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Crowdfunding Kickstarts Book Projects

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To be or not to be?

Thanks to Ryan North, Shakespeare lovers of all ages will soon be able to take charge of Hamlet's debate with himself. North, a Canadian writer and creator of Dinosaur Comics, has created a "choosable-path book" based on Hamlet, in which readers can create their own version of the play by selecting from dozens of possible storylines. Titled To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure, the book uses Shakespeare's plot as a framework only; readers can "play" as any of the major characters and may quickly find themselves in unanticipated situations. To wit, playing as Ophelia means:

You can choose what you want to do with your life: Help your boyfriend who's crying about a spooky ghost, or I don't know... take down international terrorists instead?

At 80,000 words and featuring illustrations by nearly 60 artists, To Be Or Not To Be is an ambitious and expensive project, and it's being funded through Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding site used primarily for creative endeavors, through which artists, writers, radio producers, journalists, and filmmakers can solicit project specific donations by offering tiered rewards for different amounts given toward a funding goal. For example, everyone contributing to To Be Or Not To Be at the $15 level receives a digital copy of the book; $20 contributors receive both a physical and a digital book; and $25 donations earn all of the above plus a pair of Dinosaur Comics temporary tattoos. As with most Kickstarter projects, there is limited availability for the more elaborate prizes associated with the upper-giving tiers. (Uppermost tier donations are set at $5,001 or more.) Projects must raise pledges for the desired funds within a predetermined period of time in order to be funded at all.

North set his original goal at $20,000, the minimum he anticipated needing to produce a run of print books. The project quickly blew past that milestone, though, along with 19 consecutive fundraising goals, and has now raised $237,149 with 16 days left to go. At each level, the project expanded to include bonus features like a prequel, audiobook, illustrated posters, and an audience-participation stage performance. In fact, the interactive, choosable path dynamic infuses everything about the project—from the book concept to the funding model, to the idea that, for every additional funding tier "unlocked," more illustrators could be hired to create additional endings. As North says, "You can die a lot in a book like this, and I want to make each time something to look forward to."

Kickstarter is full of books and other projects that may appeal to students, teachers, and parents. The site is browsable by category (Art, Comics, Dance, Design, etc.), popularity, date, and location. Staff Picks and Curated Pages highlight yet more projects. Selections from some of the most highly funded projects in Comics and Children's Books categories point out the wide range of media and subject matter, as well as innovative forms of storytelling, among the projects fomenting here.

  • Dandelion by Galvin Scott Davis. An interactive iPad app tells the story of a child who learns to escape the pain of bullying by blowing dandelions and imagining new worlds in the shapes they make. Readers advance the story not only by clicking through pages, but also by blowing on their tablet screens to disperse seeds from digital dandelions.

  • Wollstonecraft by Jordan Stratford. This four-e-book series imagines writer Mary Shelley and mathematician Ada Lovelace as preteen detectives in 19th century London. The steampunk-inspired adventures aim to encourage elementary- and middle-school-age girls to pursue interests in science fiction and the STEM subjects.

  • The Graphic Textbook from Reading With Pictures. Reading With Pictures, a nonprofit founded to encourage the use of comic books in K-12 classrooms, commissioned and crowdfunded this volume of short graphic stories, by more than 20 comic artists, with the intention of aligning them to the Common Core State Standards.

  • Molly Danger by Jamal Igle. Igle, a long-time animator and illustrator of graphic novels, invented 10-year-old superhero Molly Danger as an antidote to the "darkness," "bitterness," and lack of independent female heroes he perceived as dominant trends in comics today. The comic is planned as a four-book series in print.

  • Curiosities: An Illustrated History of Ancestral Oddity by Mike & Vicky Yamada. Curiosities is the 88-page, illustrated hardcover story of two children exploring an old house and encountering ancestral ghosts and artifacts in every room. The beautifully drawn and colored illustrations are reminiscent of old Disney movies and other hand-painted animations. While the book itself is fairly traditional, bonus rewards offered through Kickstarter include video Photoshop tutorials, a Photoshop brush set, and an e-book documenting the process—practical tools for aspiring illustrators.

  • J├Ârgits & the End of Winter by Anders Sandell. An iPad story inspired by Scandinavian books and characters like the Moomin Trolls, introducing a broad range of environmental issues from global warming to how cities work. Laced with features like maps, scavenger hunts, custom "soundscapes," and even social-media accounts for each character, the book reflects the author's toy and media design background through immersive interactivity. Sandell's wishlist for surplus funding includes app development for iPhone, Kindle Fire, and Android devices.

  • Animals With Insecurities by Nathan Catlin. Catlin created three separate versions of this wry children's book by hand-drawing, letterpress printing, and finally recreating the illustrations with paper cuts of varied color and texture. Crowdfunding enables Catlin and other artists, working by hand, to sustain projects for which traditional publishers may not have the patience or appreciation.

  • New York, Phew York by Amber C. Jones. The stated target audiences for New York, Phew York are children aged 5 to 9, New Yorkers, and tourists. Like Catlin, Jones and her collaborators turned to Kickstarter after numerous publishers failed to solidify interest in the project with financial backing. Tiered rewards for donations included personalized tours of New York and tickets to a Broadway show.

While a popular site with high-name recognition for artists of all stripes, Kickstarter is just one of many online crowdfunding sites available to teachers and others in the K-12 space. Mike Bock offers this overview of some of the bigger players in this area, as well as a look at criticism aimed at such organizations. While Kickstarter's project guidelines do not allow fundraising for causes or charities, advocacy nonprofits may have a new in on the crowdfunding game through Crowdtilt, an "all-or-nothing" fundraising platform itself funded by several high-profile technology startup incubators.

Do you see crowdfunding as a viable new arena for K-12 and youth publishing? Will recent reconfigurations among major education publishers overwhelm small-scale, independent endeavors, or clear new niches for them to thrive?

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