The Choose Your Own Adventure books that you remember from childhood are now published by a small female-owned company in northern Vermont, led by publisher Shannon Gilligan.
After the books, which were originally published by Bantam, went out of print, Gilligan started Chooseco in 2003. She's since reinvigorated the brand by bringing the old CYOA books back into print and starting several new series, including Fabulous Terrible, a YA series targeted to teenage girls, and Dragonlark, a series geared to younger readers. She's also bringing the CYOA books into the 21st century by developing editions for the Kindle and the iPhone. Gilligan, who's married to the series founder R.A. "Ray" Montgomery, also worked for years developing software and has written several CYOA books herself. We discussed how the Choose Your Own Adventure sausage gets made, what it's like to be in book publishing in Vermont, being a female software engineer, and the Choose Your Own Adventure "hot dog"-the red banner at the top of the book covers.
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I was super excited to do Choose Your Own Adventure and you because, of course, I was a kid in the '80s and everyone read Choose Your Own Adventure books. I know you bought the company in 2003.
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Right, 2003. Ray-R.A. Montgomery-got the remaining copyrights and trademarks in late 2002. We formed a venture thinking originally that we would simply re-license the old ones to another publisher. After about nine months of talking to publishers, we had a number of offers from all the big publishers in New York, but none of them were reality based, let's put it that way.
We had taken a hiatus from writing children's books and we had started to develop software. We'd both been evangelized by Apple in the early '90s. Apple had this very interesting program then called evangelism, which was a division started by Steve Jobs upon the introduction of the Mac around 1994. Evangelism went out to groups of people outside of typical software development channels to try to get them to develop software. So I suppose it was just a hop, skip and a jump to get people who did Choose Your Own Adventure to do this. They gave you machines and technical support. We did that for awhile and while that was going on, publishing was changing a lot. When we were fielding offers in the early 2000's, the offers were so weak. A typical offer would be 4 books over 2 years.
Wasn't Bantam publishing around a book a month for awhile??
Yes, for many years, it was more like magazine publishing. In the heyday it was quite a lot of work to get all those books lined up. There would always be at least one full time editor and a couple of stringers working on it.
There was a point that Bantam got rid of the hot dog. Was that was when things went downhill?
What a mess that was. For the last 6 or 8 titles in the late 90s, maybe in 2000-they redid Choose Your Own Adventure so it looked like Indiana Jones. Sales fell off a cliff. That was the final nail in the coffin. There's a whole host of reasons why Bantam let the series go and a lot of it has to do with corporate institutional memory. By late 1990s there was really nobody who was really shepherding the series. Everyone involved in the series had moved on. We were just this backlist orphan. I think it was a valiant attempt when they redesigned the logo, but they didn't understand that it just didn't read as Choose Your Own Adventure. We get emails every day at the website saying we didn't know you were in print.
How did you get to know R.A. Montgomery?
My dad was a printer and Ray had gotten to know him when [Ray] was a publisher before becoming a full time writer and my dad said, Oh my daughter is in film and she's looking for a job. I had just graduated from college. I said I don't know the first thing about computers. And Ray's attitude was like, great, I don't want anyone with any preconceptions.
So how old were you at this point?
What year was this?
This was 1981.
So you met him right before the books sort of got huge.
They had actually already gotten huge. They had a short stint as the Adventures of You published and written by Ray in 1977-78. In '78 Bantam wanted to start wanted to start a children's division. They had an editor who was assigned temporarily to starting a list. And in that proverbial way that you read about, the agent took the Adventures of You to 14 different publishers and it was roundly rejected everywhere. And then this children's editor looked at it and said, kids will love this. They wanted six books-a series. Ray begged off writing all six. He said I want to be able to use other writers. So that was the beginning of the whole series. They changed the name to Choose Your Own Adventure. The first Bantam Choose Your Own Adventure book came out in '79. By '81 it had done really well. The first 6 months or so, sales were fine-but they weren't getting the numbers they thought they would. So they gave away 100,000 copies of the books to libraries and that is what really kickstarted it. It was very clever. Then it just sort of snowballed. So these things do reach a critical point. By the time I appeared in 1981, the series was well on its way. And for a few years it continued apace.
What led you to start ChooseCo yourselves?
The rights had reverted. At that point, in publishing in the '80s and '90s, it was typical for writers to get a rights reversion clause. If a publisher took your book out of print for longer than 6 months, the rights would revert if you went through some legal hoops. There was never a point where all 186 titles in the classic CYOA series were in print at one time. If new kids came into the series, they would buy the first couple books and then the latest books. So you would see this pattern, this inverted bell curve, where the first 10 titles always sold well and the most recent 10 titles always sold well, but the titles in between, with certain exceptions, really just fell off the cliff.
We initially thought, we'll bring out the books and we'll license other rights, because we didn't want to do everything. Another reason we'd said no to big publishing is because we wanted control of the art and the covers. We had very definite ideas based on anecdotal feedback that we got constantly from former fans. It's very non-standard in the publishing world to allow authors to have control. Now that I've had more experience with the publishing side, I think it's unfortunate that publishers don't allow writers to have more input in that process. I think it would lead to a lot of interesting developments. We knew we wanted to go with a very retro look from the original covers. Bantam had modified the covers five or six times over the 20-year run they had with the covers. And we felt like they got farther and farther from the original design. I would love to know who did that original design-it was some nameless art director in the bowels of Bantam in the late '70s. They did a brilliant job, we think, on the "hot dog" and the frame and the art. You empower kids with choices and a defined role as an adult and you give them an adult sized book. Then we just spruced it up to bring it into the 21st century.
You sort of alluded to this before when you were talking about Dungeons and Dragons, but what do you think it was about that sort of late '70s/early '80s period that led to this explosion in role playing games? CYOA books are all told in the second person so reader feels like they're going on the adventure themselves. What do you think that was about?
I'm not sure I know the complete answer. I think it's multicausal. You could say that perhaps the advent of technology was making people think differently in terms of what they could perform with technology. A lot of emphasis on the individual performing tasks that were quite complex that had previously been performed by a large number of people. Maybe the culture had gotten very self absorbed. Also, by the time Choose emerged in the early '80s there had really been 25 years of interactive fiction in various places. The first really good example of it is a play written by a really distinguished French critic and writer named Raymond Queneau. He wrote a play in the late '50s called A Story As You Like It. He was one of those French intellectuals who was much more valued as an intellectual than a bestseller. That play is probably his best-known work and it's been widely performed. The audience voted on the ending. Then in 1964 the Argentinean author Julio Cortazar wrote a book called Hopscotch, and you sort of decided where you were going to go to next in the story. That was a literary sensation. It was widely translated and published in the U.S. in 1966 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Then in early '70s, there was a 14 book series published by Corgi [now part of Random House UK] called Trackers. We've not been able to find out much about it. We tried to track down some of the authors at some point and couldn't find them. They were published in England-they were never published in the United States. You could say that it was an idea whose time had come.
I think you're right-it's part of this desire for more participatory entertainment. When you were a kid it was very exciting to feel like you were in charge of your character's destiny.
I think that it also parallels something that all children need to do and that they crave-and it's that they try on other personalities. They try on other roles. This just took it 10 steps farther, by defining the role more carefully, often putting kids into adult roles or quasi-adult roles-for some reason you're a gifted teenager who's a mountain climber. Or you're an oceanographer. You love to imagine different roles for themselves. You see on the Internet-people develop avatars for themselves, totally different identities. I think that's a part of human nature.
Can you describe the process of writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book?
I think every writer develops their own specific system, although there are aspects of the process that virtually everyone uses. A map to track your choices and endings is essential. Some writers make an arbitrary map, with a choice every certain number of pages, so many choices in a particular storyline, a certain number of total endings, etc. I often worked this way. Other writers let the story unfold and make the map follow the emerging stories. This approach is more organic, but in my case I would keep on running out of pages, or having wildly long storylines coupled with a few overly short ones. On the other hand, Ray almost always writes a book this way.
Keeping track of your page numbers is simple. A CYOA is usually between 100-110 manuscript pages. You just write the numbers 1-100 at the bottom of your map page, and as you use up the page number, you cross it off.
Those are the more practical aspects. As for content, I have found over and over that you need to choose a scenario that has enough richness and potential to generate a slew of exciting stories. For me, when I hit a writing block when I am working on a CYOA, it's often because the initial set-up wasn't juicy enough. I'll have to go back in and layer in more content —another character, some additional plot angle like a missing person or strange message, a plot angle that adds a time factor and the story tension that can be mined from a looming deadline (e.g. if you don't get the medicine to your missing partner within 72 hours, the poisoning will be irreversible, etc.). I always liked to set stories in worlds I know. Thailand, Japan, sea monsters. These were areas of my own interest and expertise and I think that knowledge and zeitgeist is communicated, often tangentially.
Over the years, we have of course developed guidelines. I suppose it's not unlike rhyme schemes in sonnets. Every book needs a certain number of endings, the choices have to occur within a certain number of pages or they don't seem as compelling or urgent. Those to factors tend to dictate how many storylines there are in a book. It's fun to play sometimes and loop different branches back in to each other. It's a writing challenge. But those are parlor tricks. At the end of the day, you are trying to write a whole bunch of really interesting fun plots that surprise the reader, and that make them think.
Over the years, we realized that there are only so many basic types of CYOA books. There are chase stories, and escape stories, search stories, and mystery stories. There are also fantastical world stories, some with a sci-fi orientation and others with more of a magical orientation. These tend to be less about a particular goal, and more about learning in a smart way that doesn't get you in trouble with the locals.
You guys have done a CYOA iPhone application, and I'm wondering if you could talk about how you've adapted to new technologies.
We think the sky's the limit. We're in discussions about developing a massive multiplayer online universe-taking the brand and crafting it into an online world. We have had a series of near deals in Hollywood. We haven't gotten just the right one but there's a tremendous amount of interest there. We've adapted two books for the iPhone in conjunction with Magnetism Studios, which is a software studio that's a couple brothers in Brooklyn. Ray recorded Abominable Snowman for the iPod. You need the video iPod-you actually click on the link and we have active links on the video screen when you make a choice so it goes to the next place. We have just done a deal to put all the books on the Kindle. That's been very interesting, because after fiddling with the Kindle interface for awhile we realized we had to redesign the books a little bit to work on the Kindle. It was a very fun process to work with the programmers at Amazon. It's definitely more complicated than basic novel on the Kindle. In-house we're developing a text-based game for the iPhone. Ray and I are both fans of text-based games, going back to '70s and early '80s.
Can you talk about the benefits and challenges of being in Vermont? You've clearly made a decision to be far away from the epicenter of publishing.
There definitely are pros and cons. I would say the pros are that we get to live in a wonderful, beautiful place with a very strong sense of community. Technology advances have allowed us to work very efficiently, both in terms of time and cost, all over the world. Right now is the absolute golden age of working in the country. We use artists from India, Romania, Argentina, as well as several in the U.S. Everything is instant. A lot less FedExing than there was in the '80s. Those are the pros. The very fact that you can run a fairly sophisticated operation in northern Vermont is a benefit. I would say one of the cons is that we probably miss a fair amount of synergy that we would enjoy if we were in New York or LA. We'd be more up to the minute with technology and stuff.
Do you find any particular challenges in being a woman and running this business?
No. I think there's the normal garden variety misogyny in publishing the way there is in the world. You have to deal with those situations as they arise and try to just handle them as best you can. Publishing is a business that's filled with a lot of very progressive minded people. It just attracts those kinds of people. As a business it's a pretty pleasant and collegial community of people to work with. What's interesting about my particular work experience is I had this seven or eight year stint in the '90s producing software. And I found there was very little sexism in the software business. When you get around really interesting technology people they don't care about anything except technology. I could have been a green frog. They kind of got beyond it. I have talked to women in the field who have not had that experience. At the highest levels of programming there's not a lot of women. I know it's better than it used to be but I know there are challenges for women engineers. My experience has been pretty great.
Also, I think I do a service keeping a feminine perspective in at least some of the books, because I do think for whatever reason CYOA wears a masculine face. It's been very popular with girls too, but when boys stop reading they don't stop reading CYOA. It's really identified in the publishing business as a boys' series. So it's kind of great for me that girls are involved too.
We had talked about doing a princess series that was really girly. I've got a bunch of great women who work with us and we were excited about the idea. But as we narrowed choices and investigated it, what we kept seeing were teen and adult romance series that were really poorly done. We started to develop an interactive teen series but as we started to work on it we realized there was something about the teen girl novel-the choices in the storylines were getting so complex and convoluted, that it sort of didn't work for the genre. But by this point we had very interesting characters and a very interesting scenario, and I love the second person-I love that voice. So I said, let's do a teen girl series-Fabulous Terrible-where "you" are the main character. We wanted the "you" to be highly identified. I got an email this year from a girl who was writing a book report and she said, My teacher told me to find the name of the character. I told her, it's really you. It's to the point where we were very careful not to give indications of skin color or hair color, anything like that. You do learn in the second book that your hair is dark, but that's all you know. We tried very hard to make it be something neutral enough that they could project themselves onto it.
What is your favorite CYOA book?
I think I would have to say I like Journey Under the Sea a lot. It was an early one and it's a classic. It's a lot of fun. I like a book called Inca Gold by one of our writers named Jim Beckett. It's set in the Andes and you're in search of the Lost City of Gold. I love Mystery of the Maya. Those are my three favorites. All the books with the word haunted or ghost in the titles outsell them. I am genuinely proud of Fabulous Terrible: The Adventures of You. The title was a wink back to the original Choose Your Own Adventure series.