Screenshot of a book trailer

Can Someone Explain Book Trailers To Me?

A friend asked me yesterday if I had thought about doing a book trailer. She even pointed me to a list of the ten most viewed book trailers of all time:

I watched them.

I don’t get it.

It is not that they are not good. They are as slick as any Hollywood movie trailer. There is a reason that the site that created the list is a film site, not a book site. They are all great examples of cinematography and acting. If I was a teenage girl I would totally want to watch those movies.

Wait. What? These are supposed to be book trailers. They are supposed to make us want to read the book. But they don’t. They engage us with the lead actors. They engage us with the tone of the cinematography. They sell us on watching these actors play these parts on these sets. And then they disappoint us with a book cover instead of a release date. They make me (or the teenage girl part of my brain, anyway) want to see the movie. Not read the book.

In other words, this is classic bait and switch.

Is it as simple as that? Is it so impossible to gain traction by promoting a book as a book these days that you have to promote it as a movie and then switch it up at the end and try to sell a book instead? And if so, does that actually work?

I have another theory. Bear with me and let me know in the comments if this makes any sense. Fan fiction has become a huge thing. Fans wanting more episodes of their favorite shows than the networks could ever commission or shoot, write their own episodes as short stories and novels and share them among themselves. It has become so big that the networks have caught onto it and continue popular series in the form of books and comics. They write their own fanfiction. Sometimes they even publish the fan fiction written by fans.

In some sense it is easy to see the appeal here. The fans already have pictures of the setting and the characters in their heads. No need for tedious scene setting or description in the books. They can just get on with telling the same stories over and over and over again, world without end, Amen.

I assume that reading these books is a somewhat different experience from reading the book from scratch. The imagination is already populated with images and the reader almost certainly will project the faces of the actors and the sets and locations onto the books as they read, creating what is essentially an extension of the TV watching experience.

Reading, in other words, becomes a post-TV experience, an extension of TV viewing. And if that is what reading is to you, then perhaps you need that TV lead-in to the reading experience. Perhaps without it you will lack the capacity to form images of people and places as you read the book. If that is the case, the role of the book trailer can be seen very differently. Essentially it serves to quickly populate the reader’s mind with those essential images that they no longer have the capacity to form for themselves.

Let’s look at an example:

This example seems at least consistent with the idea I am proposing. The mood is set. The characters have faces. They have a style. They have a voice. What do you think? Surely that is the face you are now going to see as you read, the voice you are not going to hear?

But even if I am right, there is still a profound oddity here. Books and movies are different media, and the differences are not slight. Other than the fact that they both tell stories, they operate completely differently. The movie is addressed to the senses. It enters through the eyes and the ears. The novel is addressed to memory. It enters through language and the use of story to recall images, experiences, and emotions. If we could define story as plot + telling, then the same plot makes a very different novel than a movie because the means of telling are so different. The final package is an utterly different beast, which is why the book is always better than the movie, except when the book is a novelization of the movie, when it is always worse. It is almost impossible for the secondary media to rival the art of the primary without diverging wildly from its substance.

And there is a further oddity. The screen is an objective medium. The characters are on the screen. The viewer is on the sofa. So many books today attempt to do something that the screen cannot do. They try to make the experience subjective by making the main character the avatar of the reader. Thus so many books today are written in the first person, and often in present tense. To borrow an analogy from yet another media, they are written in first-person-shooter point of view. The point is not to see the character, but to be the character. This is something the screen simply can’t do. Thus they provide radically different ways of engaging the reader in the story.

But perhaps this is not the impediment to media-crossing that it seems. Perhaps it is the point. After all, particularly in the sci-fi and fantasy worlds, fans like to dress up as their favorite characters. If on screen one has to let Bill Shatner be Captain Kirk, at the convention one can be Captain Kirk oneself. And so perhaps the the appeal of the first person present narrative (something I personally find unreadable) is to let the reader step into the skin of the character in a way that does not quite work on the screen.

Still, if the imagination needs to be peopled with scenes and images to get you started before you unzip the lead character down the back and step into their skin, then perhaps the book trailer gives the perfect lead in, giving a face to the character you will inhabit and a mood and tone, at least, to the places you will inhabit on your adventure. Look at it that way and perhaps the book trailer makes perfect sense.

If I am right about this (please use the comments to explain why I have got it all wrong — I am here to learn), does that mean I should be creating a book trailer?

Probably not. Because the thing is, personally I hate reading books this way. My heart sinks with every sentence in the first paragraph of novel starts with “I”. It is not that I hate all first person narrative. I love The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited, which both use it. But I hate the first-person-shooter point of view. In the article I linked to earlier, I outlined three different kinds of reader engagement and explained my preference for what I called friend mode, rather than avatar mode. And I don’t see how a book trailer does anything for a reader who wants that kind of book. But maybe I am wrong about that. If I am, please set me straight.

1 thought on “Can Someone Explain Book Trailers To Me?”

  1. I think you’re giving book trailers too much credit. You have a high-minded theory that they’re establishing a visual framework so readers of the book can better picture what’s going on. Really, the reason they exist is to market the book where all the people are – on YouTube, Reddit, social media, where images work better than text.

    The book trailer serves the same purpose as the synopsis on the back of the book. The idea is to hook readers, usually promising some combination of relatable characters and a cool premise.

    In my opinion, most genre fiction (which, to be clear, is the bulk of what I read and write) doesn’t deliver on its promises. It’s rare for me to read a fantasy or sci-fi novel and feel genuinely surprised and delighted. I’ve come to regard the synopsis as an indulgent exaggeration on the part of the author. Either that or they genuinely don’t know how mediocre they all are. (And I’m part of the problem, because I write genre fantasy. I’m hoping that my books can aim higher and escape the unfortunate trend. Who knows if that will work).

    There’s an inverse proportion between how good a book is an how easy it is to talk about. I just finished “Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr, and I’m dumbfounded. It’s a masterpiece. But trying to explain the brilliance to anyone else is an impossible task. I’m trying to use words to describe the genius of other words, but I have to use 0.001% as many words. Of course I can’t do it. There’s a reason the very best books are passed along with phrases like “Don’t stop and think about it. Just read this book.”

    Does that mean book trailers are just more elaborate lies? Yeah, I guess I feel they pretty much are.

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