MIND MELD: The Pros and Cons of Book Trailers

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Movies have had them for almost as long as there have been movies and now that books are going electronic, more books are getting them too. We’re talking about the increasing use of book trailers to generate interest. This week’s question for our panelists, suggested by an SF Signal reader, is:

Q: What do you think are the pros and cons of book trailers? Are they effective at promoting books?

Here’s what they said…

Mary Victoria
Mary Victoria has lived in seven countries and settled permanently in none. This is becoming problematic for customs officials trying to make sense of her passport. She has been at various times in her life a nanny, an animator and a writer of fantasy. You can find out more about her on www.maryvictoria.net

It seems as though every few months I hear about a miracle cure guaranteedto banish those midlist blues. If I just do ‘X’ (insert, ‘write a blog’, ‘make a website’, ‘self-publish’, ‘use twitter’, ‘do the convention/festival circuit’, etc.) my sales will take off. Suddenly I’ll be like Stephen King, complaining no one taxes me enough.

Sadly, while many of us tax-dodging authors do just that – blog regularly, front up for a website, tweet and share and make asses of ourselves at every book-related function we can get to – there’s no guarantee we’ll see a jump in sales as a result, especially with the whole publishing industry experiencing bad breath and an outbreak of pimples. Meanwhile, as we wait for the digital era to come of age, we should be in it for the love, the pundits say. The internet has made everyone a writer but Seth Godin tells us we can’t expect to earn a cent for love. We believe him because admitting otherwise might mean our books don’t please readers and no one cares.

So, what happens next? Now that we’ve embraced our inner midlist and are wandering from village to village in tattered clothing like the bards of yore, telling tales in exchange for a plate of soup, what about that book trailer idea? You know the one. It’s supposed to go viral on YouTube, make your novel a success, bring Hollywood knocking and at this point actually save your life, because you got pneumonia doing all that village-wandering and Seth Godin took away your shoes, the bastard.

Hope springs eternal. You have i-movie on your laptop (a writer tramp always possesses a laptop, no matter how frostbitten his fingers) your mate wrote some cool tracks on GarageBand and you decide to play movie director for a few days, pulling off a perfectly decent effort at an online trailer. Yay! It has uploaded to YouTube. Double yay! It has its first five views in twenty minutes. Oh, those were just you, logging in under a different username. Oops.

Two weeks later, the trailer has twenty views and most, you suspect, are from your mother. You share it on Facebook; it gets twenty more. Another kind writer-tramp shares it on twitter (we tramps have to stick together, quite literally do when it gets to -10 degrees outside.) Thirty more views. Two months later, as the viewing numbers on your Hollywood trailer languish around the 92 mark, you might be forgiven for trading in your laptop for a plate of soup and this whole writing gig for a job at MacDonalds.

But never fear, fellow mid-to-low-to-end-of-list writer. One thing will never change, no matter what business model publishing adopts. One fairy can still touch your shoulder and breathe magic over you, whether your books are published traditionally or in e-book, POD or nanotechnology-in-the-eye format.

Her name is Word Of Mouth Recommendation. All you need is to have her read your book. She might even use your trailer to promote it, turning it viral like you dreamed. Let’s just hope she doesn’t wait until you’ve died of hypothermia to do it.

May the WOMR be with you.

E.D. deBirmingham
E.D. deBirmingham is co-author of The Mongoliad, with Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo and others. The Mongoliad is the first in a series of Foreworld novels to be published by 47North. E.D. has written other novels under various pen-names and will be writing another Foreworld novel this year.

There are so many ways to answer this question and most of them begin with the phrase “It depends on whether…”

It depends on whether it’s a graphic novel (which I have no problem with, as long as the visual style reflects the visual style of the book) or a prose novel. If it’s a prose novel, I worry that the trailer trumps the reader’s imagination re: setting the initial tone of the story. I think a trailer that tries to depict anything from the book is unfortunate, for the same reason that seeing a movie before reading the book is unfortunate. Let the writing, not the trailer, introduce you to the writer’s work.

It also depends on whether it’s an official trailer or a fan-made one. Official trailers are not necessarily better or more creative, but the author can exercise some control over the style and content; fan-made trailers make me uncomfortable because they are really tributes. Every reader has a subjective experience of the book, and it’s unlikely anyone’s will be an exact match with the writer’s. Such videos may give too much away or misrepresent the author’s intention.

In that vein: I recently saw a trailer for a novel I was interested in. Watching the trailer made me lose interest in the novel. I later realized it was a fan-made trailer, but the damage had been done. So a bad trailer can damage a book. On the other hand, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity and having anything-that-reminds-people-of-your-book out there in the public eye is generally a great thing.

And all that said: there are some very clever book trailers out there that make no attempt to tell the reader how to see or experience the book, and I’m all for those. My favorite – not just because I’m biased – is for The Mongoliad. I was not around for the making of it but I laughed out loud when I saw it. Check it out; I think you will enjoy it too.

Scott Sigler
New York Times best-selling novelist Scott Sigler is the author of Ancestor, Infected and Contagious, hardcover thrillers from Crown Publishing. Before he was published, Scott built a large online following by giving away his self-recorded audiobooks as free, serialized podcasts. Scott reinvented book publishing when he released Earthcore as the world’s first “podcast-only” novel. He still records his own audiobooks and gives away every story – for free – to his Junkies at www.ScottSigler.com.

A book trailer is the only way I know to have a permanent marketing vehicle for a book. If you buy ads, be they online or in print, the ads are here and then gone forever. Make a trailer and put it on YouTube, however, and that trailer continues to produce views every day until you take it down. My first novel with Crown Publishing came out on April 1, 2008. Any marketing expenditures the publisher made are long since forgotten. They paid for ads, I paid for the trailer — four years later, the trailer is still producing well over 1,000 views a month.

Not all trailers will get a lot of views, but they will get some views every day. Out of the people who stumble upon that trailer, some of them will check out your work. A well-produced book trailer will continue to land you new fans long after all other efforts have passed.

Cooper Moo
Cooper Moo is one of seven authors of The Mongoliad, book one of which was published by Amazon.com’s 47 North in April of 2012. He has also written articles for various magazines including the awarding-winning auto-biographical piece “My Brother and Me” published in the Seattle Weekly.

I’m no media maven, but seems to me there are few negatives to book trailers which do not apply to other forms of advertising while there are many pros unique to the format. Let’s take a run at pros and cons from two perspectives: authors and readers.

Author – Cons
Two biggest potential cons of book trailers for authors – it could be really expensive and it might suck. These things are not mutually exclusive. It could be really expensive and suck. Battlefield Earth. If you don’t have the chops to do a creative, funny, evocative trailer on an indie budget you’ve got to either rally talented friends or hire the thing out. Either of these options is time consuming and financially risky. And reputation-risking. Battlefield Earth arguably damaged those involved. (Though I have wonder if it didn’t end up selling some books.)

Author – Pros
If your book doesn’t evoke emotions it isn’t going to sell. Thrillers: excitement, fear, elation. Romance: passion, regret, fulfillment. Science fiction: discovery, conflict, wonder. Ever watch a movie trailer more than once? We all have. Because in that brief three minutes you got a mainline shot of one the emotions listed above – and you wanted some more of that. Images and sounds have an unrivaled ability to stir us up. If your book trailer can give potential readers a quality sampling of the emotions bound between the front and back covers you’re in business.

Reader – Cons
Ever go to the film only to realize all the best bits were in the trailer? We all have. Much like a pithy review, we can be suckered into buying a book by a well-put-together trailer. And I’d argue the transgression is more egregious. A movie will only consume a couple hours of your life. We’re into a book for much more – and over days or weeks. Trailers have the ability to be more misleading than reviews because we are more susceptible to their multi-sensory treachery. Caveat emptor, dear reader.

Reader – Pros
You’re on Amazon.com surfing for a book. Along with the written reviews you see the telltale triangle button which will launch the trailer. Of course you hit the button. It’s not like we don’t read the reviews too – we do, the trailer is just another touch point for something which will potentially occupy our hands, and mind, for hours. Book trailers give the reader an image-and-sound synopsis of what the author, or the author’s “team”, believes is attractive about the book. And a book trailer almost never commits the all-too-common sin of movie trailers – telling us the entire story including the ending.

Mark Teppo
Mark Teppo is the author of the Codex of Souls urban fantasy series and the hypertext dream narrative The Potemkin Mosaic. He is also a co-author of The Mongoliad trilogy. His next book is an eco-thriller entitled Earth Thirst.

I think book trailers shouldn’t be about books. The length of a trailer relegates it to one of two types of expression: a commercial or a short film. Two projects I’ve been involved in have had trailers. The Field Guide to Surreal Botany and The Mongoliad. One sells you on a product; the other tells you a story.

I know that, in many cases, writers have little input in the creation of their book trailers, but I find it somewhat ironic that many trailers don’t accurately portray what they’re trying to get you interested in. To be fair, I should point out that the original script for The Mongoliad trailer was heavy on exposition and light on story. What we got had a lot to do with the exposition failing to play well in the editing room. The team doing the video found a brilliant hook and built a narrative around it.

Simon Spanton
Simon Spanton is the Deputy Publishing Director at Orion Publishing Group.

It’s always hard to know exactly how any sort of promotion works for books. With tight margins and countless product lines the industry has always (perhaps paradoxically) shied away from the sort of extensive market research that would allow us to analyse the exact effects of various forms of promotion.

However book trailers have become increasingly common and used correctly seem to have pretty clear benefits. However they are not easy to do well and can be very expensive so caution is required.

What certainly doesn’t work is labouring long and hard on a beautiful book trailer and then just putting it up on YouTube or Facebook and crossing your fingers. The acid truth is that books just don’t have the mass purchase on the popular imagination that film and music have. A movie trailer, a music video can go viral. A book trailer just wont. We’ve found trailers to be most effective when they go up in a place where fans are already going, or where you’ve been able to direct people via a blog or Twitter. Let people who are inclined to be interested that there is a cool trailer up somewhere and they will often head over and take a look. Preaching to the converted always works best.

But the best way to use trailers is as added content for the various online retailers (especially that which shall remain nameless). Online retailers are always very hungry for added content (the more visual the better), something which makes their offer unique, so a trailer for them often goes down very well indeed, raises the book’s profile, keeps the retailer happy and feeling loved and helps generate sales.

People love moving pictures (makes you wonder sometimes if we’re not in the wrong business J) and they are drawn to trailers but the standard of these is increasing all the times. It often feels like an arms race and the very best trailers are now not so far away from cinema trailers in terms of production quality. It’s very difficult to get the required quality in-house but thankfully there are plenty of hugely creative video companies out there very happy to take not too much of your money and come up with something pretty sharp.

As always briefing the team is key. Something atmospheric that evokes feelings rather than something too literal and narrative driven would be my personal preference. Illustrating characters on trailers runs the same risk that putting them on covers does; the chance that people will turn around and say ‘Well that’s not MY idea of how so-and-so looks’. Creative use of music and sound can make up for tight budget constraints on the visuals.

Don’t try and tell the story, listen to ideas that the creatives come up with in response to your brief. They’re the experts and they can often surprise you.

But beware: the more successful your trailer the more it fixes the book in the mind of the reader. The book might be great but if its not what the reader is expecting after the trailer they might come away feeling disappointed.

So, in conclusion.

The cons? Price, difficulty of achieving visibility, need for excellence, there are a lot of videos out there now, can define a book too closely.

The pros? Can drive pre-orders, can generate genuine enthusiasm amongst interested parties, can be talking points.

And right now if a book’s big enough there is a degree of expectation in the trade that it should have a trailer. Having one becomes a statement of intent (just like a six page colour blad was in the old days) so publishers are required to take their courage in their hands, seek expert help and go for it.

One last word though. Much as I love some of the book trailers I’ve seen I do wonder whether there is not something subtly counterintuitive about using the defined moving image to promote the infinite imagination that a book can engender in the reader’s mind. But that’s just me being a crusty old fuddy-duddy.

5 thoughts on “MIND MELD: The Pros and Cons of Book Trailers”

  1. A fascinating insight into the pros and cons–thank you, SFSignal! And yes, I did chuckle over ‘The Mongoliad Trailer’ with Neal Stephenson.

    Another literary genre group it would be interesting to hear from is the Paranormal Urban Fantasy crowd as I am seeing an increasing number of book trailers popping up on blogs there.

  2. I had a thought, JP.

    With the rise of Kickstarters, Kickstarters that concentrate on fiction have to produce, as a matter of course, a “book trailer” to promote the kickstarter.

    1. …And some of those Kickstarter trailers are unwatchable. Seriously. Little book icons flying out of the screen at you… pictures of kittens… no. Just no.

      I’m with some of the entries above saying do it well, or don’t do it at all. Of course, there’s only so much professional assistance a writer tramp can afford. ;)

      1. Loving these thoughts and comments. Mary! lol You make me smile and cringe at the same time! So true. And ‘yes’ to do it well. We have the technology. Let’s use it!

  3. I love doing book trailers for my books because a) they help me to focus on exactly what the basis of the book is and b) they’re fun to do. I love working out the script, finding the music and all. I think I do it more for me, as a creative outlet that still keeps me connected to the book I love, rather than because I think it will sell books.

    I haven’t bought a book myself because if a trailer, but I’ve been turned off buying a book because of the trailer. So a double-edged sword, perhaps?

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