Book Trailers Worth Watching

03 Jun

In case you weren’t aware, the 2011 Moby Awards were presented last night.  I know what you’re thinking: the what awards?  The Moby Awards are only in their second year of existence, commemorating both the very best and the very worst in book trailer videos.  Winners receive a gold sperm whale to celebrate their superb or superbly bad book trailers.  Formal attire is recommended.

I’m fairly ambivalent on the subject of book trailers.  I can’t remember a single instance where I saw a book trailer online and thought, wow, now I really need to buy/read that book!  This is probably because I never seek them out; I am most likely to stumble across one while looking up information about a book I know I’m already interested in, or already own.  I’ve certainly seen some entertaining book trailers, and we periodically post them with our reviews on this blog.  But the best advertisement for me is the book itself or a trusted friend’s recommendation.  I don’t look to YouTube for additions to my TBR.

So I am not certain how useful book trailers are in the first place.  Feel free to weigh in if you never buy a book without watching its trailer first, or if that is your main source of reading recommendations.  But I’m willing to bet that’s not the case.  You see, we’re readers.  We don’t need to watch a video to convince us to read a book; we simply pick up the book (or read the summary, sample page, and reviews online) and decide if it speaks to us.  And when it does speak to us, it most often says, “Take me home with you!  I’m cute and I like to snuggle.”

Still, these book trailers are regularly churned out as part of a book’s publicity package, and maybe it’s time we started giving the publishers some feedback.  Some people might do this via golden sperm whale; I will do it in a bulleted list.

NOTE: In the name of research, I watched all of this year’s finalists.  I did this for you.  Unless you have nothing else to do and several brain cells to spare, I have to recommend against this course of action.  Lucky for you, I chose the cream of the crop to post below – enjoy.

How to Make a Quality Book Trailer: A Bulleted List

Keep it short and sweet.  By short I mean two minutes or less.  With a few exceptions, all my favorite trailers fell between one and two minutes in length.  Just give me a glimpse of something in your book that I might not discover on my own from holding it or reading a summary.  Then wrap it up.

Use the medium to its fullest advantage.  I know I just spent all that time talking about how we’re book people, and we like to read.  But here’s the thing: you’re making a video.  If all you’re doing is putting text across the screen, either passages from the book or blurbs from the book’s cover, why is it a video?  Creative animation, funny dialogue, and cameos by the author or a celebrity are a few justifications for the use of a camera.  Otherwise, I might as well just be holding the book.

Tell me what the book is about.  This one seems obvious.  If I watch four minutes of your video and still have no idea what to expect from the book, what have you accomplished?  Other than wasting four minutes of my life, and whatever resources it took to create that video.

Know your author.  Two bullet points up, I suggested letting the author appear in the trailer for his or her book.  I’d like to amend that, and suggest that only authors who play well to the camera should appear in their own book trailers.  There is a whole Moby Award category called “Worst Performance by an Author”, and it was the most painful set to watch.  One author reads you the summary on the back of his book, then opens to the introduction and tells you to pause the video and read it yourself.  I did pause the video, and now I will forever have nightmares about all that terrible grammar in a book meant for young people.  (Please don’t mention my split infinitive.  I tried not to split it.  I really did.)

Know your grammar.  Yes, I’ve split some infinitives in my day.  I also end some of my sentences with prepositions.  But there is no excuse for a book trailer on a publisher’s YouTube channel that asks this question of potential readers: “If you knew someone is guilty of a crime…are you obligated to bring them to justice?” I have to assume that the crime in question involves violently disagreeing tenses followed by a domestic dispute between a pronoun and its antecedent.

Book Trailers Worth Watching

I was going to make this a top 10 list, but it (surprisingly) became a top 12.  Let me group them by type.

Category A: The Book-Movie

These book trailers resemble movie trailers.  They have action, humor, and a lot of blood.  They have not been polished to the level of a movie trailer, but are still more theatrical than the average book trailer.

1.  Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy

I have no interest in reading this book, but the trailer makes it look exciting.  And bloody.

2.  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Again, I have no interest in reading this book.  And it’s fairly simple to figure out what it’s about.  Yet the trailer makes it extra dramatic and, well, bloody.  What I really like about this one is how well it incorporates the cover art into live action.

3.  Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

I have looked at this book, and it didn’t seem like something I would be interested in.  This trailer, however, makes me want the book and demands that an actual movie be made out of it.  (Which means my earlier statement that a book trailer has never led me to purchase a book may be in need of revision sometime in the near future.)

Category B: Characters’ Shameless Self-Promotion

These trailers pass the heavy lifting of promoting the book off onto the characters themselves.

4.  Room by Emma Donoghue

The defining characteristic of this book is the simple narration of five-year-old Jack and the terrifying subtext of his existence that we can only read between the lines.  This book trailer captures the essence of his inner dialogue.

5.  Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

This book is non-fiction, but the trailer makes use of fictionalized re-creations of the actual tests performed in early space flight research.  Brilliantly done.

6.  It’s a Book by Lane Smith

This video should probably have a spoiler alert, since it is basically an animated version of the book.  Not much is left out, but it is a lot of fun to see the book brought to life.  (Of course, you should still make sure to get a hard copy of this book, because that is the whole point.  It’s a book, not a video.)

7.  Little Chicken’s Big Day by Jerry Davis and Katie Davis

This trailer actually uses its intended audience – adorable children – to promote it instead of the book’s characters.  I imagine it must be very effective.  Who can resist adorable children?

Category C: The Infomercial

I say “infomercial” in the best possible way.  The trailers in this category give you a bit of information about the book, designed to pique your interest and get you to probe at least a little bit further.

8.  Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer

This trailer shows people reacting to what they see in Foer’s book without ever actually showing what is so unusual about it.  A clever ploy to get people to pick the book up, just to see what all the fuss is over.  (This one is not on YouTube, so I can’t embed it into the post.  Please follow the hyperlink.)

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer – Public Reactions

9.  The Instructions by Adam Levin

It’s simple: this trailer gives you a short set of instructions.  If you want the context, or further instructions, you’re going to have to pick up the tome and start reading.

10.  Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

This is by far the longest trailer that made it to my list.  However, I give Johnson a pass on the time limit because in this fast-paced, entertaining, and artistic trailer, he outlines the basic argument of his book clearly and concisely.  You are left with a good idea of what he wants to discuss, but not so much information that you no longer need to read his book.  Also, great animation work.

Category D: Hilarity Ensues

This category is for the downright funny ones.  Funny wins every time.

11.  Suck on This Year by Denis Leary

Denis Leary is a comedian, and his book is more or less a joke.

12.  Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I love that this book trailer is simultaneously serious and slapstick.  Any author who can be this self-deprecating, and this funny about it, wins in my book.

At last, we have come to an end of the longest, most detailed post in this blog’s history.  Are we all still here? Did we lose anybody?

Now that I’ve shared far too much on the subject, feel free to leave a note with any personal book trailer pet peeves, favorite videos to add to the list, and corrections to any grammatical errors.  Until next time.

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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Industry News


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