BREAKING: Kevin Costner is at the center of a world rights deal made with Atria Books for The Explorers Guild, an epic serialized illustrated adventure novel series that Costner hopes will transfer to multiple platforms including a feature film that he will star in and produce. The first book in the series, The Explorers Guild, Volume One: A Passage To Shambhala, will be published in 2014.

Costner told me he feels the book has the sweep of adventure classics he grew up reading, including Arabian Nights and The Red Badge Of Courage. He’s producing and developing the book with writer and art director Jon Baird, and it will be heavily illustrated by Rick Ross. The hope is to create a series that will have resonance for both a young-adult and mature audience.

Publishing is a new foray, but Costner is no stranger to sprawling historical-based projects, from Dances With Wolves to the recent Emmy-nominated History miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, which he starred in and produced. The Explorers Guild is a clandestine group of adventurers who seek out the places where light gives way to shadow, and reason is usurped by myth. The secrets of this unknown world are hidden in mountain ranges and lost in deserts, sunk to the ocean floor and lodged deep beneath polar ice. The aim of The Explorers Guild: to discover the mysteries that lie beyond the boundaries of the known world. The first adventure is set against the backdrop of World War I and revolves around the quest to find the mythic Buddhist city Shambhala. Guild members are looking for different things there: one hopes to save his brother’s life, another looks for spiritual enlightenment and peace; others fear it will bring mankind to the brink of apocalypse. The search includes treks to the Polar North, the Mongolian deserts and underground canals of Asia to the Himalayas.

Costner told me the book series “represents the highest level of storytelling that lends itself to numerous platforms and if the words are protected, this can find a place as a premium content series, animated and live, and a feature,” he said. “It feels like one of those billion-dollar babies that sometimes blow up with a high degree of literacy and commercial appeal. We are looking for the right kind of partner who recognizes this.”

Costner has been working on this idea for a good five years and he said quality sometimes can’t be rushed. I mentioned to him how refreshing it was to see him on Hatfields & McCoys and as a centerpiece of the new Jack Ryan film, with the chance he will play the character in Tom Clancy’s other series, Without Remorse, and possibly a stand-alone film. While a lot of young actors try to take the place of established stars who don’t need to work all the time — like Costner, Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington — the newcomers for the most part seem light by comparison. It’s one reason studios have stopped relying on movie stars for the most part, with concepts taking center stage.

Costner laughed at this but got serious. “When I was making my bones, I remember first it was about getting the SAG card, and then after I got that role in Silverado, which was a scene stealer, it became all about, ‘Well can he carry a movie?’ And then I found No Way Out, and I was like Spencer Tracy, just standing on my marks, hitting my lines. It really is all about finding good writing and then protecting it,” Costner said. “These days, a lot of these young people are being thrown into franchises and superhero films that haven’t even really been written yet. Too often, being a star means someone who can take off their shirt and be cut, that has become the prerequisite for leading men. That’s hard on the rest of us, but it doesn’t last. There are a lot of good young actors out there, and all I can say is that in my own experience, it has always gone best when I go after the good writing. You can’t anticipate a hit, because movies are like salmon heading upstream, with a lot of things trying to kill them. But good writing, and a steady hand through post, are ways to protect it.”

While Costner has gotten much acclaim for being the catalyst of Hatfields & McCoys and its record cable ratings and 16 Emmy nominations, he said that that credit is flattering but not really warranted. “All I can take credit for is seeing the genius in the writing, and recognizing that this would work best over three nights, so that certain arcs in the writing could play out, and insisting that it be told over three nights if I was going to take part.”

On The Explorers Guild, Costner sees a potential reminiscent of James Bond, with its exotic locations and talent from around the world taking part. “I will definitely play one of the characters and provide a voice in the animated series, but I’m content to yield to a great director. This can turn into an example of great original storytelling.”

Judith Curr, EVP and Publisher of Atria Books, says “We’re thrilled to partner with Kevin Costner and Jon Baird on The Explorers Guild. Their vision for this project is creative, sweeping, and innovative, and their commitment to the importance of a rich storyline truly won us over. The challenge and excitement of being able to redefine how commercial fiction is published is irresistible. We will be actively pursuing international partners to create a world-wide publishing event.”

Costner was repped in the publishing deal by Curr with Rob Weisbach and Fonda Snyder of Rob Weisbach Creative Management,  Atria Senior Editor Sarah Durand and Daniel Loedel, Assistant Editor, will be the editors.