A Blast from the Past
Well, not a blast, exactly. Probably more of a slightly damp phut.
I was casting about for a subject for a new blog entry this morning. I remembered that sometimes, online booksellers advertise books I have written or co-written at prices that just make me laugh. For example, someone on Abe Books wants over $500 for a copy of the third Doomstones adventure, Death Rock. Other people on the same site are offering it for $7.00 to $22.00, which is altogether more reasonable.
I was going to muse a little about perceived value, and maybe throw in a wry comment about how much I wish I could claim royalties on these kinds of prices, but then I saw this. This particular sighting took me back 26 years, to the point where I first thought I might be able to make a career as a writer.
It was 1985, and I was an archaeology postgrad at the University of Durham. I was compiling 150-odd years of excavation reports on Neolithic and Bronze Age burials, systematizing the data, and building a database on NUMAC, the mainframe that Durham shared with Newcastle University. In FORTRAN 77. I was starting to become dispirited: this was my first experience with computers, and it usually took me two weeks to get a 15-minute meeting with my Ph. D. supervisor, who only wanted to know what books I’d read since last time and took no interest in the project itself. But that’s a story for another time.
Gamebooks were everywhere in the mid 80s. Following the success of Fighting Fantasy, all kinds of imitators – of all levels of quality – had sprung up like dandelions. Imagine magazine had just published an article on the gamebook phenomenon that I had co-written with their book critic Colin Greenland, and I was doing an occasional gamebook spot on BBC Radio Newcastle’s children’s book programme. Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call.
Now, “getting a phone call” wasn’t easy for a college student back in the 80s. Collingwood College had maybe half a dozen payphones throughout its corridors, for the use of 300-odd students. Mobile phones – which did exist, just about – fell into two categories: large consoles that Captains of Industry had bolted into the back of their Bentleys, and portable units that came in a satchel and weighed only a little more than their cost in gold. What I got was a scrawled message that someone from a company called Scribos had rung, and wanted to talk to me about a freelance writing project.
There was no Internet to look up this Scribos, and I had no idea who they were. So I collected a fistful of 10p pieces, wandered the corridors until I found a free phone, and called them back.
It turned out that they were an educational publisher, and they wanted someone to write two 6-volume fantasy series in the Choose Your Own Adventure format. The twist was, the language had to be kept simple: the books were aimed at teens with reading ages of 6-7. The concept relied on the read-comprehend-decide activity loop of the gamebook format, along with the popularity of the gamebook phenomenon as a whole. I was equipped with a Fry Reading Age Chart, and told that each book should come in at 50 entries.
I’d been sending articles to White Dwarf and Imagine for a few years by this point, but I never seriously considered the possibility that I might be able to make a living as a writer. But two things sealed the deal for me. First, the books were to be published by Oxford University Press. And second, I was offered 600 pounds for the project.
It just shows how touchingly naive I was back then. Certainly, 600 pounds was a tidy sum to a college student, but this was a one-time project and I never did the math about how many such projects I’d need each year in order to make a living. Between this and my modest but semi-regular checks from White Dwarf and Imagine, I thought it was a sign. I was on my way. Over the next few months, my archaeological research tapered off until I withdrew from the project entirely.
I never received publisher’s comps of the Quest Books series (The Adventures of Kern the Strong and The Adventures of Oss the Quick) so I still don’t know how they turned out. One was turned into a CD-ROM a few years ago, but no more seem to have followed so I’m guessing that wasn’t a great success. I’m sure they weren’t masterpieces; I was just starting out as a writer, and finding my way.
The winter of 1985-6 was a tough one financially. I finished the Quest Books project and was paid (which isn’t always the case, as any freelancer can tell you), but the 600 pounds didn’t last all that long. TSR Inc. shut down Imagine magazine – my most lucrative market – and eventually the whole of TSR UK as well. Editor Paul Cockburn started the short-lived GameMaster Publications and I became a regular contributor, but I just wasn’t bringing in enough money.
Then, out of the blue, I got a letter. Paul and a bunch of others from TSR UK had fetched up at Games Workshop’s new headquarters in Nottingham. There was a plan to make a roleplaying game based on Warhammer, which had come into GW’s portfolio in the recent merger with Citadel Miniatures. And would I like to come down to Nottingham and talk? Everyone knows what happened next.
I come across isolated titles from the Quest Books series online now and again, but this is the first cover shot I’ve ever seen. I think about collecting them sometimes, but I’m not really a collector by nature. And what if I should look at these books for the first time in 26 years and discover they really weren’t all that good? Silly, I know, but there it is.
When I remember my confused, conflicted and wildly over-optimistic mid-twenties self in that winter of 1985-6, I can’t suppress a rueful smile. I really had no idea what I was doing, and in a reasonable universe I would never have got away with it. The Games Workshop job, coming when it did, was an unbelievable and completely undeserved stroke of luck. But that one decision, swung by the name of Oxford University Press and the promise of six hundred pounds, set the course of my life from that point on.