Making a Book Trailer (1): A Speck of Hope in My Eye

Last fall, after I learned that Companion to an Untold Story was going to be published, I fantasized about making a trailer to accompany its launch. My book, if it is to grow up healthy and strong, will need nurture, care, and feeding in the form of publicity, and much of that effort falls to me as author.

Unfortunately for the book’s prospects, I’m not keen on self-promotion—you’d have to say that I am uncomfortable with putting myself forward. (I tweeted once and then fell silent.) My natural inclination is to disappear and let the book fend for itself like some feral child. But that isn’t the way of the publishing world. There’s an expectation that the author will sell her book, speak for it, push it out onto the rough seas to set sail. And I do want to make my book visible, to let people know about it; I just don’t want to be overly aggressive, a desperate saleswoman popping up everywhere to say, Buy my book! That’s why a book trailer appeals to me: the shy self-promoter can disappear behind a screen. Besides whetting the audience’s appetite, a trailer can be a creative endeavor, a work of art in its own right, related to the book but not the book, and not pure PR. There are even book trailer awards.

Many movie trailers are, judged as creative endeavors, pretty clumsy. They do the wrong sort of magic: we’ve all suffered through previews for movies we’d have to be paid to see. But we’ve also been spurred to see films through artful introductions to them. I’ve watched the trailer for Terence Malick’s Tree of Life on constant replay, even after seeing the whole film. His ability to tell a story visually is unrivaled.

Trailers for movies have been around for a century. A trailer for a book is a relatively new development, appearing when user-generated online video—YouTube, Ifilm, Dailymotion—became popular, around 2005. Now there are sites dedicated to sharing book trailers—Vabbler, Book Trailer Central, Book Screening are some of them.

The first book trailer I watched was for Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now in March 2011. I know Ryan and had read some of the essays in his collection when they were first published; I had published one myself as editor of Fourth Genre. I knew the essay “First” that inspired the trailer, and admire how Tucker Capps, its maker, realizes the essay in a visual form. Ryan, who reads the audio, performs his work very well, and the trailer makes the experience of his voice more widely available. The trailer and book versions of “First” are related works, but distinct, and not in competition with one another. Each has its intimate virtues, and I am glad to have both accounts.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now made quite a splash, and so did the trailer. The Publishers Weekly blog noted, “It’s just a lovely example of how text can interact with film to create something that’s not merely a commercial for the book, but a piece of art in itself.” Long after reading Ryan’s book, I sometimes watch the trailer for its pleasures.

After being introduced to Ryan’s trailer, I became aware of others—some through Facebook writer/friends who were launching works, some through haphazard exploration. What I discovered is a great range of types and styles. Some authors have little role in the making of a trailer. For example, Ryan’s publisher hired Tucker Capps, who wrote the script; Ryan recorded his audio and watched the completed trailer about an hour before it was posted. B. J. Hollars gave his brother a couple of pages from a story in his collection Sightings and told him to have some fun. Brian Hollars enlisted a friend to compose a score. The result is an intriguing work with high production values, complete with original music and live-action footage. Some trailers are perfunctory, a video of the author reading the work, or informational, the author discussing it. Others are idiosyncratic, including one billed as “the longest, most depressing book trailer” that accompanies Kevin Moffett’s terrific short-story collection Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. Kelle Groom’s I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl is introduced to potential readers by a montage of lyrical images with author’s voice-over and original music, interspersed with snippets of reviews and blurbs. Between the two poles of the informational and the unique, there is a range of styles and approaches.

The book trailer, in sum, is an idea whose time has come, given the rise in radio essays, audio essays, video essays, all manner of multimedia artistic forms, and the explosion of social media. Attendance at traditional book signings and readings continues to drop, as people become more glued to their screens. Besides, touring the country isn’t feasible for writers who have full-time jobs and little money. Now it is de rigueur for publishers to hand authors a to-do list: create a website, an author’s page on Amazon, a fan page on Facebook. Trailers are going to be on that list shortly. Because writers now assume more responsibility for promoting their work, they look to a trailer as something they can produce on their own—with help from gifted and generous friends, if they are lucky, as I have been.

In November 2011, I gave a presentation about the Companion—part reading and part talk about the literary landscape of grief, death, and memory. Afterward a film scholar and filmmaker in the Department of English at Michigan State University, Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai, approached me. He had been struck by the visual texture of the Companion and likened it to Malick’s Tree of Life, a comparison that startled and pleased me, since he didn’t know of my abiding regard for that director.

Swarnavel E. Pillai is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India, at Pune, the premier film school in Asia.  He is an accomplished maker of short films; his award-winning documentaries include Thangam, The Indian National Army, Villue (The Bow), and Quagmire. He received his Ph.D. in film studies from the University of Iowa.

A few months later I attended a showing of Pillai’s documentary Thangam,about a young girl from his village in India, a wonderful coming-of-age portrait. I was drawn to the artistic endeavor of making a trailer and collaborating with an artist in my own department,and I asked Pillai if he’d be interested in working with me, pointing him toward some of the trailers I’ve already mentioned. He read the full manuscript; we talked about what he saw, what I saw, in different filmmakers—Bergman, Bresson, Malick.  We discussed what a trailer should achieve. In an email he gave me a sense of his vision, suggesting “a first-person voiceover, which gives glimpses of the events, emotions, spaces, and objects in the memoir in a poetic, dreamlike way, where the images dissolve from each other, evoking the various emotions that often merge but occasionally subsume others and stand out—like mourning and the demands it makes on the passage of time to weaken its hold.”

Then he asked me to write a script. I’ve been a scholar, a poet, and an essayist; I had never written a script. But off I went.

Some words on that experience in my next post in this series.

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3 Comments on “Making a Book Trailer (1): A Speck of Hope in My Eye”

  1. The Man with No User Name says:

    “A trailer can be a creative endeavor, a work of art in its own right, related to the book but not the book.” Your sense of this possibility arises for at least two reasons. First, the book trailer, unlike the movie preview, requires the creation of a wholly new visual stream. And second, book trailers have come into being in an environment, online streaming, where the roughly two-minute time constraint on previews has been lifted. This means that there is no natural boundary been a preview of the book and a version of the book. Both of these features of the book trailer contribute to the sense that it constitutes a new creative venture.

  2. Ditto to “the man with no user name”! Tucker and Ryan’s collaboration makes me think we need a different word. Not a trailer to a film that doesn’t exist, but a visual interpretation of book I want to read.

  3. […] you can read her detailed account on the making of the book trailer. Also, here is a link to the  blog post explaining what sparked her idea to make a book […]


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