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Hamlet 2.0

Writer Ryan North raised more than half-a-million dollars through social media to publish his Shakespeare-adventure book

February 11, 2013

This is not the Shakespeare from your first-year English class. In his forthcoming book, To Be Or Not To Be: That is the Adventure, Ryan North takes liberties with Hamlet, spinning the Bard’s tale of madness, murder and deception into a choose-your-own-adventure story.

The book is already a social media phenomenon and a testament to a new wave of publishing possibilities. North (MSc 2005) eschewed the well-worn approach of pitching to publishers and solicited support for the book’s production independently. He launched an initiative on Kickstarter, a fundraising website for creative ventures.

North’s proposal achieved an unprecedented level of support, becoming the most funded publishing project in Kickstarter’s three-year history. Within four hours, he reached his $20,000 goal – and garnered nearly $600,000 in 30 days. More than 15,000 donors worldwide contributed to the project. An established comics writer, North leveraged his fan base, publicizing the book through social media and word of mouth. Kickstarter statistics showed that 20 per cent of his supporters were unfamiliar with his previous work, and simply wanted to help out with an interesting idea. “Also, everyone secretly likes Shakespeare – or at least regicide,” he jokes.

Kickstarter’s tiered rewards program spurred the campaign, with each donation level promising more features for the book. North decided on the benefits for each level, ensuring that a supporter would receive a copy of the book with a $20 donation. Set for release in May, To Be or Not To Be will include full-colour illustrations from about 70 artists and will be printed on high-quality paper. “As we made the book better, it became more appealing to supporters,” he says. “It created a positive feedback loop. That’s not something you can do through traditional publishing.”

North penned the work over the course of nine months. “This makes me sound like a super intelligent man who just thinks about high-brow literature all the time, but the title – To Be or Not To Be – came to me while I was thinking about Hamlet’s soliloquy,” he says. “The title suggested the book. I thought, ‘This is kind of structured like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Oh my God, I have to write this.’”

In the choose-your-own-path genre, readers direct the book’s action through a series of decisions. “People read these books as kids,” says North. “I remember them being fun. I saw the potential to write non-linear fiction for adults; the choices could be more meaningful.”

In North’s version, readers navigate the story as Hamlet, Ophelia or King Hamlet, who dies on the second page (the reader then plays as his ghost). North renders the prose in contemporary English, but peppers the text with Shakespearean phrases and rap soliloquies, which wind into over 100 endings. Bolstered by the book’s success, North has subsequently written a prequel, Poor Yorick, and plans to rework another Shakespeare play.

North is no stranger to publishing triumphs. He writes the critically acclaimed web-based Dinosaur Comics, and Adventure Time, a fantasy comics series based on a cartoon of the same name. He also co-edited Machine of Death, a short story collection that has sold about 27,000 copies to date.

Writing a choose-your-own path adventure and using Kickstarter were new to North – a pairing which clearly paid off. “The only downside is that I didn’t sleep much during the month of the Kickstarter,” he says. “I kept waking up early, excited to see what was new with it that day.”

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