Monday, September 9, 2013

Nanok and the Tower of Sorrows - Eighteen Months Later

Click the Cover to View on Amazon
Back in the early spring of 2012, I began working on a pulpy "Sword and Sorcery" short story involving a stereotypical barbarian swordsman duking it out against an evil wizard and his diabolical henchmen.

I'm a fan of not only Robert E. Howard's Conan, but the various "iron-thewed barbarians" that came much later, mostly in the late 60's through the 80's, created by authors who'd grown up reading Conan stories and wanted to pen stories of a similar vein. Of course, as well by this time Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was published, and while Hyboria is about as far from Middle Earth as you can get, I'm sure publishers were desperate to find anything they could slap a "fantasy" label on and throw at readers. As well, after 1974 the Dungeons and Dragons phenomenon began to take off, and in the early 80's Marvel comics also begain publishing Conan comics, and of course, there was the Schwarzenegger Conan movies, which although often reviled by Howard purists, were some of the better 80's fantasy fare, if you ask me.

So, this whole heterogeneous, multimedia soup stock of books, comics, games, artwork, movies, and hell, even barbarian-themed metal music helped me to brew up a short story that eventually became Nanok and the Tower of Sorrows. The premise is pretty simple: Midar, the Wizard King of the city-state of Urgh, hires Nanok - thief and barbarian swordsman of the Iron Wastes - to steal the Sunsword from Draaa'kon the Bleak, evil sorcerer and ruler of a dark citadel known as the Tower of Sorrows. Nanok steals the magical blade, only to be chased by Draaa'kon and his horde of vat-grown mutants. A battle ensues, and Nanok is apparently slain by Draaa'kon's dark magic, but he is saved by the power of the Sunsword. Nanok washes ashore miles away and with the help of a mysterious hermit, Nanok eventually returns to the Tower, and battles his way up through the citadel until he at last confronts Draaa'kon at the top of the Tower, just as the sorcerer conjures his deadliest ally...

Over the last eighteen months, Nanok has sold a whopping 41 copies at $0.99 cents apiece. I've probably given away a couple hundred copies in KDP Select promotions, but compared to my other works, even my other short stories, it seems like I can barely give the story away. In fact, after the first month, I had a three month period of time when I didn't sell a single copy of the story, period. I've sold maybe half a dozen print copies, which is a little surprising, but I don't know how many of those were purchases made because the buyer didn't realize how short the story actually was.

It's hard to pin down where exactly I went wrong with Nanok. My original cover was no gem, but it could have been worse, and sales certainly haven't spiked since I began selling the title with its new cover. I've had almost no returns, so I'm not sure if people are just reading the sample and not liking what they see, or if they even get that far. I've played around with the product description copy several times as well, but there doesn't seem to be anything that really sells the story.

And yet, those folks who read Nanok, seem to like it. There've been ample opportunities to tear it to shreds on Amazon, yet all my reviews are pretty solid. The worst review of the story I received on Goodreads, which said it was okay but "was a little like an SNL skit that went on too long", which I suppose is a fair criticism if the sense of humor in the story doesn't completely align with your own. Poking around the internet, I even found a short but positive review on a German-language Conan forum. I'm using Google to translate this page, but here goes:
This little volume contains just 51 pages and was therefore in one go by. Nanok and the Tower of Sorrows is a barbarian story in the tradition of the 60s and 70s. You get evil magician, disgusting mutants and demons. Everything you need for a good Sword and Sorcery cocktail. This story comes with no frills and are therefore of the first pages of full throttle. Light fare in between, but with a high entertainment potential. Both thumbs up!
I primarily put the failure to sell this story on two factors. The first is the over-saturation of fantasy fiction through KDP, especially short, often campy (and really badly written) fantasy stories. Shortly after I published Nanok I went around Amazon and read a bunch of stuff similar to my story, and the vast majority of it was just awful - not just the plots of the stories themselves, but the writing was often extremely amateurish, and perhaps an even greater sin, the books were usually very badly edited and formatted. I feel like a lot of people dusted off high-school era submissions to various fantasy fiction magazines and simply threw them up on Amazon. Because of this, I felt that people who'd run into one of these turds became gun shy of trying my own story, especially when they got a whiff of the "humorous" aspects of the story.

This, of course, leads to the second problem; the comedy/pastiche nature of the story. Writing comedy is hard - really hard - and trying to hit a broad swath of people's tastes in comedy just right is even harder. What one person finds to be a perfectly entertaining pastiche, another reader will find boorish or even insulting. To write a barbarian sword and sorcery story - a genre of fantasy that's almost a cliche unto itself these days - and then weave in a tone of lighthearted homage comedy and some "Easter Eggs" referencing various movies (there's a Commando reference in there, although many people miss it entirely) means that there's just too many land mines that are going to cause someone to take a hard pass on the story.

One day, I hope to return to Nanok's world and write another story. I actually have one outlined in my head, a story that doesn't involve Nanok at all but instead is a sort of Frankenstein's Monster meets Spartacus. It'll be much more serious, without any of the humorous gimmicks of Nanok. Only time will tell if it'll also sink to the bottom of the lake...


Chris said...

I read it and enjoyed it, but I only sought it out because you posted about it. I never poke around on Amazon "looking" for stuff in any kind of genre. My interest has already been piqued elsewhere, and Amazon just becomes the place to get it (eBooks that is, which is about the only thing I order from Amazon). I'm always struck by the notion that people actually browse for stuff there like one would in a brick and mortar. Frankly, I can't imagine EVER doing that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yeah, I don't browse on Amazon either. I've done a few comedy fantasy pieces, mostly high fantasy rather than S & S. Very hard to do and so hard to hit on all cylinders.

Chris said...

Charles, you have a couple comedic stories in Bitter Steel, don't you? I recall liking those.

I can have humorous moments in writing, but I don't have the guts to try straight up comedy. I've followed a couple comedians on twitter, and the formula seems to be to throw enough stupid shit against the wall and some of it will eventually stick as funny. That's not a road I want to go down. . . .

Jack Badelaire said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I suppose I should clarify a little - I don't often go to Amazon specifically to browse, but I do see a lot in the suggestions section and follow those little paths to wherever they take me. Typically I like to see the sorts of books people buy when they buy my own, and go from there.

English Teacher X said...

My sales are all leveling out or falling off this year after a busy last year. Contrary to what Konrath claims, I think an ebook bubble is in the midst of popping. There's so much stuff being given away for free, good, bad and indifferent, by talented amateurs and well-respected classic "name" authors alike, why should anybody pay for anything? i have like a hundred free ebooks on my tablet waiting to be read.

Hank Brown said...

I feel ya, Jack. The buying habits of readers has yet to make sense to me, though Chris and Charles' comments are enlightening. (Though I hardly ever browse for books anymore...I'm already swamped with stuff I'm sorta' obligated to used to be something I found to be enjoyable. Now anything that doesn't move me closer to achieving a goal feels like a waste of time and produces mega guilt.)

I guess you're right about the glut of fantasy out there. I know you're right about the mountains of poorly-written drivel the good stuff gets buried under. I guess there's more and more free stuff available all the time, too.

I have people on Facebook come to me now and then who want to write a book, asking me for advice and such. I have to bite my tongue because they can hardly put an intelligible sentence together...and they want to write a NOVEL-LENGTH BOOK????

It is uplifting to hear how well your other fiction is selling, though.

Austen Confer said...

While I've not yet read this story myself, I think that the problem is the market itself. Namely, the fantasy market is just so thoroughly saturated with fantasy stories revolving around evil wizards and steel thewed warriors that it just gets lost in the crowd. Even if the quality is top notch, it still has trouble distinguishing itself in any way, which is a great pity.

Don't get me wrong, the formula itself is great, a time tested method that works darned well, it's just getting lost in all the others that are crammed in the genre.

This is only a theory, and it's entirely possible that I'm wrong though.

If I might make a suggestion, the simple formula here might distinguish itself better if put in a different scenario. One of the things that fascinated me about Robert E. Howard's The Tower of the Elephant is that it is literally the only fantasy story I've ever seen that had an extraterrestrial in it. Granted, it doesn't do a bunch of alien things, but it was utterly fascinating and added a great deal of depth to the world that he developed.
Perhaps having Nanok do a little mixed genre escapade would spice things up?
I'm not saying you pull a Beast Master 2, but this may be a case where risk is justified.

I hope that things pick up with Nanok and that my words are of some use! :)

Jack Badelaire said...

Austen, I think you're spot-on. Fantasy is a pretty saturated genre to begin with, and to try and make a, to borrow a gaming term, "retro-clone" of older Sword & Sorcery fiction is a risky venture. Especially when you mix humor into it, because people's tastes very wildly (I've seen everything from Nanok being just the right balance of humor to eye-rollingly awful, so who knows).

Funny you should mention your solution - making the stories definitely more oddball might actually help. My idea for a sequel has been, for a while now, "Nanok and the Crimson Flame" - which would be a Sword & Sorcery remake of the movie "Red Heat". Although your Beastmaster 2 comment does make me wonder if there should be a Nanok / Commando cross-over story at some point!