibre) substrate paper, that could float and be read in and out of water. I made a book mockup, and, while it wasn’t as fresh after getting wet and dry as before (the pages were porous, which made drying out uneven), it was still readable. Anyway, I decided that the novelty of them was worth the trouble.

    Then the reality set it. At that time there was only one such printable plastic paper supplier, and their distributors wouldn’t even talk to me unless the business was for so and so many tons/ 5-digit dollar$ value. I could try my luck with some print works that already had it (mainly for tear-free envelopes and similar packaging), but they didn’t have the right presses for books. At best I could make 50 test copies for a price I could not afford. Which was just as well, for, long after I shelved the idea, I met a book industry exec who told me that ~5 years earlier they had the same bright idea (with the proviso of theirs being mom-and-kid beach reading fare), and actually did a test run – only to discover that there was no demand for it. So, yes, even if Flipback is a evolutionary book dead-end, sooner or later someone might come up with a novel concept that will catch on and revitalize the book trade.

    For analogy, look no further than at development of bicycles: for 70-odd years, the “safety bicycle” barely changed shape. Any refinement of the basic diamond frame was to make it more sleek, lighter, with better component gruppos. And then, in early 80s, some American maniacs discovered the thrill of riding bikes downhill, daredevil style. Road frames would not do, they folded directly. Suddenly the new mountain bikes acquired heft, bulky tires, oversized brakes, other geometry, etc. to survive the ordeal. And all of the bike trades profited from developments brought forth by that initially v. small sector of the industry. So that could happen here as well, $AMZN willing ;-))

  13. Lucia says:

    I’m late to answer to your question, but I try: Here in Italy we don’t have much Flipback, only this year I saw one and so I have thinked “It’s cute! I want to try to read one of this small books”
    I haven’t thinked that they have tried to make something that had to be a rival of Ebooks and e-Reader, because I read normally in this format, and this books I think don’t have the chance to be a real rival. If this had to be the objective they lost from the start, because they are late and the technology is ahead.

    I hope that you understand what I have write and that my english isn’t so bad. Thanks for the article, I liked it.

  14. Aldo Palumbo says:

    The one-handed reading allows the reader to read whilst eating a dish such as penne arrabbiata, which requires only a fork. Further, holding the book in a constantly elevated position reduces the likelihood of sugo (the sauce) splashing onto the book’s pages. Holding the book in this way for long stretches is far from lazy and may even tone muscle in the supporting arm. Switching arms for an even tone is advised. I’m currently reading La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi di Paolo Giordano which boasts a correctly oriented spine. Both arms are looking good (bellissime, even).

  15. anthony says:

    Has a self publishing market been cornered yet, for flipback books?
    I really like the layout and have been waiting to see if one comes out.

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