A few months ago, while awaiting the publication of Blood Red, I decided to create a book trailer to coincide with the launch. Trailers seemed to be a suddenly hot marketing tool, even though their overall effect on sales remains impossible to determine. But I subscribe to the “every little bit helps” philosophy of book marketing, so why not?

Well, a big why not? is that most book trailers are plain awful. Many of them don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Or worse, the trailer’s overall look and feel are so clumsy and low-rent that it seems to want to push consumers away from the book rather than toward the book. So I considered it a personal challenge to see if I could come up with something striking—with limited resources. Because that’s the landscape today in book marketing: Unless you’re a huge talent, you probably don’t have publisher willing to create a fantastic book trailer for you, and neither have you been given a budget with which to create one for yourself.

And anyway, who better to spearhead the production of a book trailer than the book’s author, who knows the book better than anyone? It’s my view that most authors, given the luck of having a few talented friends and colleagues, can come up with a very effective book trailer.

In my case, I’m fortunate to have a buddy, Kirk Whitham, who studied film in college and is something of an amateur filmmaker. He was eager to try his skills at the medium, study what had been done, consider interesting approaches, and see what he could come up with. “The book trailer wasn’t a format I’d paid much attention to in the past, but in the age of the digital book, it makes sense,” Kirk says. So, together, we researched existing trailers and came up with a game plan.

To our minds, there are several cardinal sins that a lot of book trailers commit.

1) Live Action vs. Still Imagery

Chief among the sins of book trailers is using live action. It’s my opinion that book trailers need to be distinct from movie trailers (their closest cousin). When you think of the difference between films and books, one of the obvious distinctions is that a movie is characterized by constantly moving images, whereas a book is composed of words on a page. Moving versus still. What brings a book to life is the imagination of the reader, and I think that should be true of book trailers. For that reason, I believe the best book trailers do not include live action, or live actors, or any kind of “filmed” content. Rather, they use a series of still images or perhaps lightly animated stills.

The vast majority of book trailers are created on a shoestring budget, and the unfortunate result is that any dramatic filmed action is generally cheesy in the extreme. Plus, live action invades too heavily on the imagination of the would-be reader. Therefore, I think anyone thinking of making a book trailer should consider using a series of provocative still images that spark the mind—much as a book does. Remember that your aim is not to make a trailer for the eventual movie of your book, but rather to make a trailer for your book. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

Here’s a fantastic example of a trailer that excels at the approach of combining still imagery with light animation. This is one of the best book trailers I’ve seen.


2) Succinct vs. Bloated

A lot of book trailers are just too long. They wear out their welcome. The best book trailers are short, sharp zingers that leave a mood or an impression by the very nature of their brevity. When we started making the trailer for Blood Red, we told ourselves we’d be happy with nothing longer than 90 seconds. Anything longer would risk boring the audience, and that’s the last thing you want. Attention spans are at their shortest in history, so it’s better to burrow into the viewer’s mind quickly with a sharp axe than pound listlessly with a dull hammer. Or something like that.

“My first cut of the Blood Red trailer was rather slow and ponderous, even though we’d talked about that time limit,” Kirk says. “Jason encouraged me to tighten it up quite a bit. I had watched Chris Marker’s La Jetée a few times as inspiration, and I think it subconsciously affected my editing style. My original 2:30 trailer was soon cut by a full minute.”

This recent trailer commits both the sin of live action and the sin of being bloated, although it does attain a certain level of well-done camp. However, note that with some judicious editing, this would have been a far more effective book trailer. Even at two minutes, it feels long, and I’ve seen book trailers that have the gall to last three or even four minutes.


3) Imagery vs. Text

I’ve already talked about the sin of live action, but sometimes even an over-reliance on still imagery can get oppressive. When I see a book trailer, I realize I’m seeing an advertisement for a book, so an over-reliance on visuals seems off-target. I want to see some words! And in my case, the best words to include in my trailer were the cover blurbs (the peer reviews of the book industry) I’d obtained from some favorite writers in the genre. These kinds of blurbs are common to book trailers, and you might even consider them the author’s greatest asset in trailer creation.

When we started brainstorming about the Blood Red trailer, I was thinking that I might create some new text that we would spread throughout the trailer, text that would essentially provide a synopsis of the book. But I came to the quick realization that such an effort wouldn’t create the effect I wanted. I wanted to create a mood, not outline the novel’s plot. So we decided to let the cover quotes speak for themselves.

Here’s a book trailer that boasts very simplistic imagery, letting bold cover quotes do the job of selling the book.


4) Narrative vs. Abstract

One of the big questions we faced while putting together the Blood Red trailer was whether we wanted to hew closely to the novel’s storyline and provide a narrative (almost a short film based on the book), or go abstract and just provide some horrific imagery merely suggested by the text. We decided to go for somewhere in between.

Kirk says, “We did discuss how true we needed to be—shot by shot—to the book, and finally decided to capture the essence of the story without being too slavish to the source material. For example, I’ve always kinda liked movie trailers that shot extra stuff just for the promo, shots that never made it into the final film.”

Our approach was to go the Ken Burns route and build the trailer out of a series of still images, which Kirk would manipulate in Photoshop first—to add that post-apocalyptic feel. These photos would be suggested by characters and events in the novel, and in their sequence they would tell a kind of “flash-fiction” story. But we didn’t worry ourselves with hitting key plot points or, as Kirk says, being too slavishly literal.

“I really like this medium,” Kirk says. “It’s like film, but something separate and apart. I think this Ken Burns style of filmmaking is perfect for promoting books. I had been kicking around a few ideas for a fictional short produced from still images. Blood Red turned out to be the perfect opportunity to experiment with that—creating a mood more than telling a story.”

Here’s a book trailer that goes for some storytelling. It also contains some live-action mood-setting. Although it commits the sin of live action, its photography is top-notch, which makes up for some of the general cheesiness. It succeeds in capturing a mood, and it’s succinct enough to leave an impression.


5) Voiceover vs. Music

Much like clumsy live action, a bad voiceover can ruin a book trailer. And that can be the fault of the script, the voice actor, the recording quality, and so on—too many avenues toward cheese! And what about music? How do you even begin to find or record the right music? Music is essential to creating mood, and choosing unwisely could spell disaster.

We knew these obstacles from the start, but we wanted to give both a shot. After all, the web is crammed with license-free music tracks that you can use for your purposes, and if you have access to a relatively good microphone and a capable computer, you practically have a professional recording studio at your fingertips, considering the cornucopia of freeware (or built-in software) out there.

The music turned out to be the easiest problem to solve. Kirk found a few license-free artists, and some excellent tracks emerged pretty quickly. One particular piece was moody as hell, ending on a rattling crescendo, and we knew it would line up very closely with what we wanted. But it needed some manipulation to hit dramatic points in our trailer and come in at the right length. Kirk says, “I cut the music up quite a bit to fit the images. Even the title card sound effects are from the same musical track, just tweaked and digitally altered beyond all recognition. A musical track can—and should—be every bit as powerful as the images.”

For the voice-over, I decided against writing a script for a voice artist to read. I’d simply seen too many trailers with awkward voice recordings that made me almost instantly tune out. Instead, I decided to try a sound effect track filled simply with breathing and perhaps a scream. As Blood Red‘s protagonist is a teenager, I enlisted the help of my actress daughter (age 14) to lay down a vocal track. Although the track itself was very promising, when we paired it with our already moody trailer, it seemed too in-your-face. After much thought, we dropped the vocal track altogether. Kirk says, “So often, a voiceover seems like a bit of a cheat. I’d rather have the music and images speak for themselves whenever possible.”

Here’s a trailer that fails in the voiceover department.

And here’s a trailer that works very well, thanks to its voiceover, but its success is also due to the clever way it incorporates actual text from the book.


6) Amateur vs. Professional

Obviously, you can hire a professional agency to produce a book trailer for you (at costs reaching into the thousands of dollars), but with a simple camera, access to public-domain imagery and music, and the proper mindset—along with willing friends who have great skills!—I’m confident that you have the means to create an effective marketing piece. And with a partner like Kirk, you can’t go wrong. He knows how to make to most of license-free imagery and sound, and other ways to get around superfluous costs.

For the Blood Red trailer you see below, I took the bulk of the photos with my (admittedly above-average) point-and-shoot camera, Kirk found free images of a plane crash and hospital innards, I paid my teen neighbor to spend an hour taking photos near our local hospital (the actual hospital setting of the book, by the way), and my good friend James W. Powell ended up playing the corpse. The creation of the trailer has been a fun group effort. I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to Kirk, who devoted probably more hours to the project than he anticipated. But he’s proud of the finished product and is actually hoping more work comes from it. So if you’re looking for a reasonable route to your next book trailer, you would do very well to give him a shout.

“It was slow going at first,” Kirk says. “The software (Photo-to-Movie) was simple, but it had a few quirks and took a bit longer to master than I’d anticipated. At this point, though, I’ve got it down to more of a science. As for the Blood Red project, Jason and I have been friends for a long time, so the back and forth was easy. We’ve been editing each other’s writings for so many years, this just felt like a visual extension of that.”

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your book trailer! Contact Kirk Whitham at Still Flicks.