The Final Four Book Trailer Assignment

I didn't know book trailers were a thing until it was suggested I should make my own. Book trailers, also known as bookreels, are like movie trailers -- except they're made to promote books. I'll bet you guessed that already. They're almost exclusively found online.

Some book trailers focus on a discussion of the work, perhaps the author onscreen describing what motivated them to write it, or what they hope readers will get out of the thing. Some are funny. Others don't feature the author at all, but rely on text slideshows and music to deliver what amounts to a written pitch. Sometimes these are interspersed with still images that help convey the atmosphere or indicate what the characters look like. Then there are book trailers that look like movie trailers or short films -- relatively complicated productions with costumed actors, camera work, special effects, sets and locations, the whole schmear. And of course books that have already been turned into movies have an edge: every time they advertise the movie, the book gets a boost. This is a big advantage given the competition -- not other book trailers, but the whole online media spectrum.

Book trailers are competing in the crowded short-subject field of movie trailers, commercials, and music videos, all highly professionalized industries. Experts in these media spare no expense to produce top-grade results using the best possible talent and equipment. Book trailers, on the other hand, are generally amateur productions cobbled together on a laptop computer. They're produced with budgets that wouldn't have paid for a cup of coffee in 1978. This is the advertising equivalent of dropping a cyclist on a fixie into the FIA Formula One World Championship.

So making a book trailer competitive in the vast universe of sales media is quite a challenge. But it's worth the attempt. People are starting to watch book trailers more and more. These videos provide a bit of the flavor of the story, maybe a synopsis or an introduction to what sort of person the author is; at best they help translate the language of literature into the language of online. A good trailer can even reach people who aren't typically readers, and get them intrigued enough to try out a book.

There are several challenges to achieving these results. The first difficulty with the concept of book trailers is in the nature of the novelist. We are often introverted folks, highly specialized to do one thing; it's hard enough for us to go out into the world and sign copies and interact with humans and so forth as required by the conventions of ordinary book selling. Now we're supposed to master a completely different medium to flog our own work? It's a daunting proposal.

Having made a few of these trailers, I can offer some advice to my fellow authors. Most of all, figure out what you're comfortable doing. Can you sit in a chair, speak directly to the camera, and capture the interest of the public? Then by all means do that. Or maybe you're good at public readings -- record one of those and select a few snippets. Or gather cast and crew and shoot a mini-movie. Whatever makes you feel positive about the process. Don't do it in some way that causes you misery, or it will show in the final product. And don't overshoot your capabilities or resources (as I usually do). The trouble with an ambitious but unconvincing trailer is it tends to suggest the book will be the same way.

Ambitious but unconvincing... You knew all along that my own trailers were going to come up, didn't you. What happened was I was asked to do a trailer for a book last year, which turned into four of them. Having once been a principal in a boutique ad agency, I knew the general tools and techniques required, how to develop messaging for targeted audiences, and how to best deliver a punchy, memorable piece of media that would grab the audience and not let go. But when it came time to do the things, all that went out the window. I just made up a bunch of nonsense and did whatever popped into my head.

This approach improbably proved so effective that I recently used it again for my latest novel, The Fifth House of the Heart. Whereas the previous trailers were for a rollicking historical YA fantasy, this one is for a Gothic horror. It's an eccentric, very adult vampire story, pretty much the opposite of the current trend in Emo Blutsaugers. I wanted to convey all of that without attempting to explain the book, simply because the damn thing is inexplicable.

I gave it my best shot. As with each of my trailers, the camera work is extremely limited; I prefer to do the main body of the thing in a single shot. That way I can focus all of my limited resources on one setup. Georges Méliès
figured this out in 1896. Because it's common to have the author speak directly to the camera about the book, I take that approach, although in this instance I discuss the real nature of vampires. Each of my trailers features some visual or aural gag which is the actual point of the thing.

Because my trailers are absurdist, they end up being pretty special effect-heavy. I make extensive use of Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere. Somebody you know will have these and will help you use them. I shoot everything in front of a $20 green screen and use a lot of stock footage, animation, and photo manipulation for the backgrounds. To record the live action, you can use a good smart phone or an SLR camera with video capability; my camera has a decent onboard microphone, so I record sound directly with it. I do all the lighting with daylight, a couple of cheap floods, and assorted household lamps. The camera tripod was swiped from under my telescope. If I need help, my friend Buz is always willing to assist. For example when I was dressed up as a giant with a Papier-mâché head, he operated the camera and kept me from breaking my neck -- I couldn't see where I was going.
It takes very little to make just about the craziest stuff imaginable. Most folks can achieve a great deal with an interesting location and a few props. It all depends on what it is you hope to do.

Finally, there's another category of book trailer I like even better than the author-created ones: fan trailers. I saw a bunch of these for the Hunger Games books, and fantasy novels often attract folks who want to express their vision of the stories. They say anybody can make a movie with the technology in their pockets -- but what story to tell? How about the novel in your other pocket? Makes sense to me.

So the next time you're looking for something to read, check out a book trailer. And if you're an author who wants to get your work out of the world of pure text and into other media, try making one.

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