The Sunday Salon: Book Trailers

After I finished Magic Under Glass, I went to visit the author’s website. There, I discovered that Magic Under Glass, like many young adult books, possessed an official book trailer (as opposed to those Harry Potter music videos using other films to represent uncast characters). Curious, I watched it. And then called my roommate over to watch it, because I had to share the badness. A book trailer can be an exciting opportunity to expose an audience, especially a young audience, to your book; so why, then, do so many book trailers suck? And why do we have so many of them?

The book trailer has a very brief history, reaching only into this past decade. (Apropos of nothing, have we even decided what we’re called that yet? I like the aughts.) In 2002, Sheila Clover, a writer trying to market her work uniquely, wondered if there were anything like movie trailers for books. When a Google search turned up nothing of the sort, Clover created Circle of Seven Productions, which produces book trailers on commission. According to Wikipedia, the first book trailer public shown was for the book Dark Symphony by Christine Feenan–a Circle of Seven production, incidentally. Book trailers gained steam from then on, garnering their own category in Amazon’s Annual Best Of Books in 2008 and with the establishment of the Kirkus Review Book Video Awards which, apparently, was created in 2006. (Information is very difficult to find on this, for some bizarre reason.) While you can find book trailers in any genre, it tends to be used for young adult books and any other books that might appeal to audiences who don’t read voraciously, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It’s a solid enough concept; so why does it go awry?

The same reason we have so many of them; poor quality. I’m not merely talking about the fact that many of them are made fairly cheaply (a nonissue in the hands of a good filmmaker but often an issue in the hands of literary creatives), but the poor video quality, acting, and overall production. Some trailers, such as the trailer for Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, are little more than voice-overs over slideshows of poorly utilized royalty-free images. But for the sake of fairness, I’m only going to look at book trailers with video. Let’s look at the trailer for Sisters Red, a young adult novel by Jackson Pearce.

I have noticed a particular trend in book trailers, which is exemplified here. Production teams are, apparently, unsure how to translate a book to the screen, and reading a portion of the book is their solution. It’s not a terrible idea in itself, but an excerpt isn’t the best way to grab a viewer as opposed to a reader, especially when it’s placed over actors who aren’t engaging enough to compensate for it. This trailer’s poor video quality looks even worse next to the very sharp intertitles (sharing a font with Wicked, I see!), and the acting is fairly laughable–a dull reading of a passage from the book slightly drowned out by decent music, and some clunky and unbelievable actions to drive home character traits. (I especially love the Scarlett’s total lack of a reaction to anything.) And I still can’t quite believe the concept was just to have the two actresses just standing there, instead of, perhaps, an action sequence. The flimsy red capes are just icing on the cake. No matter what I think of the book, it’s a bad book trailer, and any book deserves a better one.

But Sisters Red is a particularly bad offender; let’s go a step up and look at the trailer for Graceling, one of my favorite young adult novels, which at least gets some things right.

To be fair, let’s start with the good. The video quality is good, the action is nice, and the costumes, while they certainly could be improved, are nice enough. But there’s plenty wrong with it, starting with how ‘90s this trailer, made in 2008, feels. The intertitles use a font I’m pretty sure my local Medieval Times uses, the whip sound makes me giggle, and the flare really takes me back. While the actors physically look the part, the acting is pretty poor, especially Katsa’s premise-establishing monologue, which doesn’t engage the viewer at all–the kiss of death for such a short medium as trailers. It has a campy charm, but I’m afraid it might backfire and turn people off of a very wonderful book.

But all is not bleak when it comes to book trailers. When they’re put in the hands of people who know what they’re doing from a cinematic standpoint, they can be downright awesome. Exhibit A of this is Quirk Books, who does wonderful trailers for their campy mashups. While I could really pick any Quirk Book trailer to showcase this, I’ve settled on the book trailer for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls.

The cinematography is brilliant, the acting is good, and there’s no long excerpt of the book over static actors–there’s quick premise establishment over essentially nonstop action that highlights the sheer fun of zombies in Regency England as fought by proper English ladies without making it laughable. It helps that this was directed by Charles Haine, a gentleman who is a director of photography and does work for film and music videos–a man who knows what he’s doing when it comes to a visual medium like trailers. He wrote a small piece for Quirk Classics about the making of this trailer that shows how the production team made a trailer with a small budget look like a million dollars. It’s almost disheartening to see such wonderful book trailers; they’re so good, but they remind you of all the poor ones you had to slog through to get to them.

I’m home for a short fall break, which has thrown my sleeping schedule out of whack, for whatever reason. I’m heading back to school this afternoon, with two papers under my belt and more work to look forward to. Oh, midterms. I managed to finish Velocity over the break, but I’m still slugging through Mansfield Park, which is due Tuesday. Like my sleeping, my reading and blogging is a little out of whack, but getting back to school (and my schedule!) should snap me right back out of that.

The newly minted fantasy book blog The Ranting Dragon is giving away a copy of The Hunger Games, The Adamantine Palace, and Warbreaker to celebrate its first week online until October 26th. TJ at Dreams and Speculation is giving away an audiobook of Zombies vs. Unicorns until October 29th. Patrick over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is giving away a copy of Wild Cards I, edited by George R. R. Martin. Penguin Classics is giving away gift bags–you must complete a small survey and agree to be e-mailed by them to enter, all by November 1st. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What’s the most hilariously bad book trailer you’ve ever seen?

13 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Book Trailers

  1. The Sisters Red trailer was just awful. I’m unsure how that’s supposed to entice a person, reader or not, to buy that book. I saw the Graceling one a few months ago, and while the eyes are creepy, the rest of it makes me laugh. The Dawn of the Dreadfuls one is pretty good in terms of quality and fits with the book. I remember seeing the one for Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters and that was decent too. Quirk obviously puts some money into these which I can appreciate in terms of marketing.

    I’ve never been convinced after watching a book trailer that I wanted to buy the book but I’m not the audience they’re after either so maybe that’s why I find them so awkward and funny.

  2. I don’t see what the point of a book trailer is, and it certainly wouldn’t want to to make me read a book. After all, how can you get across the author’s ‘voice’ and language in a predominantly visual medium? That said, I suppose it might make sense for books which are primarily plot-driven, and where the writing style takes a back seat.

  3. I think I first heard of book trailers when I was reading about students making them as school projects, which seems like a cool thing to me, but I don’t really get the publisher-produced ones, mostly because the ones I’ve seen are so bad. A lot of them look like they could be student projects! I think it’s possible to get across the mood and themes of a book in a visual format, but, as you say, you need people trained in that medium to do it well.

    It seems like a lot of the time people might have the software and technical ability to create something without the deliberate, focused training that a specialist might have. The PP&Z trailer probably works because it was created by a filmmaker, not some people with costumes and video cameras. You see this same kind of thing sometimes in the world of graphic design. Having access to InDesign doesn’t make a person a designer, but people try it anyway. If only more publishers could afford to hire the professionals for their trailers (and then pay for ad space to get them to an audience). Maybe then there’d be a clearer point to them.

  4. Thoughtful post, especially as you step out and actually criticize some of the book trailers made today. I would argue, though, that your thinking needs to go a step deeper. There are 3 aesthetics for trailers: the movie trailer aesthetic, slide-show aesthetic, and the You-Tube aesthetic. (For a full discussion, see:

    Briefly, the movie trailer aesthetic is great cinematography/acting, which turns a book into a movie-wannabe. The slide-show aesthetic is the sad return to the silent movie. The You-Tube aesthetic means that the creators do something creative, quirky, fun that has the potential to appeal to the jaded online audiences. It’s hardest because it requires thought and courage to do something different. When done well, it has the best chance of payoff.


  5. I don’t really watch them anymore. I quite enjoyed the trailer for Lane Smith’s children’s picture book It’s A Book, which was mostly an animated reading of the book. Other than that, the more trailers I’ve watched, the more books have been ruined for me. I don’t really like seeing someone else’s imagining of a character or setting; it’s one of the reasons I don’t often see movie adaptations of books. And so many of them just seem poorly produced. I’d rather spend the 2-5 minutes I’d spend watching a trailer reading the actual book instead.

    For the most part, book trailers seem like a way to get books noticed by people who watch a lot of TV and movies instead of reading. And while they might serve that purpose well, I’m far more likely to just pick up the book without any cinematic intervention. So I stay away!

    • I love films, and I do think a book can be advertised well in a trailer–it simply has to be the kind of book that adapts well to the screen, which is speculative fiction more often than not. A lot of problems from book trailers come from the fact that literary professionals are doing it, instead of cinematic professionals. That makes all the difference, as it is a different medium.

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