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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reeling in Readers


Once a curiosity, book trailers have become an increasingly important part of author promotion. But do they actually work to snag readers, and why? ♦

This past weekend, I made a trip to a Barnes & Noble and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of spaces in the parking lot. I parked in the back of the lot and walked in the front door, where I was greeted by that familiar “book smell” (the one that every English major gabs about when someone tries to convince them that eBooks are the way to go). There was a table of new releases past the Nook table, and people were flocking to it as if a new Harry Potter novel had just been released. As unfortunate as it is, I was surprised to see people so excited about books. It'd been a while since I'd actually had to wait in line to check out at a bookstore or squeeze past onlookers to grab a copy of an obscure novel I needed for class.
       It sometimes seems as if the recent great leaps in technology have left us here in the literary world five steps back; everyone is “connected” in some way, whether via smartphone, computer, tablet, or some other electronic device, and although the switch to eBooks has been somewhat successful, there still feels to be that gatekeeper gap between authors and the audience they're hoping to reach. This gap might finally be closing as publishing takes on a different marketing technique, one borrowed from a competing medium: trailers. Similar in all aspects to movie trailers, book trailers are tasked with offering information in a way that is intriguing, entertaining, and engaging. All of this is done, of course, to translate the interest of readers into numbers.

   

       Trailers have been used by the movie business to provoke an interest and to target an audience practically since the beginning of film, but how do you make a book visual without impairing the readers’ ability to see the novel in their own image? This is a question being explored more and more by authors, from the most established down to first-timers, in this age of YouTube and viral videos. Even such greats such as Stephen King, Mitch Albom, and (believe it or not) Joan Didion have started using the technology that once was perceived as a threat to the popularity of literature.
       Some book trailers function similarly to movie trailers, with actors acting out scenes to create an intriguing preview of what you will read. Others take on a more cinematic feel, using atmospheric images and sounds designed to evoke the feeling of the book . . . Stephen King's trailer for Doctor Sleep, his sequel to the classic The Shining, does an excellent job of getting the reader excited for the book by using images probably even more familiar to audiences from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film version of The Shining than the book, right up to the moment where the audience gets to see that famous REDRUM painted (in blood?) on a bathroom wall.
       Even more common is the trailer in which the author introduces his or her book, speaks briefly about it, or reads a small excerpt from it. Joan Didion, J. K. Rowling, and Ian McEwan have all used this type of book trailer to grab readers’ attention. Jonathan Franzen famously recorded a trailer for his novel Freedom in which he looked straight into the camera and talked about how much he disapproves of the idea of book trailers, which made the nerd-viral rounds because of just how uncomfortable the whole thing seemed and eventually won a Moby Award for "Worst Performance by An Author" in a trailer . . . but which nevertheless had people talking about the trailer, author, and the book.      
       One of the best examples of a trailer in which the author directly discusses his or her work is Jonathan Safran Foe's trailer for his book Tree of Codes. For this type of postmodern novel—which Foer created by cutting up the text of Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles—the trailer really becomes an essential tool in reaching out to a wider audience, speaking to and explaining the complex structure and daunting nature of the book. With Foer’s wide use of experimental techniques in literature, it is no surprise that he knows how to utilize online media as a means of keeping an interest in literature alive, and to pique interest in what might've been a difficult sell of a book.

     

       With that being said, it seems as though it is often the authors themselves which drive these trailers, this specific way of reaching out to readers and putting a face to a book. When books are read in high school English classes and college literature courses, oftentimes the teacher asks, “What do you think the author intended?” With book trailers and online materials such as these now readily available, it seems this question could be answered by a YouTube search, bringing authors closer to readers and allowing them to more fully engrain themselves in modern culture. In a society where five-year-olds can operate iPads and homework is completed entirely online, book trailers provide a way to keep the heart and soul of great literature alive and well in the technological age, and to allow authors to reach out to a much larger audience than ever before.
       Given that book trailers are now being shown in movie theaters and on television as well as on YouTube, and that authors now have new ways of getting the attention of those who have never been interested in grabbing a great book, maybe that's why I saw so many people wandering about the shelves of the Barnes & Noble. Maybe the literary marketplace has finally found a solution to keeping the old tradition of reading a book alive in our technology-driven, handheld-device culture.
  • About the Author
    Michelle Rowley is a senior English Literature and Creative Writing double major at Miami University. Her love of books and all things strange and creative have fueled her passion for writing, experimental cooking and avidly making old things new again. Upon graduation, she will be sailing the seven seas on a naval vessel on the West Coast

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