A lot of people show up twenty minutes late to movies so they don’t have to see the trailers. I get it. They’re ads. But they’re also my and many others’ favorite part of going to the movies. Even if a movie is bad (recently, The Snowman), the trailer can be good (it was). It’s like a three minute synopsis of the movie’s plot, tone, and emotions. There’s so much to love about them. And the way they’re presented, you might get a thriller followed by a romance and then a comedy. It’s a whole range of emotions; it’s like a movie buffet.
Even if you don’t share my love for movie trailers, though, you can appreciate the logic of shortening a movie’s runtime to a few minutes. Shots from the movie are cut and composed to give audiences a preview of what to expect.
The same can’t be said for book trailers. Books are made of words, not film. The images are in the reader’s head, and they have to be constructed over a period of time, not in twenty-four frames per second.
When a publisher tries to translate the elusive tone of a thriller novel (say, specifically, Krysten Ritter’s upcoming Bonfire) in a very straight-faced way, the results will be lackluster. But judge for yourself.
Book trailers started picking up steam in the early 2000s, which made sense because the internet was making itself clear that it wouldn’t be leaving us alone. You can understand the publishers’ instinct to capitalize on YouTube. What better way to advertise books than copy what movies are doing? Well, there are better ways, especially better than ham-fisted attempts to translate full length novels into low budget thirty-second YouTube videos.
The central problem is that books are a different medium than movies. Movie trailers make sense because trailers are just shorter versions of the movie. The equivalent for books would be excerpts, which are fine, but will never be as sexy and immediate as movie trailers.
They’ll also never be as effectively distributed. The tactic publishers seem to be using to promote their book trailers is to upload them to YouTube, send them to a few book-news outlets, and then hope they go viral. But there’s no reason for the trailer for Dean Koontz’s upcoming The Whispering Room to go viral. There’s no hook.
Relying on shares and likes and tweets will never match the method of distribution movie trailers have. When you see any movie, there will be at least fifteen minutes of trailers. That’s just how it goes. There’s no way to replicate that in book world.
Shooting a trailer that tries to get across the feeling of a book will almost certainly result in something slightly off-putting. But there are other ways to do book trailers. Gary Shteyngart (famed book blurber) has become what The New Yorker called “the leading book-trailer auteur of our time.”
Instead of trying to translate his books into a visual medium, Shteyngart just does his own thing. He stars in the trailer for his 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story along with, erm, James Franco. The trailer is essentially about Shteyngart’s odd status as an author. His job is made easier by having a sense of humor and a willingness to be self-deprecating. The trailer has over 300,000 views on Youtube, which is pretty astonishing considering what it is.
If the goal of book trailers is to ape the movie industry’s advertising strategies, then the publishing industry should be a bit more creative. Books and movies might be different artistic mediums, but some of the things that make movies so fun could be applied to books. People like movies for a ton of reasons, but one is that it’s a communal experience. You are sitting with and reacting alongside other people. And when the movie’s out, you know you have something to talk to other people about. By focusing on communal reading experiences, publishers can start to foster the same sort of feeling among readers as moviegoers. As long as reading feels solitary, it won’t be as sexy as movies.
That goal, though, to make books as sexy as movies, is misguided in the first place. That shouldn’t be publishers’ aspiration. ‘Sexy’ isn’t what books have got going for them; they’re smart. And they’re funny too. It’s time for publishers to ditch on-the-nose, low-budget book trailers and instead go in the direction of the true book promo geniuses like Shteyngart. I’ll leave you with a hopeful glimpse into the future of online book promos in support of Laura Moses and Ben Schwartz’s Things You Should Already Know About Dating, You F*cking Idiot, featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda and, um, J. J. Abrams.
Feature Image Via No Film School