Boris Müller

Interface & Interaction Design




Books are the new Horses

13. October 2014

Books will die out. eBooks are the future.

The pragmatic arguments for eBooks are overwhelming. Electronic devices are cheap. Storing text is simple – we can already download a huge amount of literature onto a single device. Schoolbooks can regularly be updated without the need to print them. They can be stored in the cloud – so you cannot loose them. The text display can be adjusted to your preference. You can easily search and annotate. Multimedia elements can be added and allow for a richer reading experience. And you no longer need to fell a tree in order to print a book. Books – in the sense of stacks of printed paper – will no longer exist in a few years.

80 years ago horses died out1. With the rise of the automobile and tractors, working horses became obsolete. Horses needed to be sheltered and fed – no matter if they were idle or working. Machines were faster, more powerful, flexible and cheaper. Horses were a thing of the past.

In 1945, there were about 1.5 million horses in Germany. This number dropped very quickly to about 250.000 in the 1970s. Horses were presumed to die out or live in zoos.

Today, we have about one million horses in Germany. Four times the number of the 70s. What happened?

Keeping a horse is not a pragmatic decision. Except for breeding there are very little economic incentives to have one. The reasons for the increase of the horse population can be found in economic changes. With an increasing living standard and more leisure, many people could invest time and money for keeping horses. Either for sport – or just as pets. In any case, there are almost no rational reasons to own a horse.  So the widespread existence of horses is a cultural phenomenon. Horses have become cultural artefacts.

I believe we will witness the same pattern with books. There is a strong notion that paper books will vanish. And a lot of this is very plausible. As smartphones, tablet computers and ebook readers are becoming ubiquitous, paperbacks will be less in demand. Having schoolbooks always up to date – and not having to carry around several kilograms of paper – is certainly attractive both for teachers and students. The number of printed books will decrease dramatically in the next few years. It will look as if books are going to be extinct.

But books have not only a pragmatic side. Horses had to become cultural artefacts in order to survive. Books have always been cultural artefacts.

The way printed books are edited, published and distributed will change fundamentally in the next 20 years2. I assume printing will be more more individual. There will be standard designs for books – pretty much like today. But books you really value can be designed just for your taste. If every book exists in a highly abstracted and well-structured format3, it is possible to create design variations that address taste, readability and sheer typographic beauty in different ways. For this to happen, the distribution and the licensing model has to change as well. Imagine the text of a book would not be published – but released. It could immediately be designed, printed and sold by anyone – as long as a licensing fee for every sold copy would go to the »releasing company« (I won’t call them publishers).

To be clear: printed books will be a niche market like other luxury goods. There is no need to own a horse – yet they proliferate. There is no need to own an analogue, mechanical and extremely expensive watch – yet it is an extremely profitable industry4. In 20 years, there will be no need to own a printed book – yet there will be individually crafted books and wonderful private libraries. It is quite possible that the rise of electronic books will actually improve the aesthetic quality of printed books.

  1. Tractor Versus Horse as a Source of Farm Power, published in: The American Economic Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, Dec., 1935 

  2. The Economist has just recently published an excellent essay on the future of the book

  3. Yes – I know. We are still far away from that. 

  4. In 2012, Switzerland exported watches worth 21,4 billion swiss francs.