The logical progression of writing on a niche topic these days seems to be: create a blog, establish a following and, if the stars align, write a book. In the spirit of contrarianism and experimentation, I did the opposite with my 1998 book The Van Halen Encylopedia.
The idea was to create individual posts for every entry in the book (around 500) and link them all together in new ways. I’d update the book in real time as updates rolled in. The web was made for reference, so a reference book would be a perfect fit. Right?
It’s been over six months since the site started and I’ve learned quite a bit.
I was fully expecting to regret my choice of Squarespace to host the VHE. It seemed like an expensive option for a low traffic, long-tail site. I chose it because I knew the system well and knew I could have a huge site up and operational over a single weekend.
What I didn’t know was Squarespace is especially well-suited for reference sites. While editing an entry, you can click a link within the entry and toggle between tabs to edit several entries simultaneously (without saving, or opening anything). This saved me days, maybe weeks of work. Even if I move the site to lesser expensive option in the future, building it would never have happened so quickly without Squarespace.
This was over-the-top successful.
A great example of what’s possible occurred this week. I had been trading a few emails with a woman who swore a concert happened in a certain venue in 1980, even though there was no record of it. A week or so went by and she emailed again, this time with an image of the ticket stub from a Facebook group for the old venue. In the book it went!
I have hundreds of updates backing up in my queue. Turns out, putting this stuff out there for free has returned more information from readers in 6 months than in all 13 years the book was in print. I’m starting to worry I may not have enough time in my life to keep up with it all, which leads me to wonder if the book is of that much importance. This makes me think hard for a bit, then I get back to work.
One downside of putting everything on the web is that it gets used everywhere, without attribution. From everyone’s favorite reference website to legit editorial sites, everyone is copying and pasting. I have no problem with that, as long as it fits within the bounds of fair use and there’s a link back to the site, but there never is.
The Next Few Months
There’s some things from the book that don’t translate well to the web. There’s a sense of discovery missing from flipping through pages and finding a entry for a song you never knew existed.
There’s a narrative to the opening Timeline chapter that pulls the whole book together, but there’s maybe one reader in a thousand on the web who’d be patient enough to follow that narrative without clicking dozens of links.
It’s clear to me that the book will have to at least be on the Kindle and in the iBook store to experience the full thing (for those who are interested). A book that lives in at least two mediums at the same to will be the next experiment.