Level 26, with accompanying website
“TO SEE the interrogation, log into LEVEL26.com and enter the code: violated.”
I’m halfway through the digi-novel Level 26: Dark Origins. The note provides the code to access another cyber-bridge, an online video that’s part of the whole multi-platform literary experience. I put the book down, log into the website, enter the code and brace myself for the disturbing video. In this video, the police interview three teenage boys who were raped by a villain with the rather unintimidating name of Sqweegel.
Anthony E Zuiker, the creator of TV series CSI, co-authored the digi-novel with Duane Swierczynski to be a multi-platform experience. After every few chapters, as law enforcement investigators hunt down a serial killer who taunts them with messages, readers are given a code to access cyber-bridges or videos that flesh out parts of the plot in vivid detail. There is also an interactive forum for readers to chat with other readers and contribute ideas on how the authors could revise the story for future editions and sequels.
This got me wondering if this is the shape of books to come as society becomes more immersed in digital technology. A scenario where in addition to e-books read on electronic readers like Kindle, books are expected to involve multi-platform story-telling and online interaction between authors and readers.
In a column on The Huffington Post, Zuiker describes Level 26 as his effort to respond to the way human behaviour evolves with digital technology. “Our attention economy is shrinking while our attentive economy is changing. And while no human being can verbalise with certainty when our behaviour shifted, we must realise there has been a shift in the first place if we hope to keep up with it,” he says.
Zuiker (© Mathieu Ramage / Flickr)
“My contribution to this future starts with publishing. Instead of just writing a novel, I decided to pair it with a motion picture and offer a social networking site at the same price as a traditional book,” he adds. “The convergence of novel, movie, and website as a ‘singular narrative’ is my literary experiment for the new age.”
The book is written in a way that allows it to cater to different reading preferences at the same time. Readers can read the book from cover to cover the traditional way or login to view the cyber-bridges when prompted for an enhanced visual experience.
They can also join the online social network, whenever they want, to contribute to the narrative beyond the printed pages. “This is the philosophy of the ‘Digi-Novel.’ A re-invention of behaviour offering the traditional book reader a new way to consume while at the same time offering the YouTube generation an excuse to read again,” Zuiker says.
There are two sequels in the pipeline for Level 26, which was released in September 2009. Already, there are people who have posted ideas on the sequels’ characters and plot.
Meanwhile, publisher Simon & Schuster and multimedia company Vook have teamed up to release their version of a hybrid publication, starting with the release of four vooks in October 2009. According to Simon & Schuster, “a vook blends text and video into a single, complete story”. It allows you to read the book, watch videos that highlight key moments in the story, watch visual how-to demonstrations and connect with the authors and other readers. You can buy a vook and read it with either a web-based application on the computer or a mobile application on the iPhone or iPod Touch.
Screencap of available titles from Vook.com
Two vook titles — The 90-Second Fitness Solution by trainer Pete Cerqua and Return to Beauty by beautician Narine Nikogosian — have been adapted from their existing print versions. The other two titles, both fiction — Embassy by Richard Doetsch and Promises by Jude Deveraux — are only available as vooks.
So is this the shape of books to come? Ellie Hirschhorn, chief digital officer of Simon & Schuster, sees this development as a way for publishers to keep abreast of new market demands.
“This is not a substitute for print, but we see the role of the publisher changing from being [only] a book publisher, to offering different ways to tell stories and convey ideas,” she says in this Associated Press report. “This is not for every writer, and it’s not for every book, but I think it’s important that we try different things and see what’s working and what isn’t,” she adds.
The cover for Level 26
Going back to Level 26, I find that the Hollywood quality of its videos leaves little to the reader’s imagination. To me, the contemplation and imagination sparked by reading — the images and senses that are evoked as the reader engages with a compelling story and beautiful writing — are perhaps the best part of the literary experience. The videos that Sqweegel sent to taunt the investigators, purportedly taken by him to show how he tortured his victims, involved a panning camera and looked more like they were done by a professional crew.
The cyber-bridges eventually became disruptive to the reading flow, a sentiment shared by a few readers on the forum. However, there are many others who like the videos. I ended up ignoring the rest of the cyber-bridges and completed the book the traditional way. I might have responded differently if the videos were done differently, or the cyber-bridges included various creative forms, each selected to suit a particular development as the plot progressed.
That said, these are still early days for such hybrid books. Lest I become stuck in analogue thinking in a digital age, I shall keep an open mind for more interesting multi-platform and interactive stories to emerge. And in a day and age when many lament that the younger generation doesn’t read much, hybrid books may offer some hope yet.