BOOK TRAILERS: A Delightful Look at the Tombstone of the Printed Word

A few weeks ago, Borders announced they were going out of business. Forever. All of their shops boarded up. Their wares liquidated. Their spaces emptied and converted into Orange Julius storage facilities.  Quite frankly, this is a devastating blow to the world of publishing and it saddens me deeply. “How could this happen?” you might wonder aloud.

Let’s use our imaginations for a moment, shall we?

Imagine it’s Friday night.  Your friends are leaving work and your cell phone is blowing up. You’re eager to make some bad decisions and paint the town the worst kind of red. Crack open a beer or five, take in some well-deserved R&R and catch a movie show at your local cinémathèque.

One problem—you have no idea what’s playing. A quick Googling of “new trailers” brings you a few easy options.  Oh, what’s this? A trailer for a movie you’ve never heard of before? Maybe it’s playing at the independent theater or something. Maybe it’s a film that’s powerful and riveting. Something real.

You click the link, dim the lights, sit back and watch…

What. The fuck. Was that.

I’ll tell you what. That fuck was none other than a book trailer.

You may have never heard of book trailers. I certainly hadn’t until relatively recently.  But I assure you they exist, and have for many years now. Trailers for books.

Let me repeat myself. Trailers. For. Books.

Somewhere, an English teacher just burst into uncontrollable weeping without knowing why.

You see, sometime around 2003, publishers began to get nervous that people would stop buying books thanks to rampant piracy (not to be confused with the cardboard sword and Halloween costume type seen above) and diminishing sales due to a thing called the Internet.

If you remember, movie studios were also terrified of the digital revolution and dealt with it in their own way— by suing the pants off of their own customers that tried to steal their films instead of buying them.   They realized that traditional marketing techniques like ad campaigns and trailers just didn’t work anymore.

So what did the book publishers do — books, mind you, the original mass medium, the industry that had a jumpstart on every other form of entertainment by around, oh,  400 years — when faced with the looming ultimatum to “change or die”?

Why, copy a strategy that didn’t work for the movie studios, of course.

Before you scoff and dismiss this trend like it’s something reserved for the woefully naïve, be aware that dozens of famous authors have made them, including Chuck Palahniuk, Johnathan Franzen, and Gary Shteyngart (whose trailer features a celebrity cameo from James Franco!)

Even the godfather of post-modern literature, Thomas Pynchon, isn’t immune. We’re talking Thomas “Gravity’s Rainbow” Pynchon here, people.

The sickness goes deep.

You might be asking why would authors, publishers and sellers persist in these obviously pointless exercises that do little more than accentuate their own obsolescence? I wondered that myself. The answer might shock you.

Somewhere, a study was conducted by a major publishing house. A study that polled young adults under the age of 12 on a simple question: whether or not a “book trailer” registered as something that would influence their decision to buy the book.

According to the going rumor, a resounding 40% of pre-teens answered YES to this question. That is to say, 40% of the young adults who took the survey said they will only purchase a book after viewing a book trailer about it first.

These children are our future.

A future of ashes and brimstone. Cinders of disused old paper stacks floating to the sky, sent there by haphazard bonfires that were lit to keep warm the next generation who couldn’t look up how to fix a furnace because it wasn’t written in L337speak or punctuated every five words with “winky face” emoticons. ;) :) :(

To be fair, the cost of making a book trailer is relatively small– a few thousand dollars to a microbudget production company or a film student, a couple of costume rentals, and a camera.  Maybe some lunch for your cousin who plays the evil necromancer that brings his villainous ex-podiatrist back to life.

Sometimes the publishers finance it themselves, but more often it is paid for out of the author’s own pocket.  A drop in the bucket of the costs of advertising and distribution, really.

Then again, most are never seen by more than a few thousand people, unless they’re nominated for an award. Is it worth it? You be the judge. Watch for yourself.

So where do we go from here? Who knows.  Borders may be gone, but as of now the other major distributor, Barnes & Noble, seems to be going strong thanks to adaptive business practices and implementing e-books into their catalog.  Amazon isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, either.

Still, I fear for the old brick-and-mortar bookstore. I really do.  Sure you can order novels online, but there was always something magical about walking through the aisles and perusing the shelves, flipping through the pages of a palimpsest that caught your eye because it was next to the book you were looking for on steampunk robots.

Plus, in a real bookstore, you don’t have to look at books like this:

Natural Harvest: A Collection of Semen-Based Recipes

I will leave you with that.  Actually, no. I will leave you with the logical conclusion of the book trailer phenomenon: a book trailer… for a book about how to make book trailers.  

God help us all.


About Aaron J. Waltke

Aaron J. Waltke is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the National Lampoon, Comedy Central and in his secret diary that his older sister is never, ever supposed to find. He enjoys antiquarianism, obscurantism and sesquipedalianism.

Posted on August 11, 2011, in Aaron Waltke, History Lessons, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Whew. Good thing I never got around to making a trailer for my new book! It’s worth knowing that they’re most compelling to teen readers — so NOT my audience.

    • What’s interesting is I would take even that study with a grain of salt (although the companies that conducted it probably won’t.) The idea that you would sell a noticeably larger volume of copies of your novel only because you crafted a “home movies” adaptation of your own work that would put Roger Corman to shame seems absurd to me.

      I would LOVE to see the actual data collected from the raw study, but so far I’ve only been able to find vague references and hearsay based on the apparitional and possibly mythical survey mentioned above.

      On the other hand, I don’t believe online media is completely anathema to book promotion. Far from it, in fact. The truth of the matter is that you need to find your audience and craft your message based on them. And no one (besides snarky internet bloggers) are going to want to read a book because a community theatre troupe did a re-enactment of your favorite scenes and put them on the YouTubes.

      Possible avenues that I think could honestly work? Maybe a provocative, documentary-style interview with the author in the style of Errol Morris or “This American Life” about the inspirations behind their work and any connections to their own experiences (but NOT conducted like propaganda reel, mind you).

      Another idea: actual excerpts of the best passages read aloud by the author set to moving imagery. These are just a couple of ideas that could give readers a taste of your writing without your efforts coming across as hokey or terrible.

      The best examples I saw would probably be the work of recently published author Ransom Riggs, who takes a distinctly autobiographical approach to his own trailer for “Talking Pictures”:

      Good luck with your book!

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