Books vs Ebooks: recruiting a straw man to do the legwork

DISCLAIMER: I am an idiot. On the verge of posting the following, I discovered1, much to my chagrin, that Inprint Books is not (yet) a real company, but a student project by the irritatingly talented Matthew Young2  My reactions were as follows: 1) I’ve wasted my time. Livid. 2) Actually, this has provoked some interesting thoughts: I could rewrite, keeping some of the central ideas, shift the focus from InPrint, and certainly not let on that I’d been fooled. 3) That would be pretty lame. I was fooled, and Matthew deserves the credit (well, most of the credit. He made a very convincing site but, as noted before, I am an idiot. Let’s call it 80/20). So here, in all their idiotic glory, are my thoughts on an upstart young publishing venture called Inprint.

Inprint Books is picking a fight. “Books vs Ebooks” it proclaims on its website. It’s the kind of battle cry calculated to get some attention by the new kid in a crowded playground, and it works.

Three videos, including the one below, and three radio spots pit “Walter”, a book voiced in reassuring Scottish tones3 against the “E-Text 5000 Pro”, an ereader with a dodgy speech synthesiser.

The message is clear. Ebooks are cold and robotic. “Real” books on the other hand are cosy, tactile and trustworthy.

“We don’t do ebooks”, Imprint proudly proclaims. What they do do, is gorgeously crafted “real” books. The covers aren’t printed, but assembled by hand from laser-cut layers of coloured card, while the endpapers are screenprinted, again by hand.


A desirable product and a great marketing campaign, built around some ingenious misdirection – “We don’t do ebooks” is a much snappier slogan than “we do nicer, more expensive editions of existing books.”

The ebook they present as an opponent is something of a straw man, capable of only simple black and white text and devoid of any capacity for pleasing visual design. But that’s not really the point. Inprint aren’t really on an anti-ebook crusade. They’re not trying to convince confirmed ebookers, or the curious but undecided. They’re not really even preaching to the converted. They’re simply hitching their wagon to the horse most people are talking about, using humour and a little mild controversy.

There are five titles in the first series: Great expectations, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Papillon and Trainspotting. At £25 each or £100 for the set, they’re clearly a luxury purchase. Which, in the context of the marketing, raises an interesting question: between the ereader and Inprint’s luxuriousy hand-assembled tomes, which would you be most likely to actually read?

Inprint is appealing for title suggestions for its next series. Readers are invited to fill in the blank: “My favourite book is __________ and I would love Inprint publish their own version of it.” These are editions aimed – explicitly – at people who have already read them. People who, I expect, will keep them pristine on the shelf, and return to their trusty, well-thumbed paperback if they want to read them again.

I love books, particularly those that strive to be beautiful objects – I’ve even had a hand in some myself.4. A shelf full of Inprint editions would be fine thing. And yet… and yet… something about this fetishism makes me uneasy. It’s like too much icing and not enough cake. There isn’t a single photo of the inside of one of these books on the site, nor any mention of the typesetting5 – they’re books to be looked at, not read. They’d look great on the shelf, but I’d be reluctant to crack the spine, let alone read one in the bath or on a lilo – the very places the ads chastise ebooks as unsuitable for.

The Inprint campaign worked: it made me aware of, and covet, their books.6 But it also made part of me want to get back to the basics, to the words between the covers. Rather than setting me against ebooks, it actually fuelled an excitement for them – and not the enhanced variety either, but the utilitarian, nothing but the text kind. A desire to forget about arranging the shelves and just read something.

  1. by clicking on the purchase link, which brings up the information I’d missed. A humbling lesson in the importance of research []
  2. Which answers the nagging questions I had about how hand-made books could be viable at this price point, especially with in-copyright titles. []
  3. Surveys have shown Scottish accents are considered trustworthy, a phenomenon long known to advertisers and call centre companies []
  4. See my illustration website if you’re interested []
  5. UPDATE – according to Philippa’s comment below, Matthew has typeset the insides of these books…now that’s attention to detail. []
  6. Ok, so they’re not actually for sale. But the campaign really worked, in that it brought Matthew Young to my attention – I think he’ll go far. []
  1. Hey! Nice article. However, I’m sorry to say that you are wrong on one account. I am Matt’s girlfriend and ‘Production Assistant(!)’ and I can safely say that the typesetting is immaculate. I spent so much time trying to convince Matt that typesetting 5 books was a waste of time, but his perfectionist personality won out and he spent a couple of weeks on the arduous task of putting in paragraph breaks and choosing typefaces and whatever else he did – don’t ask me! Anyway, this is a fantastic article, and appeals to me as an avid and careless book lover who certainly does take books into the bath and folds the corners (much to Matt’s consternation!). Just bought some Arthur Conan Doyle books which I hear are illustrated by you – cannot wait to read them – matt has given me permission to fold the corners!

  2. He typeset all 5 books? OK, now I’m seriously impressed. How did he get the text for the in-copyright ones?

  3. DISCLAIMER: I spent a large portion of my morning writing this response to your article, and just like yourself, on the verge of posting, I was dropped a slight bombshell. It seems my own girlfriend has already beaten me to it! Moments before pressing the “Sumbit Comment” button, I received a call from Philippa, telling me to check the article again. I hit the refresh button, and most of the comments I wanted to make had already been made for me! My reactions were as follows: 1) I’ve wasted my time. Livid. 2) Actually, that was rather lovely of Philippa, after all, she didn’t know I was writing my own version of events. 3) Lovely yes, but I’m still annoyed that she beat me to it. Should I rewrite my comments and just post the bits that are still relevant? 4) Ok, I know, I’ll just post my response, as I originally intended it, and add a disclaimer at the beginning, thus providing a strange symmetry between the original article, and my comments on it. So here, in all their glory, are my thoughts, on the above article. (Any chance I can get this text in red?)


    Well, I’ve got to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. Although, having said that, I must admit I’m predisposed to like any article that refers to me as “irritatingly talented”. Thank you sir, for your kind words.

    As I, and my fake publishing company, are the subject of the article, I just wanted to add a few comments of my own.

    Firstly, it’s clear that you “get” Inprint perfectly. The books are a luxury purchase. They are the kind of books which may simply be displayed rather than read. My tutors at university struggled with this a bit.

    They are books for bibliophiles, and are certainly not intended to replace the humble paperback, or indeed the eBook. The books vs. eBooks campaign was simply the best method I could think of to garner some attention. “Inprint aren’t on an anti-ebook crusade” is spot on. Again, sadly, this was something my tutors couldn’t quite grasp.

    Now, you did pick up on one of the great flaws of my campaign. I do indeed chastise eBooks for their inability to be read in the bath, or on a lilo, which is rather unfair of me. The kind of people who might spent £25 per book on a set of Inprint’s finest, are not going to risk occasional splashes and wavy page edges by taking them in the bath. Equally, they’re probably the last books you’d consider slipping into your suitcase to enjoy on the beach, or on a lilo (do people actually still use lilos?). That job is best left to the far more convenient A or B format paperbacks.

    The only other quibble was the issue of too much icing and not enough cake – the inside of the books. You’re quite right that on the website, there are no images of the inside, or any mention of the typesetting. Due to my own poor time management, and a major cock up by the printers (who “forgot” about my order!), the books weren’t assembled and completed until about 6am on Friday 7th May. My university deadline was 12 noon, that same day. I’m sure you can imagine the haste with which the books were photographed!

    When designing Inprint books, I actually spent just as long on the insides as I did on the outsides. I cannot tell you how much it riles me to find a book with a beautifully designed cover, only to open it up and be confronted with a cheaply printed and messily typeset inside. My dissertation was on the subject of typography, and I’ve done enough research into typography, legibility and readability to last me a lifetime.

    So, although it’s likely that most Inprint books would remain “pristine on the shelf”, on the off chance that the owner should wish to open one up and risk cracking the spine, they would be treated to a very elegantly typeset and comfortable reading experience.

    Well, I think that’s all the comments I wanted to make.

    For now, Inprint is still very much a fictional publishing company, but enough people have now expressed an interest in it to make me think that it might just work as a real business. If I can scrape together the funds to get it off the ground, then it might one day be more than just a university project and a small website.

    Finally, I just want to add what an honour it is to have such an entertaining and well written article written about Inprint, and by a fellow book designer! I only discovered your portfolio this morning, but it turns out I already own a lot of the books you’ve designed, which makes the article seem even more special.


    P.S. Concerning the text for the in-copyright books.

    In a cruel ironic twist, I actually had to download the eBooks, and use some (perhaps not entirely legal) software to copy and paste the text, before I could typeset it myself. The text from the eBooks was extremely messy, and it’s not an experience I’d like to repeat!

    I’m very curious to know, should I ever turn Inprint into a real business, how would I go about publishing an in-copyright book? I know Penguin do it all the time. Do you have to pay royalties? Or do you have to buy the copyright? Any light you could shed on the subject would make for very interesting reading indeed.

  4. Thanks for commenting Matt. Very interesting to hear more about the background to the project, and once again, the attention to detail is very impressive. Congratulations on a great project and all the well-deserved attention (cover of CR – nice score!).

    On the subject of publishing in-copyright works, you’d have to negotiate rights with the author’s agent or estate, and with the publisher that holds the rights in whichever territory you want to publish in. My guess is that you wouldn’t have huge difficulties (The Folio Society does a similar thing) but it would add to your costs.

    On which note, I’d be interested to know how the pricing came about – seems like a low return on such a labour intensive process, and I’m guessing it would have to be revised upwards if you went into production? (Of course, since they’re not actually for sale, you may quite legitimately have pulled a nice round number out of the air…but given the revelation that you typeset all five of the books, I feel that might be underestimating you.)

    —Can’t believe it’s taken me two weeks to respond to this…busy times—

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