James Patterson’s latest book, Private Vegas, is more than a book: it’s also a marketing ploy. One thousand readers had 24 hours to read advanced copies of the thriller, which was released to the rest of the world last month. The lucky thousand downloaded “self-destructing” e-books, which deleted themselves from electronic reading devices 24 hours later. Readers had to frantically complete the novel as Patterson fans tracked their progress online, simulating the high-pressure scenarios that make TV shows like 24 so suspenseful and compelling. (Wired reports that one wealthy thrill-seeker can pay nearly $300,000 to receive a physical copy of the book that will actually explode with the help of a professional bomb squad.)
With the advent of a host of new reading technologies — many of us read more off of computer/phone/tablet screens than we do off of actual pages — Patterson’s Private Vegas scheme may represent a new norm. Increasingly, the simple act of reading may not be flashy enough to compete with televised competitors. In an age of pervasive distraction, it often takes more than the charms of bare text to engross us. The self-destructing book experiment is one way of artificially manufacturing time-pressure — and thereby immersion. And as reading technologies develop further, we may have more of the same to look forward to as texts threaten to become just one small part of a larger interactive apparatus.
I don’t fault Patterson (or, really, the Mother New York advertising agency) for coming up with a commercial gimmick designed to entice Patterson’s fans, but I do fault readers for needing additional incentive to pick up a book. To engage with an author is to opt into the most in-depth and compelling dialogue imaginable. If that’s not interesting enough, the fault lies with lazy readers.