Here's something you don't often hear: “Did you see that new book trailer?” In fact, I never hear those words at all, let alone utter them myself. Which is odd. I am an ardent reader. Large portions of my day are spent online, scanning Twitter and traditional media websites, as well as sites that cull popular memes and viral videos. And not once have I have stumbled upon a book trailer in the natural course of my Internet wanderings. The awkward cousin to movie previews and TV teasers, book trailers have been around for a decade or so, offering glimpses of newly published books. Not that anyone noticed. If the concept has yet to make cultural inroads, the reason is obvious: Most book trailers are terrible.
They don't have to be — check out the one created for Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" (more on that later). In fact, book trailers shouldn't be terrible, not when more and more readers rely on the Internet as a key resource — one awash in mind-blowing videos about everything, it seems, except books. We read reviews online, buy books online and search out author interviews online. Book trailers, if done right, could fit rather nicely into that equation. Here and there, people are starting to give the concept a closer look. But first, they will have to rethink it entirely.
Book trailers are made on the cheap — and they look it. Some are created in-house by publishers. The rest are generated by small production companies that charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $10,000. Rarely is it money well spent. What you tend to see are literal representations. Videos that feature unknown actors as characters from the book are as awkward as they sound. Lower on the food chain are videos that rely on b-roll footage; a heist novel about sunken treasure might feature random scenes of underwater marine life. Some are even more stripped down, offering little more than a slow pan of the cover art to a generic soundtrack.
And good luck finding them: They're hidden away in random nooks and corners on the Web. Amazon would be a logical place to start, but the retailer pushes book trailers so far down on the page (on tiny media players) that they are easy to miss. Unless you're searching a specific author or book title, Google isn't much help, either. The handful of book trailer sites that do exist are clunky and half-hearted, with a limited (frequently obscure) selection.
"I do see them from time to time," said Robin Sloan, a writer and self-styled "media inventor" based in San Francisco. "But I feel like people are still pointing you to them as oddities — 'Hey, look at this weird thing.' And never with that sense of delicious anticipation that we feel with movie trailers."
The visual life of a book
Schlocky, boring, lackluster, unimaginative. By and large, book trailers are not just unwatchable, they fail as enticements to read the very book itself. And yet it's not as if publishers aren't giving deep and considered thought to a book's visual life. Just look at book covers, many of which have become iconic.
Peter Mendelsund designs book jackets at Knopf, and his work includes the multi-colored zigzags of Ben Marcus' "The Flame Alphabet" as well the day-glo cover of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." To his mind, book trailers tend to look like "super, super low-budget film trailers — or that's at least what they seem to aspire to be. And it's so wrong-headed. We know what brings people to the table online is good content. And if anything, publishers have that in spades. So there should be a way to make the most of that without having to pretend that we're in the film industry."
To read is to engage in an act of imaginative personalization — of the narrative, the images, the setting. Which means any kind of literal video representation is going to run into problems, said Mendelsund. "It's really not fun to be told what something looks like in a work of fiction. So the question is, how much do you show?
"In a way, that's the key to jacketing books: You have to respond to what the key themes of the book are, what the author's project is, but you cannot give too much away. You have to respect the fact that people's imaginations are deeply private."
That's an almost perversely abstract assignment, but not an impossible one. There is an entire industry devoted to crafting title sequences for films, many of which work as stand-alone entertainment bites. Surely a comparable group of innovative graphic designers and video artists can crack the riddle of the book trailer.
New York filmmaker Nick Davis has been talking with major publishing houses about doing just that. "What publishers obviously should be doing — and I think many of them know this now — is trying to create a viral video that is attached to a book. And to do that, they should probably hire a single production company to do 10 of these for a year, and make a study of it. They'll have a level of quality they don't usually attain, and chances are one or several of them will probably hit."
But first, someone needs to come up with a better name.
"My theory is that one of the huge reasons they're so bad is because they're called book trailers," said Davis. "No one has said, 'Wait a minute, this is its own thing.' How can we take advantage of what it can offer that a movie trailer can't? How can we get inside the reading experience in a visual way? In order to do that, there needs to be a new word." Such as? "Maybe bideo?"
I don't know if bideo will stick, but he's right. "Book trailer" sets up all the wrong kinds of expectations. "As soon as you ditch that label, I think things could get really interesting," Sloan agreed. "But you have to get that 'book trailer' monkey off your back."
There's another problem, as Davis pointed out: Even the ones that are good don't make you want to buy the book.
Mary Roach's nonfiction work "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void" has a dandy tongue-in-cheek NASA-themed video that spoofs industrial films of old (with a tally of 32,500 views on YouTube). But I'm not sure it generates interest in the book any more than the title does on its own.
The presence of James Franco and James McInerney no doubt helped goose the number of views for Shteyngart's sketch comedy video poking fun at the literary world for his novel "Super Sad True Love Story." The video has logged almost 230,000 hits on YouTube. But in no way does it tell you anything about the book, let alone that it is a post-apocalyptic black comedy.
And while animator Erin Cosgrove's video for "The Flame Alphabet" (24,000 views) is quite stunning and visually arresting — something akin to a graphic novel version of the book — ultimately I found the images too distracting. It was only when I closed my eyes and listened to the narrated excerpt that I was able to absorb and connect with its dystopian premise, in which the words of children become poisonous and lethal to adults.
Thomas Pynchon's video for "Inherent Vice" (garnering more than 126,000 views) perhaps best captures the imagination because Pynchon himself reads from the opening passage of the book.
"If you're driving south from L.A. International, you should take no more than a hit or two off of your favorite brand of cigarette before you're right here in Gordita Beach, Calif.," he says in voiceover, accompanied by the sounds of jangly garage rock and grainy footage of SoCal streets and landscapes. "Later on, this is all going to go high-rise, high-rent, high-intensity. But right now, back in 1970, what it is is just high."
Pynchon gives enough of a taste to get you hooked before ending with a verbal shrug of the shoulders: "Maybe you just want to read the book," and then expresses mock disgust at the price. "$27.95, really? That used to be, like, three weeks of groceries, man."
"It works because it happens to have one of our greatest living geniuses — and one of the most reclusive men of letters of all time — doing a voiceover," Mendelsund said. "To me, that was the thing. You could have shot anything and had Pynchon do the voiceover and it would have been interesting. I can't tell you how many times in my mind I've thought, 'What does this man's voice sound like?' The fact that he's involved in any way gives it an imprimatur that you could never have in any other way. You could take still photos of your cat, and (if) Thomas Pynchon is narrating, trust me, it would be really interesting."
Only a select number of authors have that kind of caché. And frankly, some authors can write like the devil, but are a snore when they talk. But Mendelsund's notion of the imprimatur is perhaps a direction worth pursuing.
The video blurb
In the fall, Sloan's novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with a narrative set at the intersection of books and technology. Clearly, he has given much thought to this dynamic and began experimenting recently with a series of "Summer Reading" videos on his blog. They are simple and low-fi. Just Sloan, shot from the neck up, standing in front of a white background. But he has a natural charisma and he knows how to express himself entertainingly and succinctly. "It's the 'Reading Rainbow' format," he said, referring to the old PBS show. "It's like an earnest kid sitting in front of the camera saying, 'I read this book and liked it, and here's why you should read it, too.' To me that feels native to the world of books in the way that a dramatic trailer just doesn't."
He makes a persuasive case. "Just two rules," he says in the first video. "One: These are books I've read and loved. Two: These books are not new. They're not buzz-worthy. They're simply good." A smile plays at his lips. "They were good when they were published, and their goodness has only increased with the passing of years." The man is visibly excited to talk about books, and it is infectious.
What it is not is artistic. Or in any way visually captivating. But maybe book videos don't need to be.
"What I would totally watch," Sloan said, "would be somebody kind of famous — like an actor or a musician or just somebody really smart who I could recognize — looking into the camera and recommending a book. Or if there's some great nonfiction book coming out in the fall, and it was a video of some statesman or politician or a media personality saying, 'I just read this book, it was awesome, here's why you need to check it out.' That's really compelling."
If the right celebrity were able to speak with intelligence, passion and wit for a couple minutes about a book, I could see that going viral. (Oprah Winfrey is an ace at this sort of thing.) I suggested to Sloan that this sounded like the 21st Century version of the book jacket blurb.
"I hadn't even made that connection myself, but that's exactly right," he said. "As we're looking for these media forms that are native to the book world, what's more native than the blurb? And so maybe we should change our thinking. Instead of making book trailers, you make video blurbs."
As a filmmaker, Davis has different ambitions. "When videos go viral, it's because they have that element of 'Wow, I've never seen that before.' They're easy and simple to describe: This is really funny; this is really terrifying; this is really extreme."
Both he and Mendelsund speculate that videos could potentially become the visual face of the book "in the way that right now a book cover is the face," said Davis. "It has to be an interpretation and an act of adaptation. How do you adapt a book into its own little thing? Once we figure that out, maybe the next face of the book is actually this moving thing that lives online and is also the cover when you download it on your Kindle.
"And when you think of it that way, then it very clearly becomes part of the reading experience. It's the beginning of the reading experience, rather than a teaser."
All that's missing is a centralized clearinghouse for these videos — the kind of savvily designed website that could transform the tedious act of sifting through content into an experience of discovery. For now, the online landscape remains undeveloped. But perhaps somewhere in Silicon Valley, there is a book-loving entrepreneur plotting a business that could change the paradigm forever.
Nina Metz covers film, TV and theater for the Tribune.
This piece ran in full in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.
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