Going, going, gone 

It’s over. Baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is officially obsolete. But Michael Betzold – whose Tiger Stadium Fan Club fought for years to keep the team from relocating – has already moved on. He’s writing surrealistic b-ball fiction. Betzold’s new novel, Casey and the Bat, recounts a truly alternative closing day at the storied ballpark, with a young woman pitching from the mound, an earthquake rumbling beneath the field and a terrorist organization threatening to blow up the new, corporate-funded Comerica Park.

Betzold is clearly a man with a poignant admiration for the simple pleasures of the past, and a strong skepticism about our commercialized future. Yet he has thrown us a curve by publishing this novel on the World Wide Web.

Ironically, the very means of publication may signal the end of another well-worn tradition: the paper-and-ink book. Betzold’s Casey and the Bat was produced by Buy Books on the Web, an independent Internet publisher that doesn’t actually print books until someone orders one. It’s a system called on-demand publishing, a relatively new business concept that uses low-cost digital printing technology to quickly and economically produce real books in small quantities.

When customers order online, the books are printed, bound and shipped, often in less than a week. This also allows writers to publish and distribute their books without using Borders-style chain stores.

"The stores today are part of this increasingly controlled conglomerate," says Betzold, who has also written three nonfiction books that were published the old-fashioned way. "There’s a very limited range of what book publishers will print and allow to get to the masses."

Although it’s great for fledgling and niche authors, cyberpublishing has its problems. Authors must pay the publisher a sizable set-up fee before they can sell their works online, and some on-demand publishing houses even ask writers to sign away their ownership rights.

But on-demand publishing may simply be the first wave in a series of Net-inspired trends that could ultimately sink the aging publishing industry. Or in the very least, change it beyond recognition.

Several online publishers are experimenting with selling fiction on the Web, without ever printing anything on paper. Net-only publishing houses such as Mind’s Eye and Sansip offer an array of books and short stories that interested readers can download to their hard drives and read on-screen – for a fee. You can see an introductory chapter for free, but if you like the book, you buy it – online. Prices are understandably much lower than bookstores – a mere $3 for a full novel. To attract customers, e-publisher NetBooks even offers public domain titles from such authors as Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe for free (see sidebar).

Perhaps the most compelling argument for e-publishing lies in the environmental impact of traditional publishing. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the paper industry is this country’s third biggest toxic polluter in terms of sheer volume. And that doesn’t take into account the pollution from trucks shipping books nationwide, or the industry’s insatiable hunger for trees. Not to mention all the unbought or discarded books, magazines, and, yes, even newspapers that are never recycled and end up in an already overburdened waste stream.

If the thought of curling up in a stiff office chair with a video screen doesn’t sound like your idea of a good read, you’re not alone. Mind’s Eye now offers books for the popular Palm Pilot digital handheld organizer, but that’s probably not a good enough solution to inspire the masses.

"If e-books are to replace paper ones," writes e-book futurist James Bryant, "they must be comparable in price and as convenient to use."

But what if they were more convenient? Everybook’s portable EB Dedicated Reader looks just like a leather-bound hardcover, but actually folds open, booklike, to reveal two full-color vertical screens. What’s more, the Reader holds an incredible 1,000 books on each of its removable memory cards, and can download more titles with a built-in modem. Everybook’s Reader costs $1,200 right now, but it’s just a matter of time before prices fall.

When these things turn up next to the cell phones at Best Buy (and your public library puts its collection online), it might be time to haul all your old bookshelves to the curb.

Still, it’s difficult to imagine giving up something that’s served us so well. And with the alarming ease of digital copying, the issue of copyright protection may make both publishers and authors alike think twice before giving up their hardbacks.

But ponder this: Books haven’t been part of Western culture all that long. It was only with the 15th century invention of the Gutenberg printing press that people could afford to buy a basic Bible. Mass-produced paperbacks first appeared at about the beginning of this century. You know, right around the same time our beloved Tiger Stadium was built.

No, the game may not be over until the fat lady sings. But it’s the top of the ninth, and I think I hear someone warming up in the dugout.

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