As dead as the horse

I heard someone on the radio the other day extolling the death of the print publishing industry.

This isn’t new, and it isn’t necessarily something that I would normally take issue with.

The analogy that he used to describe it, however, did make me think. He said that he thought that within twenty years there would be no books, and that the book was like the horse. His argument for this (the horse part) was that “once the car was invented no-one rode a horse to work any more”.

I have one main objection to this.

My objection is that yes, in 2011 everyone drives a car to get to work, but in 2011 – many, many years after the invention of the car – people still ride horses. The difference is that instead of riding them for commuting, they ride them simply for pleasure. In the same way, I’m sure that in twenty years time, although most people will read books electronically, some people will still want to read books on paper.

The horse analogy assumes that the only possibly purpose of riding a horse is to get to work.This may have been true once, but with the advent of the car (and the bus, and the train) people didn’t go out and shoot their horses and turn them into glue, they simply used them differently. Where once they had been a primary mode of transport, they became a leisure activity.

There are perhaps parallels with reading here. In twenty years I’m sure we will consume the vast majority of our narrative fiction via electronic devices, but I expect there will still be people who want to see ink on paper. For the tangible nature of it. For the look and the feel and the smell of it. Maybe even for the nostalgia.

Also, a Kindle doesn’t look half as good on a shelf as a row of books.

I think the print industry is in trouble, and that it will need to change in order to survive. But I think that no matter what happens in the ebook revolution, no matter how vibrant and powerful the independent and self-publishing boom, it will still have a place, even as time and technology whooshes inexorably by. Only it might have to accept that people don’t ride horses to work any more.


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