Friday, March 19, 2010

To Trail or not to Trail

At the beginning of February Vicki wrote an interesting and well-observed piece on the value of book trailers. I would like to add my own little coda to this debate.

When I first became aware of the emerging fashion for making book trailers I thought: What a cool idea.

Then I had a look at some, and realised why maybe it wasn’t such a cool idea. Most are woeful - even the “professionally” produced ones. The problem? Well, most writers aren’t film-makers, and most trailer-makers don’t know how to sell books.

Then there is the question: Is it worth it? There is no statistical evidence to show that book trailers sell books, and most anecdotal evidence would suggest not.

So why are publishers encouraging writers to make them? I recently read a long list of suggestions made by one of the world’s leading publishers to its writers on how best to promote their books - a list which prominently included MAKE A BOOK TRAILER. And, to be honest, that made me mad!

The publisher takes the lion’s share of the profit on a book. Sure they have overheads. But so do we - like a year of our lives spent writing the damned thing, subsidising ourselves out of the meagre earnings from the last one. So why should we spend thousands on promoting a product from which the publisher will make more money than we do?

Well, the reality is, if we don’t promote our own books nobody else will. And the reason that publishers are so keen on trailers is that a good one promotes the brand - the book title and the author.

So are they worth it? I have a sneaky feeling they are. Major advertising agencies are now making ads. purely for viewing on Youtube. Because they know that if they are clever enough, the ads. will go viral and be seen by millions.

But I have one major caveat.

Under no circumstances spend the kind of money the so-called professionals are asking to make them.

A leading maker of video book trailers advertises that they will charge a mere $1,249 for a standard trailer - which turns out to be little more than captions over a series of still or video clips - and $2,299 for the same thing with “a professional voice-over”. That price, they advertise, includes digital distribution and music. Well, what is digital distribution? Uploading it to Youtube and emailing it to your fans costs nothing to do yourself. And there is a wide range of copyright-free music loops available to anyone on Apple’s Garageband software.

When my book “Virtually Dead” - set in the virtual world, Second Life - came out in January, I decided to try making my own trailer. So with the help of a few friends, I shot my trailer in Second Life, created my own soundtrack using Garageband, and uploaded it to Youtube. It didn’t go viral, but it’s had nearly a thousand views, and almost everyone who’s seen it said it made them want to read the book. I also made it available in Second Life itself, where it has had several thousand more viewings, and where I have spent the last two months doing inworld promotional events inspired by interest created by the trailer.

And what did it cost? A day of my time. Worth it? I think so. I just need to get a little better at it. But, hey, we’re writers. We live on good ideas, and all a trailer really needs to be successful is a good idea. You can take a look at my effort, with all its shortcomings, here.

• As a coda to my coda, I have actually been doing video trailers for years. When I research a book I take video footage of all my locations, and early on began cutting together 4 and 5 minute sequences of shots set to music, just to give a flavour of the book’s setting. The video I made for my latest book, published in France but not yet available in English, created so much interest at the publisher’s, that they actually used it to sell on the rights around Europe. A very simple piece of editing, you can take a look at it here.


Jill said...

I keep flip-flopping on the book trailer idea. I had never even heard of it until the Fall when my publisher suggested I make one. I was baffled by this as it had never occurred to me.

I am unsure how effective they are but if you spend very little on it, then I guess there's nothing much to lose.

I certainly would not spend four figures to have someone make one for me though!

Rick Blechta said...

Interesting post, and something I was going to discuss as part of my series. You stated the case for book trailers quite well. Thanks for saving me the trouble!

Any promotion is good if it works. The flip side being, even if it doesn't, nothing is going to happen if you don't try.

The problem with anything using the Internet is that, if it's a good idea, everyone will try it, some successfully, some not. It is those unsuccessful ones, thousands of them, that muddy the waters for the good ones.

Still, it goes back to 'if you don't try, you don't get'. Spending thousands on a book trailer is probably not a good idea, but if you can do it yourself, or do it for cheap, then it certainly makes sense.

Again, great post! Thanks.

Donis Casey said...

I've seen several of your book trailers. They are very, very good and cause me to feel despair over my own shortcomings. It would be very interesting in future if you would write something about your Second Life book.

Janice said...

Speaking as a viewer/consumer and the person who put the PPWebcon ( ) website together and therefore viewed a LOT of trailers and videos, here's what didn't work and did work for me...

DIDN'T work...
Captions with printed words. I read them in 2 seconds and they remained on screen for 5 seconds. Boring and annoying. And the words themselves were often pretty badly written - not a good sales pitch for the book.
"Actors". As Vicki, I think, pointed out - it's not a movie, these are not real actors. It's a book, readers like to put their own faces to the characters.

DID work...
Seeing the author talking about their book. Writers should never underestimate how much readers enjoy listening to "behind the scenes" stories about the books.
What also works is seeing the real locations used in the book - especially if they're places you've never been. Some nice music over, makes the whole thing highly watchable.

Conclusion: Well, my conclusion, anyway... don't adopt the attitude that you're making a "commercial" for your book. Sadly that's the attitude employed by some of these companies who charge a fortune and churn out these plonky still images interspersed with captions.
Do, instead, think that you're making 3-5 minutes of self-contained "entertainment" for your viewer. Good writers, know how to keep an engaged, and most writers know what it's like to give a presentation live about their books.
So remember that "entertainment" can be as simple as your face talking to the camera, as long as it grabs and keeps the audience.

Dana Stabenow does a great "to camera" piece - just her face and shots of the book covers - promoting her entire series of Kate Shugak books. There's some really neat editing employed, but basically it's the script and Dana's personality which stand out. Both important factors in attracting me to a writer and their books. ( )

And of course I love everything that you do, Peter!