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Fantastic Book Trailers and the Reasons They’re So Good

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There tends to exist a general skepticism toward book trailers. While some of it is a reaction to their novelty—and the question of whether they can actually generate higher book sales—another part is rooted in more of an ethical uncertainty. A trailer, in a way, violates a book’s very construction. We are taught from a young age that reading, unlike pretty much everything else, forces you to use your imagination. A trailer inherently removes an element of the imaginative process and potentially cheapens the medium by suggesting a sort of inadequacy.

While there may be truth behind these ideas, we also live in a world where information has to be conveyed in an increasingly succinct and stimulating manner. People are inundated with media, and they no longer spend leisurely afternoons in bookstores or reading extensive book reviews. At least, most people don’t.

The purpose of a book trailer, ultimately, is to bring attention and readers to a book and its author. So if it succeeds in doing so, one could argue it’s keeping the medium alive, not destroying it. Traditional media always flounders when it doesn’t evolve to meet changing preferences. If people need moving images to get excited or curious about something, then why not?

As book trailers are still relatively new, the bulk of them have been made at a glaringly low production quality: cheap graphics, still frames, simple fonts, cheesy music. If trailers continue to be used as a marketing tool by publishers and authors, more attention should be given to their construction. Here are nine that do a better job than most and set the bar for book trailers to come in the future.

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Blackbirds and Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books)

This trailer, by filmmaker Alan Stewart, reproduces the magical experience of opening a book and immediately feeling connected to an author’s voice. There’s no synopsis, no story, no defined sense of the protagonist. Just two and a half minutes of text from Wendig’s two-part series (Mockingbird is the sequel to Blackbirds), recited by a raspy-voiced man in his fifties or sixties. The words appear at creative angles and arrangements to accentuate the writing’s cadence (while also captivating an audience who would otherwise bore of text on screen). The aesthetic is done in a style of “Modern Western” that calls to mind a film like the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and as such, there is a mystery and intrigue that leaves you wanting more. This might be the ideal book trailer because it’s “what you see is what you get.” If you like what you saw (or rather, read), then you know you’ll enjoy the books and probably go to the effort of reading them.

 

Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy (Knopf)

It feels fitting that this trailer for Ellroy’s third installment in the USA Underworld trilogy is done in a standard movie-trailer format, as several of his novels (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) have been adapted into screen hits. This book, similarly, is a fictional crime story partially set in Los Angeles in the years 1968-1972. The trailer elicits the neo-noir feeling of prior adaptations (a rotary phone being wiretapped, a Los Angeles cityscape, blood pouring down over a newspaper headline). In doing so, it brings to life the aesthetic in Ellroy’s writing and helps to cultivate interest among those who are less familiar with Ellroy than they are with his titles. Released back in 2009, the trailer has a production quality that was far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, for that reason, it also went largely unseen. Had it been released today, it might have had a different response.

 

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (Vintage)

This bizarre trailer feels like an experimental cartoon from MTV in the 1990s. Marcus’s dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet, is about a world in which the speech of children is lethal to adults. We only come to understand this after about two minutes of comic book-style cartoon and voiceover showing men in hazmat suits and what appears to be a burnt cake with a glowing bulb of garlic on top of it (that’s obviously not what it is). This trailer could benefit from some clarity, especially given that the storyline is unusual and needs some additional context to pique interest, but it’s so creatively done that it still deserves praise.

 

You Had Me at Woof by Julie Klam (Riverhead Books)

Author Julie Klam stars in her own book trailer, which is a staged conversation between she and her publicist about hiring Timothy Hutton to star in her book trailer. Hutton shows up to the meeting while on a phone call, behaving like an actor diva, and the meeting ends in failure. The trailer is witty, engaging, and probably funnier than your average comedy video. Though it gives no sense of the book’s actual subject matter (a memoir about how dogs helped her understand love and human relationships), it succeeds in endearing Klam to the viewer, which, for a memoir, is maybe all you need.

 

Theory of Remainders by Scott Dominic Carpenter (Winter Goose Publishing)

From Red 14 Films, this one feels almost like the trailer for an Oscar-winning movie. An operatic choir plays over the scene of a man pacing around a room in a state of unease. Despite the simplicity of this scene, a dramatic tension is maintained—we know something is deeply wrong with this man’s life. Interspersed throughout are fades to black with quotes of reviews for the book. There’s a production quality that stands out among other book trailers and feels like it should have an actual film to accompany it. But it’s the inclusion of numerous raving reviews that vouches for the book more than anything else—a stylistic choice that should be used more often in book trailers (where it applies).

 

The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss (Harmony Books)

The title, The 4-Hour Body, as well as the book’s unfortunate cover design, immediately call to mind a typical book on fad diets and exercise schemes that never end up working. But this trailer, done by San Francisco-based director Adam Patch, is more Darren Aronofsky than it is Dr. Atkins. It portrays the book as a highly researched document that charts unknown scientific territory, not as another prescription to avoid carbs. It starts with a mock “motion-picture rating,” which elevates the book above its mass-consumed brethren. Then, in a Requiem-for-a-Dream-meets-crime-series-intro-credits style, we see a man sitting behind a desk in an atrium filled with plants, performing a science experiment. This trailer has a lot more style than you’d expect from the title, and consequently it stirs up a lot more interest.

 

The Women by T.C. Boyle (Viking)

The director of this trailer, Jamieson Fry, is quickly making a name for himself in the realm of book trailers. He has filmed trailers for authors including Dan Chaon, Mary Roach, and Bruce Machart, and his work stands out among other trailers because of its high production quality and dreamy, imaginative visuals, which feel particularly fitting for the medium. Fry has worked on four different trailers for T.C. Boyle; this one is for The Women, which chronicles the romantic relationships Frank Lloyd Wright had over the course of his life. While beautifully shot with a heart-wrenching song by an artist who sounds oddly similar to Florence and the Machine, the trailer loses a bit of steam because it’s not until two minutes into it that we discover this is about Wright. If this reveal (done through a newspaper headline) came a little sooner, the trailer could stand more on its own. It does, however, do an excellent job of painting the allure, glamour, and drama of Wright’s era.

 

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton & Company)

All anyone needs to get excited about Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys is to know that (1) Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, and (2) Skagboys is the prequel to Trainspotting. This thirty-second trailer touches on these points, listing the familiar characters via subtitle (Renton, Sick Boy, etc.), but it could do more to emphasize them. The trailer shows a mini-skeleton strung up like a marionette—a metaphor, perhaps, for the human decay and subordination of drug addiction—while overlaying critical reviews. It works well in that it’s short and sweet, with a unique style of art direction.

 

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (Simon & Schuster)

The opening voiceover of this YA book trailer, taken from Hodkin’s novel, is an immediate hook: “My name is not Mara Dyer, but my lawyer told me I had to choose something.” We see the narrator is an attractive teenage girl in high school, which further sparks curiosity. The trailer is well executed in a stylized black and white that is interrupted only by grainy colored shots of TV news (with obscured headlines: “Three Teenagers Murdered…”). The music also builds suspense through monotonous instrumentals that pick up in speed and intensity. It’s the combination of narration from the novel and stimulating visuals that make this a powerful book trailer. Having the author’s voice expressed in some manner is probably the most concrete way to “sell” a book (assuming the viewer enjoys what they hear), and that will certainly be accomplished for this book’s target demographic.


Shirin Najafi is a writer living in Los Angeles. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in economics and worked in investment banking before deciding to quit and become a writer. She performs the voice of a cat in some videos (www.magicalstew.com) and is currently working on her first novel. More from this author →