The rise of the literary trailer

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Literary or book “trailers” have been around for some years. These promotional tools for the book industry are what music video clips have been for the music business. But unlike the music industry where video clips have found a mass audience though MTV and Saturday morning and all night music video programs, the literary trailer business is still nascent as publishers struggle to find a viable distribution method.
In Australia literary trailers have been used for everything from cook books to memoirs,  but often they are are more like short ads than a cinematic taster that captures the mood and feel of the book they are promoting.
Roxy Ryan, the marketing director of Hardie Grant Publishing,  says the literary trailer business in Australia is “improving”.
“I think that when we do them here they are often not as sophisticated as people are used to seeing what they watch on television or YouTube so unless they are really done well they can do more harm than good,” says Ryan.
She says a trailer can cost between $1000 to $5000 which is a substantial chunk a of a book’s marketing budget. “And the challenge is to get people to see them. If only 40 people look at them on Youtube then that’s not very effective.”
Hardie Grant has only made a handful of literary trailers with one of the more recent the 2012 production of a four minute video for Holocaust survivor Halina Wagowska’s The Testimony. The trailer features the author reading from her memoir and has had about 450 views since April last year.
Text Publishing’s clip for the world- wide best seller, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, is a simple one minute teaser that looks like a trailer for the movie the romantic comedy novel will inevitably become. It has had over 5000 views since January.
The book industry in the US is far more developed than Australia, which is not surprising given the size and reach of its film industry. We spoke to Los Angeles novelist and filmmaker Adam Cushman about his production company Red 14 Films. Cushman’s novel Cut about a suburban fight club will be released in February through Black Mountain Press and his own railer for it is one of the more compelling literary trailers we have seen. We speak to him below about making literary trailers and making the video for Cut in particular.
Warning: the clip includes violent images.

Daily Review: One of the simplest ways to describe literary trailers is they are as to books what music videos are to songs. Is that correct or do literary trailers allow the director far more freedom?
Adam Cushman: Ideally yes, they’re much like music videos. That is, stand alone works of art that don’t advertise a product directly. Cinematic book trailers offer a huge amount of freedom for directors and filmmakers because the form is so new, and the rules haven’t been set quite yet. There’s a lot of room to move around creatively.
While music videos have always had a clear line of distribution how does it work with literary trailers?
For the most part by uploading the videos to sharing sites besides just YouTube and Vimeo (,, to name a few). You also want to reach out to the film and literary community for coverage. Social media is a big part of it.
Everyone wants to go viral. What has for you and why do you think it did?
We have a trailer called Theory of Remainders by Scott Dominic Carpenter for example that had some virality, although not quite in the millions. I wish I could say I knew the science of it. The brevity probably has something to do with it, along with the screenshot. Mostly I think it’s just whether people can connect with the trailers emotionally on some level. That’s probably the best bet in getting a trailer to go viral.
It must be tempting to repeat the formula if one does go viral. Is it?
I don’t think a real formula exists.
When you are hired by a publisher what sort of involvement does the book’s writer have (or not have)?
We’ve worked with some of the larger houses where the author was very much involved. Both trailers we produced for Hachette featured the author in some capacity. Anthony Swofford (author of Jarhead) even stars in his own trailer for his memoir Hotels, Hospitals and Jails.
Is it better not to have actual dialogue or lines from the book?
It depends. A lot of it has to do with what the author wants. My personal taste is not to include dialogue, but voice over, letting the imagery carry the trailer. But every trailer is different, just as every book is different.
Would/have you ever written new dialogue for the trailer adapted from the original novel?
Does the publisher pay for the trailer?
Very often, but usually for more established writers. We’re trying to change that by making cinematic book trailers as affordable as we can.
If so do authors have to convince their publisher to spend their marketing dollars on a trailer?
I suspect the publishers go into it knowing which book projects justify spending a little extra on a trailer.
How do your clients judge the effectiveness of a trailer?
View count is part of it. Critical response. An increase in your fanbase. Overall if people respond to the trailer, it creates an interest in the author and their work in general. Meaning the final measure of effectiveness isn’t always book sales or website traffic. That’s an important outcome, but it’s also about the long term, such as attracting movie studios and producers.
Can you track how a trailer influences actual book sales?
If there is a way, I’m not aware of it. The same as there’s no direct correlation between music videos and album sales. But music videos work and they work well. They kind of saved the record industry.
In the instance of your own novel Cut can you tell us how a production of the video worked?
The budget was under $10,000. A crew and cast of about 17 (all friends of ours) took seven hours to shoot it. Five cameras were used including the actor filming the fights in the narrative.It will be distributed through our normal channels. We’ll upload it to video sharing sites, spread it around on Facebook and Twitter. Coverage is a big part of it.
Is the use of split screens done simply to pack in as much info as you can, or is a creative decision, or both?
Both, I think. I wanted to get as much information in there as I could. Also, it was important to give a sense of the main character’s disorientation as he first enters this world. The narrator’s memories and interpretations in the novel are very fragmented, and I wanted to try and mirror that on film. But largely it was a stylistic choice. I’ve always been a huge fan of split screens. From The Thomas Crown Affair to Kill Bill.
Is there a length (in minutes) that a literary trailer should not exceed?
Shorter is better. Most of them are under two minutes. That’s a good length. The trailer for Cut was designed more like a music video or short film. We’re releasing a 90-second trailer along with the book in February.
Have you been asked to make a full length film on the basis of one of your trailers?
A couple of the books we’ve shot trailers for have been optioned, and others are generating interest. Our goal is definitely to play a part in getting some of these titles turned into movies.
Music is crucial in film making. How do you approach it in these videos? 
It’s so crucial. As a director, music has always been a huge part of filmmaking for me, especially in the writing stage. Knowing the music you’re using informs the blocking and the editing. That was very much the case with Cut.
Where do you get your composers – advertising? Film? Elsewhere? Existing sources?
Through existing sources and composers. Vimeo is an amazing resource.
Is music one of the most expensive elements in making a literary trailer?
It can be. It depends what music you’re using. There are a lot of talented composers out there who are thrilled to score book trailers. I think like anyone else involved, they see a great deal of room for creative freedom. I’ve found most creative artists who contribute to making book trailers enjoy that they’re helping readers find books. That’s kind of the spirit, or driving force of all of this.
Do you think a literary trailer can be better than the source material?
Sure, the same as a movie can be better than a book, I suppose. That’s entirely subjective though. Our job isn’t to outdo the author. Our job is to deliver the best trailer we can and remain faithful to the author’s vision of the book.
Was your inspiration to write Cut inspired by your ideas on what a great trailer it would make, or did it come to you as a novel first?
I started writing Cut before I’d ever heard the term “book trailer.” But I definitely thought about it cinematically while I was writing it. Cinema is also a large part of the narrative. The idea for the trailer came after the book was picked up.
Would you like to make a full length feature of Cut?
That would be great.
Often when people see a movie version of a book they are disappointed because the characters/setting is not what they had pictured in their heads. Surely some authors and some readers must fear that the trailer will influence how they see the book in their heads?
This comes up all the time. Sometimes the answer is to obscure the actors in the trailer, to not show them fully and leave their physical traits in the negative space. Other times we don’t have actors at all. But really this isn’t so much of an issue. I mean we watch music videos all the time, and it doesn’t spoil the experience of listening to the song. Sometimes we go back and read a book after seeing the movie. I guess the reading experience can be different if you do it that way, like when you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after seeing the film, you might picture Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. But it’s still just a book, separate from the film adaptation. The idea that this is a reason not to produce a trailer or that it ruins the reading experience is probably a little neurotic.
What books in particular lend themselves to literary trailers?
Great stories.
Given books are sold in digital form is the plan to sell a book and trailer together?
The trailers are designed for the author and publisher to use them in every step of a book’s shelf life, including when agents pitch the film rights to studios.

One response to “The rise of the literary trailer

  1. Do you know that the Facebook, Twitter, email, printer pop-up on the left hand site of your articles pages get in the way of reading the article. Very annoying. Time it out or give an option to get rid of it.

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