The Book Trailer and the Imagination
Selling Children’s Fantasy Fiction on YouTube
In this visual age, a video might be used to sell just about anything. But can a video sell a book? This is the question facing struggling book publishers looking for a way, any way, to market print on paper to an audience preoccupied with film, television and digital interactivity.
The answer marketers have come up with is the book trailer, a curious conceptual cross between commercial, illustration and adaptation. These short videos, which run from a few seconds to a few minutes in length, are hosted on publishers’ and authors’ webpages and usually on YouTube too. They take a variety of formats, from collages of images accompanied by music to clips from author interviews to animated plot summaries or blurbs to staged scenes from the book. Mixing image, text and sound, the book trailer takes on the oxymoronic task of visually advertising the written word – of turning viewers into readers.
In some ways this move to video advertising seems inevitable, and by tapping into the multimodal possibilities of the web, ads can draw more eyes than ever before. The marketing campaign for a children’s book can even appeal directly to children, rather than trying to hook their parents (as with print ads in magazines). But one can see a danger in this change as well. When someone, especially a child, finishes a book they enjoy, the first question asked is often ‘Are they making a film of it?’ Even the term used for these videos – book trailers, not book commercials – signals an explicit link to the cinema. By advertising a book as if it were a movie, is the author or publisher making a promise that the reading experience cannot fulfil?
As it turns out, a book and a film cannot be advertised in the same way. Not effectively, that is. Not only are the materials one has to work with different, the expectations are too. In a film trailer, viewers want to see pieces of the thing itself: to recognise actors’ faces, catch the tone of the dialogue, and get a sense of plot and genre. Depending on what marketers think more likely to attract viewers, a film trailer might tease key twists and revelations or choose to keep them secret. But, while creators of book trailers have to make this choice as well, they have a host of further dilemmas on their hands. Should they cast actors to give the characters faces and voices, and select real settings to represent fictional locations? Will the dialogue sound as good spoken aloud as on the page? Is it a good idea to represent scenes from the book, or is it better to offer only a whiff of atmosphere? What’s really up for debate here is the question of imagination: Do potential readers differ from potential film viewers in what they are interested in being shown, as opposed to picturing for themselves?
The evidence suggests book readers would prefer that more be left to their imaginations. If there have been formal studies of the book trailer, the results have yet to be published; however, given the conversational nature of the internet, one can find plenty of feedback on the trailers themselves. And the clearest trend that emerges from this raw data is that many readers, especially young adults, feel deeply invested in their own vision of a book. Some go so far as to create fan trailers themselves, to showcase how they see it. A well-liked film adaptation might win the loyalty of readers to its visualisation of story, supplanting their mental imagery; but a book trailer – usually no more than two minutes in length – can show a scene or two at most. It has much less chance of winning readers over. It is therefore unsurprising that some of the most popular authorised trailers are those that refrain from interfering with the reader’s vision, or offer a clever alternative to a literal rendering. When a trailer bluntly shoulders aside the creative work of the imagination, it tends to be more polarising.
Looking at specific trailers, one can see how some tuned-in publishers and production companies have put thought into this problem. This trend in viewer response – negative feedback for trailers that try to show too much, and acclaim for those that circumvent the problem creatively – is especially visible in the case of trailers for middle grade and young adult (YA) fantasy fiction. Not only are they a core market for online advertising, they are also at the reading age when illustration tends to drop out and the reader’s own vision of the book takes pre-eminence. And in the case of fantasy novels for young readers, the author and publisher face a particular challenge. Special effects (as ought to be more generally acknowledged) are something one should do well or not at all. On the page, described by a gifted wordsmith, magic, the fantastic and the supernatural might be wholly believable. When rendered onscreen, the same effect may look mechanical, unimpressive – even ridiculous.
Brevity and a shift in medium are not the trailer’s only limitations on how fabulously they can match imagination. Money is a serious constraint. Publishers who have a trailer made are unlikely to spend big money on what is, after all, just one part of a marketing campaign. They may in fact opt not to make one at all, in which case it is left to the author to create or commission one themselves if they desire. While their efficacy in selling books remains unproven, though, trailers are increasingly being treated as a necessary part of the marketing package, particularly with books for young readers. Sonia Gensler, whose début young adult novel The Revenant was published in June 2011, chose to have one made for this reason. ‘I’d heard that book trailers were very effective during school visits,’ she explains, ‘and I think teens respond to them more than any other age group.’
Since The Revenant centres on the mysterious haunting of a Cherokee boarding school in the American West of 1896, Gensler faced the challenge of visualising the supernatural on a relatively small budget. Feeling it was important that the trailer achieve a ‘creepy’ effect without looking hokey, Gensler brought this concern to VLC Photo Productions, who produced the trailer. ‘I preferred that the supernatural aspects be communicated through music and text,’ she continues, ‘but my designer did find some images that helped enhance that paranormal feel. The editing itself also heightened the effect.’ Their solution could almost literally be described as smoke and mirrors: curling text, a smoky visual effect, and eerie music overlay old photographs, creating a paranormal atmosphere.
Gensler was especially hesitant to include live-action elements. Going beyond the problem of offering too specific an image of characters whom each reader would envision differently, live action can also contribute to the cheesiness factor, given that the actors are usually amateurs. VLC’s approach, however, is not the only way YA fantasy trailers have sidestepped this problem. Holly Black and Ellen Kushner embraced live action in the trailer they co-wrote for the story collection Welcome to Bordertown, while still managing to evade showing either characters or magic. Instead, Black and Kushner formatted their trailer as a faux news report about a rush of teen interest in travelling to Bordertown, the book’s setting. Teens are interviewed, but before the ‘footage’ of their arrival in a fantasy world can be shown, the broadcast shorts out, replaced by an image of the book cover. The trailer does not offer a glimpse of story, but instead dramatises the lead-up to the reading experience.
The series trailer for Rick Riordan’s bestselling Percy Jackson books, published by Disney-Hyperion, similarly avoids depicting the fantasy action or rampaging Greek gods and goddesses of Riordan’s novels, focusing its efforts on setting an epic tone. The trailer makes no attempt to indicate the plot of the series, or even to make protagonist Percy stand out as an individual amidst its quick montage of images. Instead, it sets up the books themselves, not the action within them, as the grand events to watch for. Alternating the cover art of the five books with images of New York City made ‘supernatural’ by a simple colour shift and some swirling light effects, the trailer is effective primarily because of its bold visual style and stirring music.
Taking a very different tack, Penguin’s trailer for Adam Gidwitz’s middle-grade fairy-tale pastiche A Tale Dark and Grimm does show the characters, but uses animation to sidestep the special effects and over-specificity issues. Young readers’ unique mental images of the book are unlikely to be overwritten by the black figures, resembling shadow puppets, who flee, morph and battle through this 30-second trailer. A narrator sets the spooky but irreverent tone and a wisecrack from an animated crow cues readers that this is fantasy with a sense of humour (albeit a dark one).
These four trailers represent only a handful of the techniques employed to avoid selling a book as if it were a movie. Trailer producers have tried many methods to deal with this shift in medium – while others have amply demonstrated what not to do. How important is it to get this right? As yet, there is no hard evidence that trailers sell a significant number of books. Gensler recommends that authors consider the impression the trailer makes: ‘If an author has a choice between pulling together an obviously low-budget, clunky trailer and having none at all, I’d advise the latter.’ Still, she remarks that while a poor trailer will not prevent her from reading a book, an excellent trailer can inspire her to do so. With video clips going viral every day, it may be worth an author’s or publisher’s time to give real thought to what makes a book trailer work.
At this moment in time, the book trailer is in an intriguingly metamorphic state: still finding its form, still finding its audience. What shape it eventually takes on, and what influence it will have on sales, are not just questions for marketers. Book trailers offer us all evidence that, even in a visual culture, the desire to imagine still holds power. CS