Last year’s collaboration between Anthony Zuiker and Duane Swierczynski, Level 26 was a kick in the pants to stagnation in publishing, the first of its kind, a digi-novel: a book that could be consumed traditionally—cover to cover, but was designed to be dug into interactively with a community of online participants and filmed supplemental segments, “cyber-bridges” that further fleshed out the terrifying world of ultra-evil serial killer hunting (think Thomas Harris on crank… and LSD. And check out the website).
This week, Zuiker/Swierczynski drop the sequel, Dark Prophecy, on our collective consciousness with new and improved interactive and supplemental enhancements to take the experience of a book beyond the page. I spoke with Zuiker, (also the creator of CSI), about the new book earlier in the week.
With CSI being the brand name in forensics TV and now the innovation of the digi-novel, I’ve got to wonder: what’s the primary fascination, technology or detectives & killers?
I have such an affection and affinity for reading and I find the publishing industry incredibly challenging. We in no way, shape or form ever wanted to do anything challenging to the existing reading experience. We wanted to see if we could enhance it based on emerging technology. So I think what excites us is the fact that we are still trying to write, first and foremost, the best thriller we possibly can in book form, but it also gives us a chance to do extra creative things. Like this go around, writing and directing a one hour movie that comes with the book and then being able to build a social community that really caters toward readers. And if you like the book, we’ve created a community to share your thoughts and a place to hang out. And I think we’ve done that pretty well with the digi-novel experience.
I just talked to Duane Swierczynski this morning as we’re developing book three, and I told him the most important thing barring a great movie, barring a great social website is to make sure that the book, at the end of the day, is the best it can possibly be because it’s going to come down to word of mouth. That makes the book successful.
How big a part was the interactive hook in the original
pitch for the book or series?
I think it was a big hook. I think the fact that the TV shows that I’ve created can reach (millions of) people a week was a big selling point. The fact that I was going to be writing novels was a big selling point. But we were also bringing something completely different to the table, which is added visual content, a philosophy of the digi-novel, an aggregated community and building on our readership to invite them to try the next book and the next book and the next book. So far that’s worked pretty well. We’ve been deemed an international bestseller, we cracked the list last year, which was pretty fascinating, but again we take nothing for granted because it’s such a challenging market. We just walked into Barnes & Noble this morning and there are so many titles in that huge bookstore, it just amazes me what rises to the top because there’s just so much to choose from.
How pleased are you with the results?
We’re very pleased. You know the victory for us is in the doing, especially with something so brand new. I always joke, 'how do authors do it when they’re just doing straight books?' For us it’s really challenging to shoot a quarter-million dollar movie, manage a website every day and to develop a book all at once, plus we’re doing this really comprehensive, cool iPad version of Dark Prophecy that’s going to be kind of state of the art.
Are we Stephenie Meyer? No. Are we Dragon Tattoo? No. Very few are. But we feel like our goal is to build on fiction. Our goal is to bring something new to the industry. If that gets more people to read, we’ve done a pretty good job.
How deep are people getting into it?
I think they are a lot. We’ve launched a part of the movie once a day for eleven straight days on Dark Prophecy. We just reached 100,000 members at Level26.com which is pretty exciting. We’ve got the same core we call our loud community from book one that’s ferociously promoting book two Oliver Twitter. We’re already in talks for a Sqweegel movie and we’ve now brought our Level 26: Dark Origins villain to CSI and it’s going to be in front 17.5 million people in a couple of days, so I think this very exciting not only for CSI, but for the Dark series—to see if we can have people sort of cross over and be a fan the broadcast and the publishing industry.
If there's a movie made, are there more levels to the multi-media experience that you want to expand on?
When we set out to do a digi-novel book, we were very focused on the book. Can it turn into a movie, can it turn into a web series, can it turn into a cable series, can it turn into a comic book? Sure, all those things can happen. We push for all those things as we see fit, but we’re also trying to enhance the reading experience and give people options. I think it’s very prevalent in the iPad experience or there’s the traditional experience to read the book cover to cover and there’s also the ultimate digital experience where you can not only read the book and watch the movie, but while you’re reading you can collect evidence, learn more about characters, hear some audio cues, turn the page and a bullet fires through your iPad and your screen glosses over. You can play with Tarot cards, shake the snow globe… there are so many great bells and whistles on the iPad app coming out in a couple of weeks. And for us it’s all great training ground because we know that publishing in technology has to merge going forward. They will not live as separate entities. So we’re putting a lot of time and effort and money into understanding that reading experience, but never ever losing sight that it’s important that we have a book in the store that reaches people traditionally, but gives them added value if they want to pursue it.
Do your lawyers hate you for creating new levels of copyright to specify?
Yes. The lawyers are funny because they don’t know how to make the deal. They’re like ‘what is this?’ I remember trying to put the iPhone and iTouch apps for Level 26: Dark Origins on the iTunes store and had no category for them. They had to put them under movies. I said to myself, ‘well, I think I’m doing my job.’ Y’know, if you can’t categorize something new, we’re trying to trail blaze and converge mediums, so we’ve definitely done our job. We’re a bit out of our time. I think great things happen when you experiment. I think the same way James Patterson is doing page and a half chapters, that seemed radical ten or twenty years ago. We’re giving you a full length motion picture in a social community at one price point with the traditional book experience, and that’s very radical. And I think that we’ve made some major strides in terms of a different book cover, not being as sexually deviant, not being as dark, doing a full-length movie, not just individual cyber-bridges, much better viral campaign, much better traditional press we’re doing this week in New York, much better tie in to a major show with the same creator. There was an article in the New York Times this morning talking about CBS that we do a thousand things right—you can succeed. I think we’ve done so many things right with this book, so we’ll see if that equals success.
What about the hour-long film then, is that going to be available on its own sometime?
Absolutely. It will be available on iTunes in a couple of weeks. There’s probably 10 or 15 different portals that we’re going to be monetizing the movie through because it does stand alone. It could stand alone on DVD. It could stand alone on cable television. It will definitely be sold on iTunes. We’ve taken some of the Joss Whedon model of selling it for $6.99 on iTunes or you buy the parts for $3.00 for every act, every 15 or 20 minutes. I think the great thing about the Internet, especially for movies, is that you’re able to not only use it for viral purposes to sell the book, it also acts as its own piece of commercial content that can be out there to be consumed which ultimately can be a PR piece for the book also. I think nobody quite has all this figured out in terms of where we’re going technology-wise, but we’re definitely in the game. And we feel like as long as we’re doing the best that we possibly can at book prices, y’know we’re not doing 4 million dollar CSIs, we’re making half million dollar launches, which is something really different. We feel that CSI fans like it the way we like it.
You can read the rest of my interview with Anthony Zuiker right here.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.