In March, author Rye Barcott posted about his experience producing a trailer for his book. He expresses a healthy skepticism regarding the value of the trailer. Great: it is indeed hard to judge the extent to which a trailer actually boosts sales. (For the record, by the end of the post he is optimistic about the value of trailers, as am I.) His skepticism, however, is due at least in part to his doubt that the trailer can convey the essence of his book: "Can a few minutes on a screen really do justice to such a rich experience? I don't think so."
Well, that got me to thinking. A trailer that doesn't effectively capture the spirit of the work would be a lousy trailer. Right? If the trailer for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows showed Harry sitting in a tent for two minutes and forty seconds, we would not be impressed. Only two things separate a good trailer from a bad one:
• It conveys the essence of the work it represents.
• It's exciting enough to make the viewer want to learn more about, and ultimately pay for, the work it represents.
The general public would probably agree that some trailers make the grade. But we aren't the general public, we are authors! We labor for years on our personal masterpieces, weaving subtlety and meaning into a compelling narrative. How could a short flashy video possibly capture our books? This sentiment is similar to the complaint many would-be authors raise about query letters and synopses. Same idea, right? I created a sophisticated, many-layered narrative. How am I supposed to get that across in 250 words?
Why book trailers are awesome
The great strengths of a book trailer are the qualities that people doubt most. It's short. It's an audio/video representation of a printed work. It's for people with short attention spans. You wouldn't want it any other way.
These qualities mean your trailer can do things your book can't do, go places your book can't go. A trailer, like a haiku, captures big ideas through effective use of imagery and metaphor. A trailer conveys theme, mood, and motifs through use of color, light, and sound. A trailer vividly paints the world, the characters, and the stakes of your work. A picture, after all, is worth a thousand words, and you've got a minute or so of video.
Let's look at Batman as an example of effective short-form promotion. (Doesn't everyone?) When the movie The Dark Knight was about to come out, the studio knew they had a bundle of Hollywood hotness on their hands, and even before the trailers they had to get that across in the simplest of teasers: still images on posters, in print, and on the web. Hence the "Why so serious?" campaign.
This poster doesn't tell you much about the movie per se, but it does tell you what the movie is like. The blood suggests that Batman is a target, and that he is vulnerable. The lighting, the brick and the scrawls tell us the film will be gritty and hint at the Joker's low-tech methods. The tagline hints at the jarring contrast of the Joker's character: his drive to mock mainstream society and the disturbing, violent tactics he uses. It says if you like provocative, gritty and gothic you will like this movie. If you like campy comic book villains, you won't. Accurate and exciting. Done.
So how are you supposed to condense 60-80,000 words into a short video clip, or a one page query letter? By being authors. It's in the job description.
Yes, you can
Put another way: if you were an employee of the publisher, it would be unfair of them to expect you to write the book and market it. But you're not. You're a sole proprietor. You're ultimately responsible for your book, and everything about it; everyone involved in its journey to publication is effectively a contractor providing their services to you. The publisher is like a consultant. If they say make a trailer, you'd be wise to listen to them. That's how they earn their cut.
Another common sentiment is "it's not fair. I don't know anything about video/marketing/queries/etc." Sure it's fair. If you were expected to design a bridge or rebuild a carburetor as part of the publishing process, that would be unfair. You're a creative. If you can learn to write a book, you can learn to make a trailer, or at least learn to get a trailer made. The good news is no one expects you to change their lives in sixty seconds or 250 words. Refer to the above: convey the essence of your work. Be exciting. That's it!
Granted, plenty of book trailers we see out there are not very effective. Distilling a book's essence and capturing said essence in short form represents a challenge, and naturally some efforts fall short. Your job as a creative is not to fall short. Polish that query letter 'til it gleams and savagely trim that synopsis. Your job as a business person is to make sure your contractors don't fall short. If they're not capturing the essence of your work (in your trailer, in your website, in your promotional bookmarks) you're either not communicating effectively or you're working with the wrong person.
What say you, readers? Do I presume too much? Or should us writer-types apply our nose to the grindstone and broaden our horizons?
Brendan Gannon is a web developer and multimedia producer based in Boston. He writes YA/MG fiction and blogs at http://brendangannon.net. He thinks digital publishing and mobile apps are the bee's knees, but he's also very fond of paper.