Ryan North’s September book, To Be or Not to Be, reveals what a trailblazer the 32-year-old Canadian writer, webcomics creator and computer programmer is. A highly ambitious, multioptional narrative based upon Hamlet, with 110 possible death scenarios illustrated by 65 artists (“a lot of them are friends, so it wasn’t too hard,” North quips), To Be or Not to Be was met with a blank stare when North presented it to his agent, who warned that “choose-your-own-adventure books are really unpopular, and it’s not going to be an easy sell.”
So North turned to Kickstarter with an initial goal of raising $20,000. The day he reached $100,000, his agent emailed, “Dude, you would have never received an advance that big!” North had taken the right gamble. Phenomenally, the Kickstarter outreach to make To Be or Not to Be raked in $580,905 from 15,352 backers. Because of this, says North, “it’s a hefty book.” Weighing in at 2.7 pounds, the 776-page undertaking contains 90,000 words, 650 links and 450 “nodes.”
His reaction to To Be or Not to Be as a publishing experience is expectedly forward-thinking. North believes that as far back as perhaps five years ago, publishing companies realized they were simply “gatekeepers to the market.” The way it stands currently, North says, “if you have a really great book, or not even a really great book, just a book, you can bring it to market without them.”
North’s seemingly happy-go-lucky confidence as a publisher hasn’t accompanied him throughout his career, however. North is perhaps best known as the creator of Dinosaur Comics, a funny web-based comic strip that features a droll T-Rex spouting urbane advice. The T-Rex proposes the idea of a device, the Machine of Death, that “delights” in predicting “ironically vague deaths.” After testing your blood, it “spits out a piece of paper that says ‘exploded’ or ‘drowned’ or ‘poisoned apple.’ ”
Archived on qwantz.com and available as a series of books (such as 2006’s Dinosaur Comics: Dudes Already Know About Chickens), the strip unintentionally launched the meteoric rise of Machine of Death–themed fiction. The subsequent buzz and mass participation that grew around the “MoD”—also known, among numerous incarnations, as “the Oracle,” “the Pronto Tester,” “the Death Machine,” even an 18th-century “automaton” named Isaac—led to the successful indie publication of Machine of Death in 2010, which in turn brought about Grand Central Publishing’s This Is How You Die in July of this year. Kirkus called the latter “funny, frightening, clever.”
“It was just another comic, just a concept I thought was cool,” says North from his home office in Toronto. After the strip went online, many of the writers, illustrators and fans that make up North’s loose creative collective responded immediately.
Eventually, David Malki, the author of the influential comic Wondermark, and accomplished sci-fi writer Matthew Bennardo convinced North that compiling an anthology of Machine of Death–themed stories would be “fun.” They called for submissions and received 675, from amateurs and professionals alike, spanning five continents and every genre. After narrowing down their favorites, the trio compiled what would become Machine of Death, their first book, which their agent shopped around for “several frustrating years,” North says.
North says that every publisher he and his colleagues approached said something along the lines of, “We love it, it’s really cool, but it’s an anthology and doesn’t have a big name in it. We can’t possibly sell this.”
Undaunted, North, Malki and Bennardo released the 452-page volume on their own. On the day it launched on Amazon, it shot to No. 1, where it remained for about 26 hours.
“Ironically and ‘satisfactorily,’ ” declares North, “we had a bunch of publishing companies say, ‘We should talk.’ Finally, people were coming to us with offers, instead of getting shot down.”
North notes that at least one good thing sprang from the arduous process of getting the book to print. When a publisher suggested adding pictures, they ran with the idea. “We made sure we had a picture for every story,” he says. “And the publishing company still passed.” Their follow-up, the traditionally published This Is How You Die, also owes a great deal of its appeal to the gifted illustrators assembled, adding, appropriately enough, a number of clever comic strips to the Machine of Death formula.
Working on the second anthology with Grand Central Publishing, North says, “has been super interesting. It was like, ‘This is how the other half lives!’ ”
Reading the anthologies, one gets the feeling Rod Serling might appear at any moment, but the true impetus for the Machine of Death’s mass-produced mythology comes from Dr. Emmett Brown, Marty McFly and a souped-up Delorean.
“I saw Back to the Future at a young age, and I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about it and how time travel works,” says North, who studied computational linguistics (a field of artificial intelligence) at the University of Toronto while producing Dinosaur Comics.
It’s fitting that a man obsessed with time travel and alternate realities would have an intuitive grasp on the future of the newly exploited nexus of online, self--and traditional publishing.
Having worked with a division of Hachette, North admires the “well-oiled machine” that traditional publishers have created “to get books to market as efficiently and successfully” as possible. “In a world where you can get a book to market without having to (or getting to) go through a publisher,” he says that the future of publishing will be “really interesting and cool. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I’m excited to find out.”
Tom Eubanks, a freelance writer, editor and consultant, has worked in magazine and book publishing for 25 years. He lives in New York City.