Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Do I want my MTV?

by Martha Reed

Since I’m in charge of promoting my fiction in addition to writing it, I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to new promotional ideas. At Malice Domestic last May, I cruised the tables picking up samples of what I thought were the best in bookmarks and postcards, looking for eye-catching graphic design and then taking the samples back to my room to puzzle out what exactly about the design had caught my eye. I quizzed my sister, too, showing her the samples and asking: would you buy this book because of what you see here?

And I know that cover design is important, too, that’s why we see series books that all feature the same foil-stamped typeface or the same shocking set of colors. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series or anything by James Patterson immediately springs to mind. It’s market branding, like any other product, the way we see a Starbucks logo and know we’ll find a great cup of coffee.

Something new turned up over the weekend: video trailers. Well, new to me, anyhow, even though I spent a few formative years watching Billy Idol on MTV. Louise Ure has a new book, The Fault Tree, and she invited readers to go to YouTube.com to preview a video trailer, so I went. The trailer was short and sweet, one minute fifteen seconds long, and I thought it piqued my interest, but the more I thought about the idea of video trailers for books, for written material, the more questions the idea raised.

I know that humans are visual animals. I know that when training an associate, the quickest path to mastery is to show them how to do it and not just send them to a certain page in a training manual. If the act of reading, of translating text into images through the use of the imagination, involves a higher mental process, and your audience prefers a visual medium – which I tend to believe since YouTube is all about visuals – then is creating a video trailer for a text product an exercise in futility?

I also know that the Baby Boomer generation is probably the last generation to be raised on text. Yes, we had a TV when I was a kid, I’m not that old, dammit, but we only had three channels and cartoons exclusively on Saturday morning. Nowadays, the airwaves are awash in junk programming and any kid with an imagination has migrated to computers to play interactive video games. The visuals on modern games are amazing, I admit; quite a contrast from the Ms. PacMan and Frogger I knew in college.

But if we’re moving into VideoLand to preview and support text, I foresee a problem: casting.

As an author, it’s always a delicate balance in my work to give readers just enough descriptive information but not too much. I don’t want to describe each one of my characters down to the number of fillings in their teeth. My writing is a partnership with my readers, and I want them to share in the process. I want them to activate their imaginations to decide what a character looks like to them. I’ll make suggestions, of course, but the final decision is in their head, not mine. That’s why I love reading books before I see the movie – I want to see if the writer, the casting director and I were in the same ballpark. The best example I can mention is the casting for Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris has been a dark horse favorite of mine since Red Dragon, and after I read Silence I held my breath waiting for the casting announcement. Clarisse Starling = Jody Foster, Anthony Hopkins = Hannibel Lector? Flawless.

Which leaves one last question: if we create a video trailer to stimulate interest in our book before the text version comes out, are we stunting the creative partnership by planting visual preconceptions in the minds of our readers?


Joyce Tremel said...

Very interesting post, Martha.

I have to admit I've only watched a few book trailers. The ones I like the most are those that have "mood" music and text rather than characters.

The one exception is the trailer for Michael Connelly's Echo Park. It shows the entire beginning of the book with a younger Harry Bosch at a crime scene. Very well done. Of course, Connelly has the resources for a professional production.

The ones I have a problem with are the ones that look like someone had their ten year old son film them in their basement. If you're going to have a book trailer, it must be professional. Otherwise, what's the point?

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I haven't watched a video trailer for a book yet, Martha. But it does seem sort of odd to advertise it in a format so different from the way you'll actually be reading it.

I like finding good books to read the old-fashioned way: asking a friend.

Anonymous said...

Yes, an interesting post, Martha. The published authors on the gaywritersreaders listserve I visit talk a lot about how they market their books, and trailers on YouTube is just one way. Most are of the mood-music-text variety...a Michael Connelly production is beyond most writers' means. The ones I've seen have been impressive. But I have to agree with Tory, while the impact of the word-of-mouth technique is hard to measure, it's still valuable. And not just in selling books. The other day an article in the NYT diagnosed how volunteer home-schoolers in Iowa, working out of their homes and within their network, had helped to catapult Mike Huckabee into the lead in polls of likely GOP caucus voters...stunning Mitt Romney and his handlers, who have spent millions on staff and a glitzy, costly media onslaught. The lesson to me is not to underestimate the power of word-of-mouth networking.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking blog, Martha.

I have yet to see a video trailer for a book, so I can't judge from experience, but I share your concerns with making the characters' appearances too concrete. Of course, that will happen anyway when the movie comes out (don't we wish), and it doesn't seem to hurt if the characters don't look exactly like you'd expect from the book. In my favorite series (Harry Potter), the books describe Dudley Dursley as blond and Severus Snape as short, the opposite of how the actors really look. And in my least favorite best seller of all time (The Bridges of Madison County - I hated that book!) the casting seemed to be way off. [I think my mother called it -- she said it should have been Cher and Sam Elliott in the lead roles.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, it seems we still haven't settled into what exactly the Internet is capable of yet. Presidential candidates? I hear Ron Paul is very successful online. I guess transition is the nature of modern living (and would we want it any other way?)

Joyce Tremel said...

I just got around to viewing Louise Ure's trailer for The Fault Tree. Here's a link to it:


To me, this was a good example of how to do a book trailer. It had everything that would make me want to buy the book.

What does everyone else think?

Barbara said...

I think, no matter how well done, it all looks like advertising. Which... well, it is.

Why would I go out of my way to watch an ad?

Sorry, I just don't get book trailers.

Barbara said...

I think, no matter how well done, it all looks like advertising. Which... well, it is.

Why would I go out of my way to watch an ad?

Sorry, I just don't get book trailers.

Unknown said...

Good one, Martha. My take on it as an author is that it's a marketing tool to give a potential reader the "flavor" of a book. It's no different than the teaser we put in our current release of a forthcoming release to try and gain additional interest.

I have received numerous e-mails from people who indicated they purchased THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY based on the trailer:


I've viewed dozens of trailers and think it's a good way to get a sense for what the book is about -- as long as the trailer holds true to the story and it's kept short and sweet - like around a minute or so long. Beyond that and I do feel like I'm watching a commercial.

It also taps into an audience that is comfortable navigating in the YouTube world and that's a market I don't want to exclude.

Felicia Donovan

Anonymous said...

Hi Martha,

Thanks for taking a look at that video I posted. Like you, I have my doubts that video book trailers will make much difference in sales, at least for the next few years.

But I spent thirty years in advertising, and I understand the power of an on screen image. (Don't we all wish we could afford the TV commercials James Patterson books have?)My video is a beginning author's attempt to acheive the same thing.

Like you, I wouldn't dared have "cast" the video. I like letting the reader draw his own conclusions. But focusing on the cover is fine with me.

Louise Ure