Wednesday, August 26, 2020

GAMEBOOK ACADEMY _____ Meet MELISSA BOUNTY, associate publisher of Chooseco, which publishes the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, she says they have an assignment for prospective writers that is pretty tough, and also she enjoys working with poets for their new titles

NOTE: This is part of a series that explains how to create your own simple gamebooks. More articles here

My production editor, Colleen Alberti, and I (left) taking a break on a press check in 2019.

Please introduce yourself!
This September I will celebrate fifteen years of work with Chooseco on the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I have a degree in creative writing and started with Chooseco the fall after I graduated from college, so it’s fair to say that thus far, support of this publishing program has been my life’s work.

My role at Chooseco is the Vice President and Associate Publisher. I manage the writers and artists who produce the creative work we publish, and I also manage a team who handles book production, printing, and rights licensing with our content.

What was your first ever experience with gamebooks?
My very first job was as a page in my hometown’s local library.  The page returns the books to their shelves. I recall vividly getting very distracted as I put away copies of The Lost Jewels of Nabooti and Mystery of the Maya.

How did you first get to work for Chooseco? 
I had gone to college in Vermont, and taken a summer job I had every year of college with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer program. That last summer after I graduated I worked in Los Angeles, and I vowed from there I would not return to Vermont. I wanted to live someplace warmer with a different climate and culture. I received a job offer in Honduras that seemed ideal, but then I noticed a striking job posting back in Vermont. I said to myself, “if I get that job, I’ll go back.  But only for that job!” And that’s what happened.

Here I am at a press check for the first Chooseco printing of Choose Your Own Adventure, in late 2005.

Have you ever written a gamebook yourself? 
No, I enjoy editing gamebooks more than writing them. I have lent a hand when short passages or summaries are needed. There’s a lot of fun work in my job that involves writing, but I’ve never authored a gamebook. The other parts of the process appeal to me more!

For each new Chooseco title, what is the development process like, from idea to publication?
There are a few ways this happens. One is what I think of as the old-fashioned way: a writer has an idea and pitches it to us, and we agree to publish that idea. But that type of process is more common at a traditional publisher, and we are a bit special in that we are a publishing company formed by authors, purpose-built to be dedicated to interactive books that are part of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. So while we do work with authors who have good ideas, we are also always talking about what the Choose Your Own Adventure series means and how what we publish each year best serves our readers.  

One example is that 3-4 years ago we attended some library trade shows where we spoke with educators about how interactive books would better suit their needs. Our takeaway was that educators and librarians wanted to see more historical scenarios in our books. They also raised the issue of inclusivity, and featuring characters from diverse backgrounds. At first it seemed really difficult: how can a gamebook really “show” history? The main objective of a gamebook is to show multiple potential scenarios but history only told one story. Our second challenge was in featuring more diverse characters, as our main character has always been “YOU” who is not defined by race, gender, or other identifiers so every reader can imagine themselves in charge of the story.

I had an idea when my I saw my best friend’s daughters dressed for Halloween. They had hilarious costumes: trench coats, big sunglasses, funny hats. I didn’t know what they were though!  They told me they were “Spies,” just in general. Their concept of what spies looked and acted like was just so funny that I thought: this is how we can connect these dots. The one true story of most spies’ lives is lost and we can fill in the blanks with historical fiction. We selected some spies from history and were careful to consider spies whose stories may not have been as widely known, and who came from many different backgrounds and cultures. The SPIES subseries was born, and has been one of the more popular offerings Chooseco has made to the gamebooks category.

What are some common problems or challenges that first-time CYOA gamebook writers sometimes face? 
Writing an interactive book is not easy! We receive a lot of outreach from writers who are interested in writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and we have a standard assignment for prospective writers. Very, very few people get beyond that first assignment. Interactive writing combines traditional storytelling methods with nonlinear thinking, and that’s pretty complex. I’ve actually had a great time developing new Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks with poets, who are very open-minded to broken narratives. We have some technical tools to help our writers but they aren’t entirely universal. The ways our writers’ minds formulate the interactive framework do vary, in a way that is fairly fascinating. The same way novelists have different methods for plotting and developing characters, interactive writers do as well.

Unlike some other gamebooks, CYOA titles don’t use character sheets, dice, etc. Why not?
Those gamifications are fun and we have nothing against them! We have developed two really fun board games with Z-Man Games and Asmodee, and you can find some of that type of gadgetry and game criteria added to two of our classics books, House of Danger and War with the Evil Power Master. I also wouldn’t rule out that we would one day publish a book that incorporated gaming criteria directly into the story.  Between digital publishing, print publishing, and other new media, the ways we can imagine storytelling are always evolving and gamification is such a fun way to add a layer of challenge to the material.

Why do you think gamebooks are good for kids?
When I first started at Chooseco, I learned about the core of why Shannon Gilligan and R. A. Montgomery believed in the books.  R. A. Montgomery had done work in book publishing and education, and he had also been involved in simulation development for the Peace Corps. He was sensitive to the needs of reluctant readers who did not find reading active and engaging. The idea for Choose Your Own Adventure, and what it meant as a series, was more defined than simply books with choices in them. The Choose Your Own Adventure series values empowering its readers to really experience the thrill of high-stakes decision-making in the safe environment of a book. I really value presenting that to all types of readers, and have been so inspired by kids who share that they have connected with Choose Your Own Adventure books.

CYOA school talk

How have you promoted CYOA gamebooks in schools?
It’s one of my most favorite things to do. I love hearing what kids think about the books and incorporating it in our work.  And I love telling kids about my job. The first page of every Choose Your Own Adventure book has quotes from kids about their impressions of the series, and those are all real kids. We collect those quotes from our school visits and from fans who write in.

Some recent CYOA releases

There are CYOA picture books. Why have you decided to get babies started on gamebooks?
It’s never too young to start! We see the baby books as a fun way for parents to connect with young kids and babies while they look at books together. We also envision that parents, or friends of parents, might like to share something they enjoyed from their childhood.


NEW: Chooseco has created a full Choose Your Own Adventure "Blank Book" for you to make your own gamebook, for personal use only. It's a fully formatted digital file, you just need to add your story's text and illustrations. There are a few pages at the back with useful tips. You can download this Blank Book here. Have fun!

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We celebrate International Gamebook Day 2020
Click here for a free digital gamebook! (PDF)