Columns > Published on April 11th, 2014

Book Trailers...Definitely NOT The Wave Of The Future

I just spent the weekend watching a slew of book trailers on Youtube, all in the hopes of answering the gripping question “Are Book Trailers Worthless?”

After I gouge my eyes out (gimme a second) I can firmly tell you that with a few shining and awesome exceptions, book trailers are indeed mostly worthless. However, watching so many was a good tutorial on what works and why, and I’ll talk about that below, as well as what to avoid doing if you insist on making one of your own. 

Full disclosure: back in 2012, I made a trailer for my first book—a self-published number that had an illustrated limited edition. I did the trailer for two reasons: 1. Because I had a ton of gorgeous art to show off and 2. Because I was looking for any possible avenue to build excitement/word of mouth about the book. Regarding the latter, in about a year it got nearly 1200 views, but I can’t tell remotely if that translated into sales. It got some likes and a few comments…but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. I like my trailer, largely because I had access to awesome original music that was a near perfect fit, and since all my art was incredible and deserved a spotlight, I don’t regret the time or effort that went into doing it, but I can’t say that it was worth it from a time/energy/sales point of view. It was a good experiment and I learned a lot, so that’s always valuable, but I don’t plan on doing it for my second book, despite having a lot of great art to show off (again).

But if you find yourself in the self-publishing position and are considering doing a book trailer, or even if you find yourself with a publisher that intends to put out a trailer for your book, here’s what I learned about what works and what doesn’t, and so far as I can tell, why.

The trailers that succeeded...were the ones that tried to represent the book or idea as something other than “a movie it might one day become,” focusing instead on what it actually IS.

First and foremost, if you try to make a book trailer that feels like a movie trailer, which 90+% of book trailers seem to go for, know that the odds are not in your favor. You (or your publisher) will likely fail. It’s pretty simple why they fail, but feel free to write it down and pass it on: You’re NOT actually a movie studio and you DIDN'T actually make a movie. 

Let me expand: You don’t have a budget in the millions. You don’t have access to directors, actors, high-end special effects and make-up artists, and stuntmen/women. You don’t even have access to writers of scripts (versus novels). And because you didn’t actually make a movie, you don’t have two hours of epic material to cobble together into an equally epic two-minute trailer. Instead you’re creating a handful of disjointed scenes with amateurs and friends that you hope are good enough to use as things that will stand on their own...epically. Which is unlikely.

Perhaps equally as important, you have to remember that you’re competing with actual movie trailers. And people see epic movie trailers on a near daily basis. You can’t turn on the TV or get your email without bumping into them, so viewers are really well seasoned when it comes to this stuff. In short, they know unprofessional when they smack into it.

Are there exceptions? Absolutely.

Hands down the best book trailer I watched this weekend (and possibly ever?) was for B.J. Novak’s One More Thing. I obviously don’t know who foot the bill on this thing, but I do know that Novak is crazy connected in TV and film. Thus, his trailer is professional and polished. Tonally it’s also right on point—it’s a comedy book and the trailer is appropriately hilarious. No easy task, whether you’re going for funny OR epic.

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You’d think that if you have a great book with great reviews that would be half the battle, but a book trailer is really just like any adaptation. Just because you have great source material, it doesn’t make it any easier to translate to another medium. In fact, sometimes that raises the stakes without guaranteeing any kind of success. Take Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking Trilogy Trailer. I read the first book in this trilogy (The Knife of Never Letting Go) and with the exception of the ending it’s a very good book, with a unique and compelling concept, and emotionally engaging prose. The “official” book trailer however, looks like a low rent indie movie shot in someone’s backyard that was set to overly dramatic music. The stuff that relates to the actual book—the titles and quotes—are all solid, but intercut with cheesy running, which adds nothing to the story, plot, or emotional arc.

For a book that is supposedly pretty great (I’ve got it on my YA to read list, although this trailer is making me reconsider), Veronica Rossi's trailer for Under The Never Sky is a mess of bad effects, terrible acting, and poor costumes on glorified extras. The location basically looks like a super convenient Calabasas California spot (when it’s not a ridiculous CGI nightmare). Worst of all is that the writing in this trailer is AWFUL, and is there a greater sin in a trailer for books than terrible writing? No, I’d say there’s not. This mess comes off as a bad fan made trailer, not something “publisher approved.”

The book trailer for Fall of Five by Pittacus Lore has all the worst elements in full effect—terrible voiceover, poor casting, a confusing concept with too many characters—made worse by the use of numbers instead of names. Using bad voiceover for absolutely tedious and bald-faced exposition sets such a terrible tone for what one might find inside the actual book. Worst of all, since there IS a film of one of the books in the series, this trailer ends up looking even more amateurish by comparison—and that’s when compared to an unsuccessful and poorly received/reviewed film.

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Simone Elkeles Rules of Attraction uses clip upon clip of embarrassingly non-descript stock footage. This trailer employs every cliché imaginable piled on top of terrible voiceover narration, painfully written exposition, and porno-level acting by attractive people. This was easily one of the worst trailers I viewed, and considering the fact that Elkeles is a New York Times bestselling author and a winner of awards, that makes it even more disturbing.

The Selection by Kiera Cass blissfully keeps things very short, so it ends up winning the day by not trying to do too much. However, even on the costuming front, it’s so lacking compared to the gorgeous cover art, it comes of as utterly underwhelming. And it’s a good reminder that the imagination is nearly limitless, and by trying to capture what the imagination can do on a shoestring budget, you can actually make things worse for yourself.

If you’re not B.J. Novak and thus not friends with the delightful Mindy Kaling and thus not someone who can compete at the same professional level, consider going a very different route. I came across a few trailers that did a pretty good job at being book trailers by thinking outside the box. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Jim Kay, and Siobhan Dowd is animated and sets an evocative mood right from the outset. It's got exceptional graphics and is well edited and smart. It feels like the polar opposite of Ness's Chaos Walking Trailer linked to above.

Interestingly enough, most of the best trailers I watched were for kid's books, and I think that’s because they weren’t afraid to have fun, and they weren’t tied to this idea of making movie trailers.

Molly Idle’s adorable animated book trailer for Flora and the Flamingo totally left me wondering what the deal with that girl and that Flamingo is (it’s a kid’s book, get your mind out of the gutter!). Mo Willems’s The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? had me literally laughing out loud. Such a creative concept and one perfectly executed. Katrina Wolf and The Brothers Hilts’s The Insomniacs was lovely and charming, wonderfully narrated with evocative images that suggest a vibrant and fascinating world.

As an object lesson I’d say the trailers that succeeded (as anything other than hilarious entertainment that doesn’t know it’s hilarious) and that didn’t have the kind of professional help that comes with being a Hollywood insider were the ones that tried to represent the book or idea as something other than “a movie it might one day become,” focusing instead on what it actually IS. Those trailers relied on the strong existing concepts of their book and had clever executions, rather than pretending to be something else. Bonus points to those that used humor, illustration, or animation to set themselves apart, and even better, books that kept things very simple. At the end of the day your book trailer is not trying to tell a story, it’s just a tiny little tease to get someone interested in your book. So, do less. There are so few times in life when doing less is the right thing, so embrace this one. DO LESS. 

What about you? Has a book trailer ever moved you to buy a book? What motivates you to watch a book trailer? Have any actively turned you OFF of a book?

About the author

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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