Zombocalypse Now: A Review & Interview with Matt Youngmark

Zombocalypse Now is like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. And when I say “like,” I mean exactly like. It consists of two-page chapters and at end of each chapter it says: if you’d like to do X, go to page X, if you’d like to do Y, go to page Y. Chance happens that I’d been rereading my old CYOA books with my daughter (they age well), so I have a sense of how these things read. With the old CYOA books they can be hit or miss. The main problem is that the choices either aren’t all that different, or they aren’t necessarily choices you’d make yourself. Zombocalypse doesn’t have that problem – meaning you can read this book over and over again and have a different experience. Granted, I’ve only read it 4 times, but you can get the sense.

Most of all the book is funny, beginning with a blind date. From the first chapter:

This particular match seemed promising when the two of you were exchanging emails, but experience has taught you to keep expectations low. Photos tend to be a few years old (or self-portraits taken from just the right angle to mask an extra chin), and the wit and charm of a carefully crafted e-mail doesn’t necessarily translate to in-person social skills. Granted, it’s possible that you haven’t been one hundred percent forthcoming yourself. Throughout the week-long back and forth with your prospective date, you may not have gotten around to mentioning you’re a stuffed bunny.

Nor has the date mentioned that she’s a zombie. The stuffed bunny then has to navigate his way through the zombie apocalypse – usually dying along the way. I have never done this on the site, but this is a book you can buy sight unseen – a good gift for the zombie lover in your life. Unique, entertaining, and really a great-looking book inside and out. There are illustrations throughout, much like the cover. If anything, there could be more illustrations. Perhaps the best-looking self-published book I’ve seen. There’s really nothing separating this book from something put out by a traditional press.

My main criticism of the book is that I was hoping for a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book for adults, and this isn’t entirely the case. I am a much bigger fan of “28 Days Later”-style zombie fiction than “Sean of the Dead,” or – in book form – World War Z, and though the lead character dies repeatedly in the book, there’s never really an overwhelming sense of fear or danger. It is, after all, about a stuffed bunny, but there might have been a way to combine the two sensibilities. Then again, that may not have been Youngmark’s goal, as the book probably appeals to a wider age-range. I’m still waiting for the ChooseoMatic book meant purely for adults, as it’s a pretty innovative way to tell a story.

Note/Disclaimer: Matt Youngmark designed the very excellent new header you see at the top of the site now. But that didn’t factor into the review. I told him I liked the book and we started a correspondence. He offered to help with some graphic design for the site.

Matt Youngmark answered a few questions about what it took to put a book like this together and his experience self-publishing.

Self-Publishing Review: How exactly do you write a book like this? Outlining a typical narrative is hard enough – how did you keep everything organized? Did you know all the different storylines before sitting down to write?

Matt Youngmark: Actually, the initial inspiration was to write a choose-your-own-ending book, and then I made a list of possible themes and settled on zombies from there. Organization did pose something of a problem, so the very first thing I did was to create a spreadsheet and figure out how many branches the story could have and how quickly each branch had to end to keep the page count from spiraling out of control. Once I started writing it, I had the added challenge of keeping most of scenes to a single page so my math would work out. In the long run I think this was hugely beneficial, though, since it forced me to keep the writing tight and stay focused on the essential action and my favorite jokes for each scenario. And no, I only had a few concrete ideas on where things were going when I started writing it. That’s another nice thing about the format — I got to use almost every plot idea I came up with, instead of throwing out nine out of ten ideas that didn’t work in the context of the story. It was super fun to write! Keeping track of which scenes lead to which was a little tricky, though. There were flow charts.

SPR: On the side of the book it has a 1. What other Choose-o-Matics are in the pipeline?

MY: The second Chooseomatic Book is a superhero adventure titled “Thrusts of Justice,” and right now it’s looking like it’ll be out next June. The third is “Time Travel Dinosaur.” I’m hoping that sales justify continuing the series indefinitely, because I’ve got epic fantasy, sci-fi, vampire romance and all sorts of other ideas banging around.

SPR: Who designed the interior/exterior? It’s a really great-looking book. And why did you self-publish? Zombie’s are all the rage, so it seems this would have had takers.

MY: In my day job I work as a graphic designer, so I did the book design myself. I had researched the POD industry a few years back when I was looking for freelance book design opportunities, so was familiar with the self publishing landscape. I had previously worked as the editor and one of the owners of a weekly newspaper for more than a decade, so I have a history as a small business owner (before that I made photocopied and stapled comics to sell to my friends in high school — self publishing just comes naturally to me, I guess). So I’ve always had intermittent flashes of creative inspiration, but I these days I tend to examine them from a business perspective as well. And I’d started a couple of novels in the past (but never finished one) with the idea that I’d shop them around and self publish in the likely event that publishers weren’t interested. When I came up with Zombocalypse Now, though, it was specifically an idea for a self-published book.

One thing that most self publishers don’t think about is that they’re running a business. They’re running a very tiny business operated by a single person and competing in an open marketplace against giant conglomerates with millions of dollars in their marketing budgets alone. It’s easy to complain that we’re not on a level playing field with traditional publishers, but in the truest sense, we are. I don’t have the advantages that Putnam has because I didn’t spend millions of dollars and hire thousands of employees and develop industry relationships over a period of decades. That company worked for that shit. All I did was write a book.

When I had an idea for a young adult fantasy novel (it’s an idea I’m still completely in love with, which I think one day will make a terrific book), it was an idea for a book to pitch to other publishers. Because it wasn’t different enough to stand out in the marketplace on the strength of the idea alone, without the weight of a major publisher behind it. When I eventually do write it, it may well turn out to be an even better book that Zombocalypse Now. But it wasn’t one that I was excited about self-publishing.

My book has a gimmick. There are certain people in this world that you can say “choose your own adventure book about zombies” to, and they will say, “Hell yes, sign me up.” It stands out. And it’s professionally packaged, so it looks like a “real thing.” Nobody cares if it’s self published. Nobody even asks. I’m definitely not claiming that gimmicky books are superior to non-gimmicky books. It’s just that they’re just a hell of a lot easier to self publish.

And yeah, perhaps I would have found some takers if I had shopped it around, but I didn’t really want to deal with trying to explain the concept to the industry, and the amount of time it would it would take to shop it, and the crappy deal I could even hope to get as a first time author, and all that. I was more excited about giving it a go myself.

SPR: How’s the book release going?

So far I’m off to a pretty good start. The book hit Amazon the first week of September, and so far I’ve moved nearly 500 copies (this includes LS sales as well as sales to family and friends and sales at a few local retailers). The exciting thing, though, is that I signed a deal with a distribution company for comic book stores and game shops (which really don’t carry traditional books at all, with a few rare exceptions). My gimmicky, geeky Chooseomatic zombie book, though, is something the distributor thinks will appeal to their customers. So they’ll be soliciting to retailers nationally in December and January, and I’ll get a purchase order for game shops in January, and for comic book stores in February.

The stores, of course, take 50% of the cover price, and the distributor takes another 10%. If I only get an order for a few hundred books, I’ll print them POD and profit something like 90 cents a copy. But if the orders are large enough I can do an offset run and then I’ll really be in business. Coming up with the capital for printing might be tricky if the numbers get TOO huge, but that’s a problem I’d be thrilled to have, especially since, unlike regular book stores, the comic and game distributors don’t take returns from retailers. So if they order a book, I get paid.

SPR: Have the Choose Your Own Adventure people copyrighted this type of book? Are there any legal issues?

MY: Tons of other companies have published choose-your-own-adventure style books, so I’m not worried about copyright problems. At the height of their popularity in the eighties there were actually hundreds of copycat books competing with CYOA, and over the years since then there have been several attempts to do “grown up” versions that have met with limited success. We’ll see if I can do any better!

SPR: Thanks, Matt.

Check out ChooseoMatic Books.

(click to enlarge)

  • “One thing that most self publishers don’t think about is that they’re running a business.”

    Hell yes. What a great interview, and what extraordinarily cogent points, Matt. You really exhibit a sense that you analyzed the marketplace and the industry and are very aware of what you’ve written. This is precisely the sort of book that flourishes: something unique, something quirky, and most of all, something not exactly easy to market or label with a genre. It’s just charming enough, and breaks the pattern of “I queried agents who said they liked the writing but didn’t know how to sell it” one hears so frequently. Your enlisting comic shops shows you have a canny business sense and know what you’re doing there.

    Well done indeed. I am totally keeping an eye on this book. Best luck with it.

  • Great interview! I learned a lot of insights from his experiences. I’m sure a lot of authors will be encouraged. Thanks a lot for the share! I’ll bookmark this post.