Alastair Owen and Jakob Wehrman of Edelbytes with actor Eli Skatvedt filmed the trailer at the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig, Germany. Volker Friedemann Seumel played the instrument, which was made in 1782.
The state of the art in book trailers
By Dorothee Kocks
Published November 2011 in Solander, the Historical Novel Society magazine
I did not expect the making of my book trailer to bring a director to tears.
The scene: a warm museum room on a rainy day in Leipzig, Germany. The team trooped in: a Norwegian actress, a friendly Brit loaded with camera gear, and the German director, a busy young dad with a thriving film business, doing a favor for his American author cousin and her New Zealand publisher.
It was all business. It was all Lights, Camera, Action. They were almost done. Then the curator, a gallant man with wild, graying hair, offered to play the instrument that inspired the title of the book: a glass harmonica.
Benjamin Franklin invented it, mechanizing the finger-around-the-wine-glass idea. Women swooned when they heard it. Franz Mesmer mesmerized his patients with it. The script warns: an instrument so potent it was banned.
The film crew needed to return to their responsibilities at home. They were late. The curator touched his wet fingers to the spinning glass bowls. An eerie sound circled around them in the room. This music from 200 years ago was filled with ache and longing. The fragility of the glass and the beauty of the sound and the effort of the day combined and suddenly he, the director, was there at that moment of connection with the mystery of being human in this world.
Even in the act of public relations (PR), magic can happen.
What Makes a Successful Trailer?
Book trailers are now so common on the checklist of PR materials, at least one pundit already predicts the end of the era. Your friends and neighbors may still exclaim: There are trailers for books? I’ve never heard of that. But industry insider Lee Goldberg, in a Mediabistro.com interview, said that book trailers’ time has come and gone.1
Or should be gone. “I look at some of these book trailers from some big name authors and I can’t help but think: ‘Are you out of your mind? Why don’t you just go to the bathroom, take whatever cash you have in your pockets and flush it down that toilet?’” Goldberg said.
Many others, though, only see the beginning of a trend that continues to present new creative opportunities for authors and publishers. Book trailers first became a phenomenon in 2002, which in the current age of technology and app invention is approximately an aeon ago. GalleyCat.com picked up on the phenomenon early on, and editor Jason Boog is one who believes book trailers are here to stay.
“Videos are [a] huge part of what people consume online . . . and there will be writers who can tap into that.” Publishers will scale back their financial commitment to it, he says, because sales data are hard to connect to the cost. He thinks authors should step in and make their own. Through a trailer, writers will find readers they wouldn’t find otherwise.
Rich Fahle, founder of Astral Road Media, adds that the big picture is really about a new vision of writing. He finds book trailers rather boring. The promise is in adding video to an advanced kit of storytelling. Citing Phillipa Gregory as an example, he said writers are integrating back story, commentary, and social interaction into the communities of their books. For The Red Queen, Gregory did a “ton of video commentary around some of the characters.”
“Readers are coming to expect more. When they read a story that they love, they don’t want to leave it behind,” Fahle said.
Many authors learn the possibilities of video by starting with trailers, which have proliferated fantastically in recent years. Called alternately “author videos,” “book trailers,” or “book videos,” the video segments warranted enough attention by 2010 that an award ceremony was born: the Moby Awards, brainchild of Melville House Publishing. Moby Awards feature unusual categories: Book trailer as stand-alone art object and General Technical Excellence and Courageous Pursuit of Gloriousness, for example. The awards have a spirit that is part honor, part spoof, part ongoing commentary on what’s working.
The best trailers, according to Boog, who serves as one of the judges for the Mobys, are easy to spot. “Sincerity is the absolute most important thing. You should make it yourself and it should be something that shows your readers a personal glimpse at you.”
He gives an example of Max Barry’s sci-fi book, Machine Man, about a person who starts replacing parts of his body with robot parts. Barry put the video camera on himself, he talks about how ridiculous he feels, and then he says the only way to show what the book is about is to cut off his own leg and replace it with a robot leg. He pulls out a saw, turns it on, and . . . the trailer ends. It’s funny, it creates a connection between the reader and the author, and people want to pass it from one person to the next.
While Machine Man is not historical fiction, it makes a point: the success of a book trailer depends on creative inspiration, just as a book does. Historical fiction trailers to date have not made the best-of list at Moby’s – only the worst-of. Pirates: The Midnight Passage is an historical fantasy adventure of British privateers facing off against Blackbeard and a mysterious Aztec underworld.
The trailer features everything that Boog feels dooms a trailer – the decision to have actors pretend to be characters, over-the-top acting, and an amateur’s failed attempt to imitate the production standards of highly professional movie trailers. Of course, being named the worst got writer James R. Hannibal quite a bit of attention.
“Literally the day before the awards, sales of Pirates had reached an all time low,” Hannibal said. “The Moby Awards revived them to their best level, and they have only just now started to drop off again,” nearly two years later.
Hannibal’s next book was a techno-thriller, and he used the same company, XPC Media, to create his next trailer. “In my opinion sales of both books would have been cut in half if I never released the trailers.”
“Going viral” is the holy grail of video PR, but it’s a mysterious process that depends on the quirky, passionate reactions of viewers the world over – which thankfully is hard to predict. Intentionally promoting a product is the easiest way to discourage, rather than encourage, people from passing the video along. When one does go viral, of course, everyone agrees the investment was a good idea. Bestsellers can be made overnight.
Industry blogs are undecided on whether publishers will continue to underwrite book videos. Success comes in many guises, including the pleasure of creation. Here are a few examples of what some historical fiction writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to self-published authors, have done.
Great Book Trailers: the ineffable standard
Richard C. Skidmore, producer and director with VIDEO DOCUMENTS, had never heard of “author videos” when he got the job from Viking to produce the video for author Geraldine Brooks’s historical novel, Caleb’s Crossing. It turned out to be “one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had.” His instructions from Viking were minimalist: four minutes. No further advice. He realized they could do whatever they wanted.
The result is a video full of an unusual, somber light plus a surprising secret: the person who seems to represent the main character, Bethiah, is actually the Pulitzer-winning author herself.
Reached by email, Geraldine Brooks said she isn’t sure that all books lend themselves to a video. “Some novels create imaginary worlds that should be unique in the minds of each reader, and some kind of imposed visualization could damage that lovely alchemy.”
For Caleb’s Crossing, though, the idea fit. “The island of Martha’s Vineyard is, itself, one of the most important ‘characters’ in the novel. It’s a unique place and I wanted people who weren’t familiar with the island to get a taste of its salty beauty,” she wrote.
Brooks and Skidmore began their collaboration with Brooks writing a script and Skidmore listening carefully for what would unfold. Then one day they were touring one of the historic houses on the Vineyard. Brooks happened to be wearing something that looked almost historical. Skidmore turned the camera on. It was a creative accident: “part of the magic of a creative enterprise,” Skidmore said.
The video doesn’t announce the author’s actor role. Instead, viewers can guess it, just as they get a mood or feel of the book from the images. The novel builds from the true story of Caleb, a Native American from the Wampanoag tribe who graduated from Harvard in the 1660s. It’s told from the perspective of a fictional missionary’s daughter, Bethiah.
Another creative accident arose when Brooks was feeling shy about the sound of her own voice in the film. Skidmore responded by looking for some background sounds — crickets, waves — but then looked into the music of the time. A composer also, he ended up writing the harpsichord piece that underlies the narration. “It’s so rare in the corporate environment to be given that kind of freedom,” Skidmore said.
You can see the trailer by typing Caleb’s Crossing into YouTube’s search box.
A Debut Novelist’s Success Story: Joseph Wallace’s home run
Joseph Wallace had a first novel that Simon & Schuster loved, Diamond Ruby. Even as an established non-fiction author, he knew the challenge of getting notice for a debut novel. “It wasn’t likely that Oprah was going to bring me on board. The question for me was – what can I do to make the book conversation-worthy?”
So he took some of his advance, considered it an investment, hired a professional team, and made a book trailer with a controversial strategy: he hired an actress to portray his main character, Ruby – not just for a glimpse, but for full scenes.
This was in 2010, and the publisher already had prepared a more traditional author video. In it, Wallace talks passionately about his subject. Based on a true story, the novel follows Ruby Thomas, a poor girl who rose to baseball fame as a pitcher in the roaring twenties. But Wallace wanted more in a video than talk.
“People were telling me it’s a sucker’s game — do it for your ego, it won’t make a difference.” He forged ahead anyway.
He created his video for under $5,000 with elbow grease and personal connections. He served as executive producer, learning along the way that he prefers writing to the time-sucking demands of film. He found the actor, Carlie Nettles, a girl who appeared in a free, powerful YouTube movie that ended in Cannes, and contacted her parents. His team found archival footage the old-fashioned way, by looking and looking some more.
The video launched at the front edge of the Twitter storm. One person tweeted another about it, who tweeted another, and a book reviewer at the Washington Post noticed. Which in turn led to more attention.
“I do believe it made a huge difference,” Wallace said.
He not only sympathizes with the point of view that readers want to imagine characters themselves without an actor in their minds, he agrees at some level. “I purposely made the decision to go against that theory,” he said, because on balance, he felt people would be more intrigued if they knew what was at stake. “You had this appealing, tough, strong young woman up against tremendous threats. I could not figure out any way to really communicate that in a vivid way without choosing to show an actress and have her narrate it.”
The advice he gives to other writers, and to himself for the future, is that in this noisy world and in a business full of guesswork, the most important thing is to create something that makes you happy. “It has to be something that comes from your own heart and imagination. Otherwise the benefits are too vague.”
His video is at www.josephwallace.com/trailer.html.
A DIY Book Trailer that made it to TV: Richard Wise’s gem of a niche
Richard Wise is happy to acknowledge that he essentially self-publishes his work. His first book, a non-fiction guide to the Secrets of the Gem Trade, earned him $350,000, he says. Then he wrote a novel, also drawing on his lifelong passion as a jewelry trader. The French Blue, as the trailer announces, tells the story of a man, a beautiful woman, and the many journeys and adventures that surround the world’s most fabulous gem. The novel traces the 17th-century origins of the Hope Diamond, crossing two continents and more than 60,000 leagues. To cover all that territory, the trailer features a ship firing cannons, mine scenes, a belly dancer, and jewels – all for under $2,500.
Wise’s enthusiasm is infectious. “I looked at the stuff that was available, which struck me as pretty lame. I thought, if you’re going to do a trailer, it ought to be like Cecil B. DeMille.”
Working with a video designer, he searched online for companies that sell film clips. He wrote a story book, selected images that fit, and called on a few friends in the gem industry. The book, revised five times and edited by his Brunswick House Press team from its original 1,200 pages to under 600, was ready for release. He wanted to get out the word.
“I’m kind of an iconoclastic individual. I spent 25 years traveling around the world, buying and selling gems.” He turned to writing later in life. “My problem all through my earlier years was that I didn’t really have anything to say.” While he originally tried a few agents, he decided to go out on his own. He had studied writing and history in college and, through his career, knew where to find his readers.
“Most of the marketing falls on your shoulders regardless of whether you have a mainstream publisher,” he says.
The marketing he did from his non-fiction book paid off also for the novel. The cable Jewelry Television network picked up his novel, took the trailer, and even created its own version of the trailer. The result was that thousands of viewers from around the world, already interested in the subject, learned about his book.
Wise will retire from the gem trade soon and focus on writing full time. At this point, he would like to do more writing than marketing and would think of going mainstream.
On the Horizon: new trailers, new apps, and transmedia
When I searched for “book trailers” while writing this article in August 2011, I could choose from among 22,100 videos. Of that total, 682 book trailers carried a tag for historical fiction. By the time this article appears, the number probably will have significantly increased. Some of them will find success in traditional marketing terms of sales data. Some will create the more immeasurable successes of a creative life.
In the way of marketing, they may not so much disappear as be eclipsed. Next on the hip horizon is the book app. An app, short for application, is software that can run on phones or other small computing devices. Instead of only adding video to a book’s life, the apps allow a variety of media consolidated into one delivery platform.
Boog suggests that app technology particularly is suited to writers of historical fiction. Combine video from archival footage, interview historians of the period, add links to other books as expanded “footnotes”, interweave related stories with visually interesting links – it’s called transmedia story telling. He’s planning an app-book himself – on how writers survived the Great Depression – using text, images, and interviews.
The possibilities for historical fiction can be glimpsed by the current top-selling literary book apps. They showcase the opportunities for adding historical context – an expansion of the “author’s note” in so many historical novels.
One example, released by Penguin Books and among the top-grossing book apps at the Apple store, is an app for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The app tries to avoid distracting attention from the book’s text itself, and so doesn’t litter the document with links and highlights. Instead, the reader/viewer can touch light-blue tabs on the left. They present sidebars that include information on the historical context, the locations, the people.
Joseph Wallace intends the sequels of Diamond Ruby to take advantage of this new form. He already has video in the can for the sequels, but plans to use them in different ways.
The app is just one vehicle for the new world of transmedia storytelling. The technical platform is not so important as the impulse to experiment with what Fahle of Astral Road calls “a deeper form of story telling.” Readers will find their way to it via apps, enhanced ebooks, integrated websites or as yet unknown avenues. Readers become part of the author’s inspirational universe. “It’s about sharing. It’s not about promoting anymore,” Fahle says.
Transmedia involves a lot of fancy bells and whistles to be sure. As Wallace says, it’s noise unless it comes from the heart.
1. Jason Boog, “Why You Shouldn’t Make a Book Trailer,” GalleyCat, July 11, 2011, http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/why-you-shouldnt-make-a-book-trailer_b34041.
View the book trailer here.