As a first-time author, Anthony Zuiker nurtures an ambition that is surely unique in the annals of literature. It is to make publishing disappear, beginning this season with the release of Level 26: Dark Origins , a thriller that he and his publishers call the world's first "digi-novel."
Level 26 salts an otherwise conventional reading experience with small doses of online content, including videos, a website and a social network - all of which Zuiker's audience is invited to explore while reading, and even after finishing, his book. But that is just the beginning of the revolution that could bury books forever, according to Zuiker.
"Maybe one day we could make a bestseller without ever selling a book in a store," he says. "I think that's our mission. Isn't that great?"
Some might think otherwise, but the smart money is backing Zuiker. As the creator of CSI , the worldwide television franchise now in its 10th season, he is no dreamer. Nor is his "digi-novel," published by Dutton Books and co-authored by Duane Swierczynski, unique. Earlier in October in New York, Simon & Schuster launched four multimedia titles that combine video and text in a hybrid form it calls "vooks."
Pushed by the success of Amazon's Kindle (not yet available in Canada) and Apple's iPhone, other publishers are rushing forward with similar hybrids. All seem to agree that when the e-book finally achieves mass distribution, it will look and act nothing like the "linear" text familiar to content consumers since the age of Gutenberg.
"As people want to consume their books in different ways, it's inevitable that interactivity will be a big part of that," says Zuiker. "There's no question about it."
Rushing through Toronto on a publicity blitz, Zuiker charts his path with a phone-sized HDTV camera, equipment he says is "essential for the content part of Level 26 ." Writing and publishing a digi-novel is only the beginning of an author's involvement. "I have a personal blog Monday and Tuesday, a celebrity blog Wednesday, exclusive footage of content for Thursday, and a contest Friday for the weekend," Zuiker says. "Then it starts all over again."
The son of a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, Zuiker is a practised pitchman who parlayed a single meeting with Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer into a major career as a writer and producer. He says he first turned his mind to publishing during long walks he took during the 2007-08 Hollywood writers' strike. "I wanted to converge mediums," he says, "to take the best of publishing, motion pictures and social website and combine them into one experience - and the digi-novel was born."
It's just what publishing needs, according to the Hollywood insider. "I feel like every 20 years, someone has got to come along and do something different in publishing," he says. "James Patterson did it with his short chapters, and now I have brought new levels of interaction to the consumer in terms of novel reading."
On paper, Level 26 chronicles a cat-and-mouse chase between "ultimate crime-scene tactician" Steve Dark and a "forensics-proof" serial murder named Sqweegel. It can stand on its own as a simple read, according to Zuiker. "What makes it a digi-novel is this: Every 20 to 25 pages you read, you'll have the option to log into Level26.com and enter a code word that will unlock a piece of motion-picture footage" that adds a visual kick to the printed action.
The first-time director calls the embedded videos, which he and a skeleton crew shot for $150,000 (U.S.) with a single video camera, "cyber bridges" and "pit stops of engagement." He is even more proud of the truly interactive aspects of the novel, including "a full-blown social community" designed by the creators of Lonelygirl15 , the first hit series to appear on YouTube.
A few weeks after Level 26 was published, Zuiker staged a "continuity contest" on the website, and more than 100 readers responded with corrections to the plot and the text. "Without being paid, the community went in and fixed every single typographical error and every continuity problem in the book," he says.
Those changes will appear in an upcoming paperback edition and, much more importantly, in versions of the novel published for use on Apple's hot-selling iPhone and iTouch. Those appliances represent "the ultimate converged experience in terms of the digi-novel," Zuiker says. "It's reading a book, putting it down, logging in, watching a bridge, and going back to the book" - all without looking up from the "page."
Zuiker acknowledges that his digi-novel has inspired a backlash among traditional crime-fiction readers who prefer to rely on their own imaginations for enhanced content. "And I give that to them," he says. "But I have thousands of e-mails that say, 'Hey, I would have never read a book if it wasn't for this.'"
Nobody's expecting big financial returns from the world's first digi-novel, according to its creator. "Perhaps we're ahead of our time a touch," he says. "But this is an excellent literary experiment and a great way to learn about people's behaviour."