Vaporizing Vaporized: Why we turned a book into a website

Melk Abbey Library

“I want to turn my book into a website.” This was Robert Tercek, one of our clients, and author of the book Vaporized. And while his request seems ridiculous, it actually made perfect sense. Vaporized is about the transformation of physical objects into invisible data–in essence, the vaporization of those objects. Think about music: we started with live musicians and shrunk them into records, then cassettes, then CDs. Next we were taking our collection of digital songs and putting them onto small, portable devices called iPods (oh, right, and the Zune). Now, audiophiles don’t even own their own songs–they just subscribe to services like Spotify and Deezer. For the price of one CD a month, they’ll have access to 30 million or more songs. Spotify has taken an entire industry and converted it into digital vapor.

And while the publishing industry is quickly expanding to accommodate the digital era–think ebooks and audiobook services such as Audible–most books still come in the same format they did hundreds and even thousands of years ago: a bunch of paper stuffed between two covers. Which leads me back to Vaporized, still existing in physical book form. And this explains why Tercek, who had had the irony of this pointed out to him one too many times, was telling us he wanted his book turned into a website. Of course, the hardcover edition is beautiful, and there’s nothing like a shelf full of great books, but the thought was interesting. With the “Big Five” publishers on the ropes, the need to innovate is constant, and this would be a chance to break ground in something new: the vaporized book.

After discussing the logistics of a digital book, we decided to collaborate with online publishing platform Medium. Working with Medium community specialist Luke Esterkyn, we managed to segment the 100,000-word book into just over 100 posts, complete with a full navigation system impossible to replicate in any print edition. We even brought designer Patrick Kearney on board to create custom images for each of the posts (they look beautiful, by the way). While there were challenging moments, the result of this project was the first complete book on Medium, and possibly the most accessible and easily navigated book in the world.

Vaporized Book publishing innovation

And the response was incredible. Journalists began linking to the posts for citations before the book was fully uploaded. The Minerva Project contacted us to let us know about their updated services–and we were able to instantly change the text, something that would normally have had to wait until the next print run. And best of all, over 1,000 people have followed Robert Tercek on the platform, all while sharing the sections of the book that struck them as particularly powerful. Book recommendations are a thing of the past–it’s now possible to simply message them the book itself.

And with the use of a platform like Medium, the use cases for this vaporized book are endless. Navigating chapters and sections is as simple as clicking a link–no flipping through pages. Journalists and academics could find and reference your book as easily as a Wikipedia article, saving them hours crawling through research papers. They could even copy and paste your quotes straight from the text, or cite entire paragraphs with ease. They could hyperlink to specific pages, and they could pull out their favourite chapter wherever they are, on any device. And best of all, by innovating an online book in this format, we’ve opened up a platform on which our readers–and our authors–can discover new use cases. As readers point out spelling mistakes, we can instantly correct them. As research becomes outdated or updated, we can replace weakened sections with new ones or strengthen them with the new findings. The authors can expand on sections through footnotes, or even add videos to popular pages.

And as we look to the future, new uses will be created. Imagine–as Google’s page translation capabilities increase, Vaporized can be read in every popular language without the need for a translator. Simply click the “translate page” button and you’ve accessed an entire new demographic of readers, thinkers, and innovators.

Simply click the “translate page” button and you’ve accessed an entire new demographic of readers, thinkers, and innovators.

This is just the first step in accessible, navigable online books, and what is now just a single vaporized book may quickly become a vaporized library, giving unheard-of access to always-current reference materials to people around the world. And while curling up next to the fireplace with a website isn’t as romantic as with a good paperback, vaporized books definitely have their place in the future of publishing–it just won’t be on the shelf.


Paris Spence-Lang

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