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When Seattle-area couple Keri and Boyd Multerer came up with the idea for the site that would eventually become SilkWords, Sharon Fisher explains in a phone call, they couldn't believe it hadn't already been done before. The premise is ridiculously simple: SilkWords publishes romance and erotica in the form of what they call "Pick Your Path" stories, a modern, sexy twist on Choose Your Own Adventure novels. They also publish "Reader Vote" stories, in which an author begins a story and the audience votes on what happens next. Soon after they launched and focus-grouped the site, the Multerers realized that they needed to publish a higher quality of fiction, so they reached out to Fisher, a longtime editor who also publishes sci-fi romance novels with Tor Books. Next Saturday, Valentine's Day, will be the first anniversary of SilkWords, and though Fisher won't divulge membership numbers, she says readership has dramatically increased as they've added more and more functions and stories to the site. The primary goal, Fisher says, is to provide "a non-threatening place to view erotica," a site for "women, or men for that matter, to go relax with a short story."

SilkWords definitely gets the interface right. The stories are published in a straight column of text. When you come to a junction in the plot, your choices are clear. The first options in "Temptation Resort," a story about a woman who impetuously decides to visit a BDSM-themed vacation resort, are "Explore Dungeon Play 101" and "Investigate Spanking with Master Kimboku." When you make a choice, the text continues, with a bar marking the junction that gives you an "Undo" option, allowing you to easily go back and see what would have happened if you chose the other path. (And if readers particularly like a story, they can buy it in e-book form.) As someone who's spent a lot of time trying to keep track of my path through a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, I can assure you that it's one instance where an electronic version of a book is clearly superior. Most of the choices allow the reader to decide between delaying the protagonist's pleasure, or diving right into the smutty stuff.

So which do readers prefer? Fisher says they respond differently in different stories. "Sometimes I’m surprised by what [readers] choose," Fisher says. "Sometimes I expect them to choose an option that’s gong to move them into the heat of the story and they don’t. And sometimes they do." Fisher says some SilkWords readers "will go through a story and pick one path and they’re done," while other readers "read every single branch" of the story, to absorb all the possibilities. "The more popular a story is," she says, "the more readers engage with them," following all sorts of different paths. She cites reader response to one story, in which a man shows up to a blind date dressed as a clown, as a surprising instance. Even though the protagonist in the story was "terrified of clowns," and though she had "a couple of prospects in the coffee shop," the audience voted overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the date with the clown. "The author had done such a good job of making the clown guy charming and hapless" that the character charmed the audience, Fisher explains.

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Fisher has had to encourage her writers to embrace the format. "I think the idea of it is more daunting than the reality." She wrote a story for the site and "it was challenging, but it felt like brain exercise." Usually in fiction, the characters make one decision and the story moves on. "I don’t like that," Fisher says. "Life’s not like that." People regret and wonder and go back and re-investigate decisions that they made all the time. One of the biggest newbie mistakes for an author writing for SilkWords, Fisher says, is to try to publish "pseudo-choices, where the author submits four choices and clearly one of them is more interesting than the others."

SilkWords has experimented with several different business models in its first year. It began as a subscription service, but that was abandoned when they realized they didn't have enough stories to make a subscription worthwhile. Advertisements didn't work aesthetically for the site. Early next month, SilkWords will try out a new system with "more gaming-type features." (Boyd Multerer was a founder of XBox Live before he co-founded SilkWords.) The site will run on "a heart system that rewards readers for sharing stories on social media," or reviewing stories, or "signing up for newsletters." The hearts can then be traded in to read stories.

Even though 50 Shades of Grey fever will eventually fade, the proliferation of e-reading devices and the rise of self-publishers willing to work for cheap pretty much guarantees that erotica is here to stay. Unlike a lot of the erotica sites out there, SilkWords pays its authors—right now, Fisher says, she's "paying [for the stories] up front like a magazine," but when the new model takes over, they'll be moving to a "50-50 royalty model." Fisher says there's been a little bit of conversation around the office about opening the Pick Your Path system up to other genres like science fiction, but for right now, they're going to stick to what their audience wants: romance, smut, and love, in all their boundless narrative variations.