Wednesday 24 February 2010

Opinionated Speculations: Book Trailer Park

For the next bit of featured burbling here on The Speculative Scotsman, I have for you, dear readers, a topic that's been intriguing me increasingly over the last little while; a topic brought to mind during my much ballyhooed-about review of The Left Hand of God, which I was reminded of once more while browsing through the publicity materials that accompanied my review copy of A Dark Matter. That topic?

Namely, the book trailer.

We've all seen a few, I'm sure, but what purpose do they truly serve? Do we think they work, or is the book trailer a marketing tack too far?

Let's take a look at the short promotional video the PR wizards from Doubleday put together for Peter Straub's latest novel:

It's a quick one. To say it lasts for 30 seconds is to give the static powerpoint screens advertising the book's title and a few choice recommendations more credit, perhaps, than they deserve.

That said, let's take stock - from the perspective of someone who hasn't a clue about this book - of what little one might glean from the trailer for A Dark Matter.

Firstly, there's a run through the woods from a first-person perspective that can only recall The Blair Witch Project, which will surely bring to the savvy viewer's mind the concept of found footage - or in this case, a found manuscript, such as those recovered in House of Leaves and Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Red Tree. Someone is either running from something, or, conversely, chasing it; it's unclear which. Whatever the case, the visuals soon become distorted, and the viewer must understand that things have taken a turn for the worse.

Perhaps the only other notable aspect of this book trailer is its sound: an aurally twisted gladiatorial chant that ratchets up throughout before erupting into applause and a few wolf-whistles. The chant hardly sounds human, animalistic even. It unnerves, implicating the viewer in some sort of supernatural and/or horrific goings-on.

The trailer's last seconds are devoted to brief blurbs. We know, from these, that Stephen King and Michael Chabon enjoyed A Dark Matter. And from the brief scene that precedes their recommendations, we gather that Straub's latest novel is creepy, potentially supernatural metafiction in which something bad happens in the woods.

I haven't yet read enough of A Dark Matter to say, with any certainty, if the book trailer's assertions are correct. In the interim, however, a plot synopsis will suffice:

"The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.

"Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier."

So it's safe to say that yes, the essential elements alluded to by the book trailer for A Dark Matter are present and correct in the text itself - or, at the least, the outline of the text. And yet, for all that the audiovisual experience of the trailer implies certain key features of Straub's novel, I can't help but feel it obscures rather more than it illuminates. In the end, it takes about the same amount of time to read the product description on Amazon or wherever else, and that, surely, gives potential readers a better idea of what to expect from A Dark Matter. Where in the trailer, for instance, can viewers learn of Spenser's cult of sexuality?

Of course, product descriptions themselves are often rather unhelpful, deceptive in the particular parts of a text they foreground - the better to shift the damn things in the first place. I wouldn't make the argument that a sales pitch is any more reliable an indicator than a book trailer; neither, after all, are the creations of, in this instance, Peter Straub, but rather the marketers whose job it is to sell his novel to as large and diverse an audience as possible.

But book trailers such as that advertising A Dark Matter are, I feel, an abstraction too far. If a blurb represents a stripped-down version of a novel, and a book trailer is a second-hand interpretation of said reduced still further, what's left can hardly bear much resemblance to the text itself, and the text, at the end of the day, is what counts above all else.

I understand that the intent is to pitch a book to an attention-starved audience that isn't interested in blurbs - that a 30-second clip can be televised to reach further than any written sales pitch - but how effective are they in that regard? Is that segment of the market even the type to care about books? Let's be frank for a moment: people who first hear about the likes of a new Peter Straub from some ad between episodes of Ugly Betty or some such drivel are hardly the sort likely to invest the time and effort into reading a book as dense as A Dark Matter anyway. So who are such book trailers even for?

Here's another offender, this time for Stephen King's Under the Dome:

I won't waste my time and yours by subjecting this one to similar analysis as I did A Dark Matter. I post it only because I feel it's indicative of what book trailers seem to have become: desperate and often inaccurate appeals to the lowest common denominator.

But there are better examples of book trailers out there. From this, one of the very earliest, an award-winning short from Hoss Gifford advertising the truly breathtaking A Life of Pi by Yann Martel:

To this, a trailer for a steampunk YA novel you'll be hearing more about on The Speculative Scotsman shortly. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld:

And finally, to this piece, in which Neil Gaiman himself narrates a brief pitch for The Graveyard Book:

For my money, each of the three ads above represent the better traits of book trailers, the things a little more thought can achieve. Rather than confusing the issue as the Peter Straub and Stephen King trailers did, they add a complementary dimension to the texts concerned that means, had I not already read and enjoyed each of these three novels, their respective advertisements would have certainly piqued my interest.

All the same, there is the thought that whatever their merits, book trailers could be said to rob readers of the pleasure of their own imagination. The implication that my mind's-eye simply isn't up to the task of realising the landscape of Leviathan or the unlikely situation Pi Patel finds himself stuck in could even border on the insulting.

But enough of my burbling - that's my $0.02 on book trailers. Over to you, then. Are book trailers a necessary evil in the era of web 2.0, or a marketing tack too far? Are they in any way effective, do you think, or are they borderline offensive?

Most of all, readers, I'd like to know whether you've ever been inspired to buy or read a novel because of a book trailer, and if the trailer left you feeling satisfied, or short-changed. Do chime in and let me know!


  1. I think they are cute and enjoyable and sometimes hook me in to go and see who is talking about the book.
    Like most of the online marketing it seems to be about raising the general consciousness of your book existing rather than watch trailer = instant purchase.

  2. Even good book trailers (of which there are few) are laaaaaaaaaaame.

  3. Oh, Aidan, it's good to know I can always count on you for such considered opinion! ;)

    Famed Shakin' Stevens lookalike Mark Charan Newton has pointed me towards another trailer since I wrote this post, in fact: for two forthcoming Black Library books, and though it's unlike any of the others showcased in this article, I kind of like it. It's lo-fi, but down-to-earth - certainly the sort of trailer that would entice me into buying a book I otherwise wouldn't. Have a look-see for yourselves here, readers:

  4. I've never bought a book because of a book trailer. Usually, when I see a trailer, I roll my eyes, cringe, and make a mental note not to read it. So far I've not seen a single trailer for a book that I've enjoyed. Perhaps if they were given proper "commercial appeal" then they would be better, but until then, it's like a few high schoolers got together and made a montage.

  5. I've never even looked at a book trailer, and I do not see the point of them AT ALL. Surely reading the description of the book from Amazon or the publisher's website achieves more than watching some trailer? I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but you read the book, right? You're not going to watch it? So why watch a trailer of the book? Definitely not for me.

  6. I think the reason for book trailers is to just have another way to get the book noticed, another tool for publishers to use for creating buzz and I don't see anything wrong with them. I don't have an aversion to them and I've watched some, although I will admit that it will always be the synopsis on the back cover that will get me buy the book. However, I have investigated a book I had no knowledge about after seeing a book trailer, and that's what it's all about IMO :)

  7. Thanks for the positive feedback on my promo for Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

    It's worth noting that movie that you show here was actually just the side effect of a larger interactive promo that I created for Canongate. It's still online at but I see it incorrectly suggest you need to update your Flash player. Just click on the 'Have we got it wrong' link.

    Working on a book promo is quite different from other marketing projects, as there is always the desire to build on the narrative of the book itself which can pull against the requirement to stay true to author's vision. A big factor is that one has no visual assets to work with, with the exception of the jacket artwork, which usually arrives at the eleventh hour.

    In the case of Life of Pi, I met Jamie Byng and Peter Collingridge in the bar of the Filmhouse in Edinburgh in 2002, and Jamie handed me the manuscript telling me that this was a book that would make me believe in God. The only brief was to create something beautiful inspired by the book. Nobody had done anything like this online yet, and so we were in virgin ground with an amazingly foresighted client whose primary driving force was to create something beautiful, with the assumption that it would be a marketing success because of this.

    I've worked on many book promos since, and with a couple of exceptions, I feel 'marketing' has always stood in the way of greatness.

    A few months after being handed the manuscript I had dinner at Jamie's home in Edinburgh with Yann and a handful of other interesting people. We went through the sketch book into which I'd been dumping my response to the story, and spent a fantastic evening discussing the direction the promo could take.

    Yann was extremely supportive, even agreeing to stay up late one night in Germany where he was staying, to call my home in Glasgow after my family had gone to bed, and the noise from the road outside had died down for the evening, so I could record him reading my favourite scenes for inclusion in the promo.

    The promo for Life of Pi is a mixture of cinema and interactivity, with hidden scenes for those with the desire to stray off the beaten path. Being an interactive Flash project did cause some issues when it came to showing it offline, so I exported highlights to a short Quicktime sequence which is what you have here.

    I really enjoyed your article, and yes book promos are not for everyone, but to quote Bill Cosby, I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.