Some important questions come up regarding book trailers, the bizarre and tautological video ads for books that now accompany most major releases. First: why do they exist at all? In the time it takes to watch a one, you could open a book (or find an excerpt) and read, by definition determining if the book were worth reading—have we really become so lazy?
Yes. And given that advertising has wormed its way into branded taxis and henna tattoos on boxers' backs, we shouldn't be surprised to see it goosing the venerable book. A better question is: why didn't we see book trailers in the 20th century? Did it really take this long for the book industry to figure out how to advertise books on video?
Once again, yes. The phrase "book trailer" first appears in the New York Daily News in 2002, in a gossip piece about Jim Carrey doing a movie adaptation of John Scott Shepherd's corporate-redemption novel Henry's List of Wrongs. An Up in the Air that never got off the ground, Henry's List of Wrongs didn't make it to a theater near you, but Simon & Schuster produced a "40 second 'book trailer'" starring Carrey to promote the novel. (Also, on the back of Henry's List of Wrongs, readers are reminded that the book is "about to be made into a film starring Jim Carrey.")
Later in 2002, the phrase appears in the Village Voice's coverage of Canadian DJ Kid Koala's graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall. "The uber-curious can check out a 'book trailer'," Tricia Romano writes, quoting the new phrase as the News does and showing that book trailers did not have to star Jim Carrey—they could also be cool.
Eight years on, book trailers still fall into the categories established by Nufonia Must Fall and Henry's List of Wrongs: a majority play out like short films (Kid Koala's minimalist skronk is great on the Nufonia Must Fall trailer) while a minority gather famous people that the author knows and has them crack a few jokes. The best trailers combine these two strategies into celebrity-studded shorts that give the book—and the author—a touch of glitter. It makes sense that book trailers are tied in with celebrity: they are about the branding of the author as much as the selling of the book.
Lowboy, by John Wray (Picador USA)
Zach Galifianakis, who looks like he was dragged out of the Screaming Trees' tour van circa 1992, twists the celebrity-centered book trailer by appearing as author John Wray while the real John Wray interviews him about his writing process. Galifianakis' answers will satisfy anyone who's a fan of "Between Two Ferns" ("I'll write 'end' first, then 'the'"), but the never-explained binary keyboard with two giant "0" and "1" keys is what really sells this.
It's a Book, by Lane Smith (Roaring Brook Press)
Two cute creatures in the Frog and Toad vein sit across from one another, one with a book and one with a laptop. As the laptop-enabled creature shows off his machine's bells and whistles, the throwback with the book defends his choice of entertainment. The "It's a Book" trailer works so well that when I saw the actual book at the airport, I figured I didn't need it.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith (Grand Central Publishing)
History is black and white and red all over in this trailer starring Abraham Lincoln look-alike Michael Krebs. Krebs cannot seem to emancipate himself from playing Lincoln, first in a 1994 TV movie and then in the 2008 short The Transient. Here he takes on a vampire assassin with an axe he conveniently keeps in glass above his fireplace. Beginning in sumptuous grays, the trailer gets progressively more crimson as Krebs goes commando; when he swings for decapitation, a voiceover about vampires and slavery promises out-loud laughter from the book. Bring up the cover, match the color palettes, and we're done.
Asunder, by Robert Lopez (Dzanc)
Luca DiPierro, whose stop-motion cut-out animation feels like The Triplets of Belleville meets South Park, gorgeously juxtaposes excerpts from Robert Lopez's story collection with dreamlike imagery in this trailer with music by Sin Ropas. "Every time I brush my teeth or shave it's a bloodbath," Lopez writes, as DiPierro gives us a man brushing with a vertically oriented brush, as if trapped in a cubist painting, until he bleeds down his chin into a vermilion goatee.
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart (Random House)
Celebrity is not the focus of Super Sad True Love Story but it gets a hilarious reaming from Shteyngart in the trailer. James Franco reins it in; the real highlights are Jeffrey Eugenides explaining how Shteyngart has escaped the"anxiety of influence" and Jay McInerney, looking like he stepped out of the author photo in Model Behavior, asking whether co-eds trapped in Shteyngart's closet are from Vassar or Mount Holyoke. Not a lot of book trailers could inspire kids to go into writing; this is one of them.
You Had Me at Woof, by Julie Klam (Riverhead)
Celebrities cannot save some book trailers, including the ones that aren't funny. Denis Leary gets in a good laugh here, but it's with a joke that Shteyngart's trailer presents and eclipses early on.
Sophomoric Philosophy, by Victor David Giron (Curbside Splendor Publishing)
Victor David Giron has big ideas about Chicago; namely, that he's a Chicagoan now "having lived in the city since I graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in accounting" and "moved to an area of the city called Wicker Park because I at times aspire to be some sort of artist and wanted to be surrounded by more artistic types." His self-deprecating humor is inviting, but when he imagines a movie about Chicago that tops "sissy" Manhattan, his trailer turns into a fan video for "Cherub Rock."
Dark Prophecy, by Anthony E. Zuikier (Dutton)
Written by the creator of CSI, Dark Prophecy is the sequel to Dark Origins, whose 2009 trailer was honored by MobyLives as Biggest Waste Of Conglomerate Money. The production values are as good as ever in this sequel—as are the melodrama and white gimp mask—but someone at that that conglomerate spoke up. This one's half as long.
Social Lives, by Wendy Walker (St. Martin's Griffin)
If you thought the score to Shutter Island was intense, get a load of the trailer to Wendy Walker's Connecticut-set drama. End-of-the-world strings only get louder as white-on-black text alternates with illustrative images of a woman bathing in dollar bills. "She was a wife", reads the trailer—cut to our heroine bathing in money—"and mother"—cut to more money. Wait, doesn't a baby mean less money?
Dark Guardian, by Christine Feehan (Avon)
A lot of people hate on "Twilight" when what they really have issue with is Twilight fallout—the "Paranormal Romance" section in Barnes & Noble, the repackaging of Romeo and Juliet as "the original forbidden love...". The Dark Guardian trailer asks readers "Are you tired of the same old vampire love story?" before showing us pirated images of Avril Lavigne and that guy from Heroes as star-crossed lovers Kara and Richard. Yes, we're tired.
The future looks bright for book trailers. Advertising platforms, once established, rarely die, and today's authors are more eager than ever to brand themselves and get attention for their low-margin product. With costs of video production, animation, and celebrities continuing to drop, we can look forward to watching these things long after we've stopped reading actual books.