Hot Eye Pop: Surveying the Good and Bad in Book Trailers

In English Language, Resources by Guest Contributor

The best — and most innovative — book trailers can attract thousands or even millions of viewers. We talk to several experts about what works and why.

By Kathleen Sweeney

When the term “book trailer” first buzzed out of Los Angeles in 2002, expectations ran high for video promos to become mandatory launch elements. Nine years later, multimedia roll-outs remain ad hoc and inconsistent. The current mixed bag of clips swings from big budget pseudo movie trailers, to mundane talking head author interviews, to clever indie animations and experimental visuals. As LA Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg points out, a successful book trailer is not an essay, or a set of onscreen pages. “It is in essence a good short film.”

While direct links between video promotion and book sales continue to mystify the publishing world, many trailers follow a cookie cutter mentality, and take themselves as seriously as, well, Literature with a capital ‘L’. So when innovative eye-pop occurs, it’s unforgettable. Think Miranda July’s 2008 trailer for her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, or the out-of-nowhere animation for Kathryn Regina’s poetry collection I Am in the Air Right Now:

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Likewise, wow factor breaks through in Gail Carriger’s “The Making of a Book Cover” video, a design chronicle of her third steampunk novel, Blameless.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoDCiTsS7dU
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Who knew Photoshop could be so kinetic?

Sometimes high entertainment value arrives in blockbuster packaging replete with tongue-in-cheek spoof, like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Seth Grahame-Smith…

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…or Mary Roach’s retro-50s mockumentary trailer for Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life the Void.

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As Dennis Loy Johnson, an originator of last year’s first-ever Moby Awards for book trailers and co-founder of Melville Publishing House observes, “There’s a really fun 2%,” and the rest, well “there’s plenty out there.” His motto? “Anything that brings readers to books is a good thing.” In that vein, the Moby Awards celebrates the best and the worst of book trailer output in an effort to lower-case that ‘l’ in literature. “This year we’re going to make more fun of more people and we’re probably going to come out of this with more enemies…and that’s a sign of our success.”

Famous Friends

It doesn’t hurt if the chameleon James Franco, MFA candidate at Columbia University, agrees to appear as your student in a wacky book trailer. Such is the case for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart…

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…which also features bestselling author pals Jeffrey Eugenides, Edmund White, Mary Gaitskill and Jay McInerney. At over 125,500 views on YouTube, it’s a medium blockbuster. Though comedic to watch, I honestly came away clueless about the book itself.

In John Wray’s trailer for his novel Lowboy

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…couch-surfing, beer-sipping Zack Galafianakis plays the author. Wray himself appears as the actor interviewing the author. Full of amusements, including a remedial typewriter with two keys, this 2010 video doesn’t hint at the book’s premise. Bottom line? It may not matter.

Finding the Glimmer

So how do you wade through the Internet to locate the best of the best? BrainPickings.org, a site for “curating eclectic interestingness from culture’s collective brain” frequently high-fives books and video promos. Flavorwire.com performs regular book culture sweeps, including a “best of 2010” list which corroborated many of the Moby Award picks, including the New Zealand Book Council’s stunning cut paper animation for Maurice Gee’s Going West. Paper slice train tracks, tumbleweed trees and pop-ups towns stunned some 950,000 online. How many people live in New Zealand, anyway?

TedTalks and the 20-minute Book Trailer

According to Dennis Loy Johnson, “The book trailer is a commercial which is not really a new art form . . . they need to be short and sweet.” And yet, it’s no secret to changemakers, visionaries and breakthrough authors that TedTalks, the site for “Ideas Worth Spreading” can boost books via long-form viral video. Just ask Sir Ken Robinson, Jaqueline Novogratz, Daniel Pink or Jane McGonigal.

Another unexpected book-boosting resource, a London-based think tank, produces a video series with the motto “Bringing Discourse to Life.” Unlike TedTalks, there’s no stage or microphone, no pithy Powerpoint slides, just a close-up of a hand in fast-mo illustrating the author’s voice-over. Some highlights include Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Comes From

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and

Daniel Pink’s Drive


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The big surprise? Drive has garnered over 4,782,000 views. Talk about viewer motivation.

Chronicles of Innovation

Chronicle Books publishes offbeat, creative titles for targeted audiences, and some of their book trailers are no exception. From a Handmade Weddings video with girl party authors Eunice and Sabrina Moyle.

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…to changing the world with Eugenie Harvey in We Are What We Do, and Change the World for Ten Bucks.

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The upbeat emphasis is out of the box thinking. Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a multitalented Chronicle Books author and artist, connects with readers through quirky videos like “Organizing the Bookcase”,

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…a visual dialogue with her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.

How-to Book Trailer Advice

Dave Weich of Sheepscot Creative produces book trailers for Ecco, Algonquin, and Norton Books. As he observes, “A trailer in a vacuum is not particularly valuable. You need a context.” Author brand-building includes social media, public appearances, blogging and video, “but the trailer has to be built into some larger vision.”

Tweets from Tahrir the soon-to-be-released 2011 book by Alex Nunns and Nadia Idle (discussed here), is an edited archive documenting the role of Twitter in the recent uprising in Egypt. The book trailer, which captures the core social media immediacy of the events…

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjLmBIh38JA&feature=player_embedded

…has already proved essential to pre-release coverage on Forbes.com, the New York Times website, and across the blogosphere. As co-publisher at OR Books Colin Robinson sees it, book trailers “are an absolutely essential part of what we’re doing. We’re going to where people are on the Internet. We’re not asking them to come to us.”

iPads and Multimedia Add-ons

As iPads become more ubiquitous and reading on PDAs continues to gain traction, book trailers will likely become as essential to bookselling as movie trailers are to the film business. With the evolution of the iPad, more and move visual elements will be woven into the definition of reading, especially as breakthroughs in integrated experience continue to maximize interactivity.

Want to be a more active participant in this year’s book trailer tracking? The Moby Awards, opens the submission floodgates on April 1st 2011. They’ll even have a red carpet to announce the awards.

Kathleen Sweeney is a writer, blogger and multimedia producer. She currently teaches courses on pop culture and social media at The New School, New York (www.video-text.com).

DISCUSS: Will Transmedia Marketing Replace Book Trailers?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.