Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guest Post: Book Trailers, Batman, and Short-Form Promotion

by Brendan Gannon

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 He thinks digital publishing and mobile apps are the bee's knees, but he's also very fond of paper.


  1. I don't really care for book trailers, nor do I watch them. I know they've had merit for some people, but (as of right now) I doubt I'll ever use them. It's quickly becoming the new over-flooded way to self promote. I think a lot of people will find people won't read their book OR watch their book trailer :P Double whammy!

    Also, that link went to a Forbidden 404 page, so I couldn't see the Batman poster :(

    YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward
    Adult: Shackled

  2. Hmm. That's a tough call. Just because you have some creative talent doesn't mean you'll thrive in all mediums.

    I can mix records, but I can't produce a track that swings to save my life. I can write (I hope) but I'm not sure I could script a book trailer. Maybe I could write a voice over or something, but coming up with the images and/or video would be a different story.

  3. What a timely post! I think book trailers are one of the many, many marketing tools out there and creation of them is like the creation of a cover, of a bookmark, of book plates and cards and letterhead ... everything about it conveys the message of the book. It's part of branding. My trailer came out today ( and it's so much like the book, it's amazing. I love the feel, the sound, the texture. It's just pictures, abstracts and music, but it conveys the message my cover conveys, that the interior words show. I'm all in favor of trailers as a part of the marketing kit. It's not 1 action that gets noticed. It's a series of consistent ones that do. That's what book trailers are good for. :)

  4. When I read a book, I compare it to other books. When I look at a trailer, I compare it to other trailers. Does anyone have an example of a book trailer that's as good as the TV or movie trailers I routinely see?

    Most of the trailers I see mix still and forgettable images with boring music, and dump in a ton of text. That doesn't hold up to 80% of the user-generated content on Youtube.

    Something like an author interview or a funny Q&A session on YouTube, or an excerpt from the book on your website is probably much better marketing, because it shows quality work instead of 'author has just discovered Window Movie Maker came free with his copy of Windows.'

  5. I do like trailers as a marketing tool, but I see the problem with them being the same as a book link or sample chapters. And that's how do you market the trailer so people will watch it? Some great ones will go viral, but that'll be a small percentage. Where do they have the most impact? Ideas?

  6. Interesting post!

    I agree with Aimee. A book trailer is just one tool, but every little bit of exposure can help.

    But so many "creatives" have a difficult time switching gears from verbal to visual storytelling. They're very different things. Like M. Caliban says, a lot of book trailers get bogged down in text. That, and a length of over about a minute, are my two biggest pet peeves for book trailers.

    I'd much rather see a teaser trailer for a book--and I'm much more willing to click 'Play' on a video that's ~30 seconds. Brendan made an analogy to query letters, where we often try to hook a reader with the initial problems--things you encounter in the first 30 pages of the book. I think a book trailer could easily work the same way, and perhaps even should.

    (Aw man. There goes all my blog post on the subject.)

  7. Interesting post! I bit the bullet and worked with a film-maker to create a book trailer for my as yet unpublished manuscript. It's at

    The reason, for me, was that my story is set in a desert city in India in the 16th century, and features a classical dance from there, and a tradition of temple dancers. It is hard enough to convey the essence and hook of a story, in addition to why one is qualified to write it, in a query letter without also having to explain a bit about a different culture and period in history, and a specific art form. I felt that some music, some images, some moments of dance would help immensely. I'm told by many, including the agent I am signing with, that my trailer did a good job, so I submit it here as an example, for anyone who would like to critique it. I'm sure it could be improved upon, but I am happy with how it came out. And who knows, maybe someone out there will think hey, that would make a good movie! One can always dream.

    I also have to add that in this day and age when so much is expected of the author in terms of marketing, I felt it would do no harm for me to show agents and publishers that I am game to get involved.

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