Monday, January 31, 2011

What's In a Book Trailer?

Recently I took a writing class with a debut novelist whose first book is scheduled to publish next month. Half of the fun of the class was to hear the little bits of what the process leading up to the book’s publication entailed. (By chance, most of the class worked in publishing, but as wannabe writers it was more the other side of the equation—the writer’s experience in the months approaching the big day—that we were interested in.) As one session was drawing to a close and we were packing up for the day, our fearless leader mentioned in passing that the topic of his book trailer had just been broached by his publisher, and—here’s where he got a dramatic reaction from his class—that they had a five thousand dollar budget to work with. I suspect I was in good company when I say that, though I had worked in the trenches of book publishing for about four and a half years at that point, I could count on one hand the number of book trailers I’d seen for any book, from any house. Because they don’t play a huge part in the typical marketing campaign of a book, I was shocked to hear how much this publisher was planning to spend.

In theory, I can understand the appeal of a book trailer. Their second cousin, and only real counterpart—the movie trailer—has long been an art form in its own right, and I’ve heard dozens of people say that they enjoyed the preview for a given movie a whole helluva lot more than the film itself. It’s now a common feature of DVDs to include the movie’s official theatrical trailer.

My own fondness for a well executed movie trailer, paired with my teacher’s announcement, inspired me to have a look at the book trailers that are out there—who is making them, for which books, and perhaps most importantly, how many people are watching them.

I decided to start the process by watching the book trailers for the sixty-three books that TK has reviewed in its nine issues. Excited to take in a vast range of styles on a variety of subjects, I was more than a little surprised to discover that only five of the sixty-three books we’ve reviewed have a trailer. Remembering the small but steady buzz that the trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story created, I thought perhaps trailers might be reserved for younger, “hipper” writers with a younger fan base. Following this lead, I looked for trailers for the 20 under 40 writers singled out by the New Yorker. With a considerably higher turn out, four out the twenty writers had a trailer for their most recent book (a 20% trailer rate, compared the 7% rate for the sixty-three TK books). I also looked for trailers for the National Book Award’s 2009 and 2010 “5 Under 35” winners. There was one for each year’s set of five (so again, a 20% rate). While young, debut novelists do seem to have trailers more often, by no means do all of them.

Looking at the breakdown between fiction and non fiction for the trailers I did find, there seems to be only a small lead in the number of fiction trailers over those for non-fiction trailers (though it’s difficult to give an exact break down since all of the 20 Under 40 and 5 Under 35 National Book Award winners are fiction writers). The success of or anticipation leading up to a book’s publication also seems to have little to do with the likelihood that a trailer will be made for it: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (arguable the biggest book of 2010) didn’t have an official trailer. A non-book-related celebrity doesn’t seem to matter either: Roseanne Cash’s Composed was also trailer-less.

Looking at the number of hits that the book trailers I was able to find shed some light on why so few books are publicized trailer-style. Even books by prominent, big-sellers often got only a few hundred hits. (Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-All had only 127 views on You Tube.) The highest number of hits for a single book trailer was for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters with 275,943 (the trailer is as whacky and fun as the book’s title would imply, which I suspect is the reason).

Perhaps the most surprising finding in all of this research when all was said and done, was how professionally and impressively done some of the trailers I did find were, given how infrequently the marketing device is used, and how few people see them. Though they certainly don’t rival movie trailers in their star power or air time, some of them were as compelling and artful. Though I wouldn’t recommend you watch the three dozen or so book trailers I did to find the gems, there are worst ways to spend a slow afternoon than checking out the best in the bunch. So, below, the ten best book trailers I came across (in random order) and the particular charms of each:

Most Likely to Inspire Wanderlust:
Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed

Best Use of Noire:

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal

Funniest/Best Cameos:
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Most Likely to be Used as a Montage Meant to Indicate a Drug Trip in a Full-Length Film (well, the second half at least, and in the best way possible!):
Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number

Best Animal Attack:
Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters's Sense and Sensibility and Seas Monsters

Most Reminiscent of an Indie Film Trailer (I kept waiting to see Greta Gerwig’s Chuck Taylor and jegging-clad legs go running down those grocery store aisles!):
Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps

Best Art/Animation:
Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances

Most Hanuting/Eeriest
Mira Bartok’s The Memory Place

Most Likely to Invite Involuntary Knee-Tapping and a Craving for Funnel Cake and Cotton Candy
Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing

Most Likely to Foster Nostalgia for First Grade Story Hour:
Wells Towers’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

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