Why Flashy Book Trailers Don’t Work


In my post Why Promoting Your Book Online is (a bit) like Fight Club, I explained why the only kind of online book promotion that works is stuff that doesn’t just promote your book and, above everything else, makes the internet better.

“People aren’t using social media because they love being sold stuff. They’re using it, I think, for one or more of the following three reasons:

  1. Because they want to be entertained
  2. Because they’re looking for specific information
  3. Because they want to connect with other people (connect as in virtually meet, but also as in relate to).

From what I’ve seen over the past two years, both in trying to sell my own books and watching what other self-published and traditionally published authors have done to try to sell theirs, is that your promotional efforts have to have a value of their own, and that value has to satisfy one or more of the demands in the list above. Online promotion works best when the book actually comes second to the content’s main objective.

[You: Say what now?]

To put it another—hopefully clearer—way, your goal should be to improve the internet, above all else. Make it a better place than it was five minutes ago by writing a great blog post, posting a funny tweet, using a tweet to direct your followers to a great blog post you just found, uploading a video that helps people perform a task, uploading a video that makes people laugh while they’re procrastinating to keep from doing that task they’re supposed to do… You get the idea. Adding a mention of your book to this content might also sell a few copies of it for you, yes, but that’s secondary. That’s not the most important bit. We need to create stuff to put on the internet that would still be something useful and worthwhile even if we took the selling books bit out of it.”

Examples of this would be things like Marian Keyes’ Twitter stream, The Book Boutique (Penguin UK) Facebook page and helpful/advice blogs by self-published authors like The Creative Penn, Indie IQ and (on a good day) this one. They are all free of blatant advertising and do not exist primarily to sell books—Marian Keyes entertains, The Book Boutique shares news, pictures and giveaways with book-lovers and self-published author advice blogs help other authors to self-publish. If some apocalyptic event meant that from tomorrow, none of them would have any books to sell, they could continue to do what they’re doing. They could do exactly what they’re doing now, even if they didn’t have books to sell. It’s this crucial point that 9 out of 10 authors who aren’t using social media but think they should be because someone told them it’s a good way to sell books don’t get—and it’s why they fail. If you took the selling books aspect out of a tweet like “My amazing book, Annoying Much? is just 99c on Amazon. PLEASE RT PLEASE RT PLEASE RT!”, what would you be left with?

It’s also something mainstream publishing houses occasionally forget too, and nowhere is this more obvious than in book trailers.

I think the generally held wisdom is that book trailers don’t sell books—and I’d tend to agree, in that I very much doubt anyone has ever watched a book trailer and then said, Right! I’ll have that and ran off to the nearest bookshop or booted up their Kindle and bought the thing.

But just like blogging, tweeting, etc. I think book trailers can help tell people that your book exists, and send some of those people to a second location—your Amazon listing, your website, its Goodreads reviews—and if you’re lucky, some of those people will like what they find there and buy the book.

So if the purpose of a book trailer is let as many people as possible know that your book exists, then your book trailer has to have a high share value. Basically, it has to be something you’d tweet a link to, or post on your Facebook wall, or include in a blog post.

And what would make you do that? The holy trinity of social media: entertainment, information or connection. In other words, the video would have to be funny, useful or something a large number of people could relate to.

From what I’ve seen, publishing houses don’t always get this. (Self-publishers don’t always get it either, but they’re not spending the insane amounts of money on their trailers that publishing houses are. And the ones who do get it right are nearly always self-publishers, or traditionally published authors doing the book trailer themselves.)

The reason I’m writing this post is because last week I came across a gem of an example: a traditionally published book, a buzzy book that clearly has plenty of marketing and publicity dollars behind it, and two book trailers—one glossy, expensive animation clearly commissioned by the publishing house, and one DIY, hand-held camera operation that the author evidently did herself*.

And only one of them works as a book trailer.

The book is Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. The first trailer, the glossy animation one, is a semi-successful advertisement for the book. (Semi-successful? Well, I’ve read the book and loved it, but I’m not sure I would’ve picked it up if I’d seen it described like this first. It doesn’t do this hilarious tale any justice, in my opinion. And what’s with the Desperate Housewives voice-over, eh?) You’d watch this, yes, and you might even think to yourself, Hmm, I must read that… but there is no chance you’d pass it on to your internet friends. Why would you?

But then there’s this, featuring the author herself, in which she attempts to pitch her book to (real life!) booksellers and book critics:

I think you would pass this onto your friends. (I have!) Even if you wouldn’t because you’re a Mr. Grumpypants who says things like “I want the novel to attract my attention with its words…” and “I don’t own a TV; there’s nothing on it” and who doesn’t understand that sometimes, the purpose of a thing can just be FUN, there’s a far higher chance you’d watch it to the end than the one above. And if you’re an author, you’ll relate to Maria’s “problem” (“…I’m going to have to take to the internet and mess. You. UP.”).

So if you’re considering making a book trailer, my advice would be to:

  • Avoid making a movie-style trailer that just tells us what happens in your book
  • Focus on the share value; this isn’t a straight forward advertisement
  • Keep it short.

I’ll leave you with this: sometimes publishing does get it right. (In this case, Amazon Publishing.) They’re more likely to have a “big name” author with Big Name Friends, and when that meets comedy you have book trailer gold. Penny Marshall is an American actress and director, and she’s just released a memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.

And instead of being in her own book trailer, she got someone else to stand in…

*It is entirely possible that the publishing house had a hand in that one too, but Maria Semple works in TV and has famous acting friends so I’m guessing this was all her. Don’t get hung up on details: the point is that her trailer is 100% DIY in content and appearance, and it’s something a self-publisher could easily emulate. It’s not the expensive, flashy animation that just tells us what the book is about. And THAT’S the one that works.

20 thoughts on “Why Flashy Book Trailers Don’t Work

  1. robertgoldenpictures says:

    I think your observation that what we must put up on the internet should improve the internet – that maybe to say – to improve the world we live in, is truly positive. The idea offers two things: first that it helps us to feel responsible for the life that surrounds us and second, that it insists that we understand that we are a community member, even if only connected by ones and naughts. Thank you……

  2. Sally Harris (@franklybooks) says:

    Haha that second book trailer is great. The funny thing is, I think the two work really well in tandem, as after I watched the second one, it made me want to watch the first one to find out a bit more about what the story is actually about. A bit disappointed that there weren’t any dogs in the ‘official’ clip … 🙂

  3. Laura Reese says:

    Couldn’t agree more … Spent $$ on Stay Tuned’s trailer, then spent five dollars on Dixie’s trailer….. The $5 one is much better, but still doesn’t hit the trinity you’re talking about.

    Great read with my coffee this morning! Cheers! Lauren

  4. Normandie says:

    Love it. And you do exactly what you advise all of us to do: offer value. Which, of course, propelled me to click on your book links.

    Here’s to some laughter along with my morning coffee!

  5. Laura Roberts (@originaloflaura) says:

    I have to say, I get your blog in my inbox, and I had to come to your site just to watch that Penny Marshall book trailer when I saw Fred Armisen was playing Penny. Now that’s a hilarious book trailer that makes me want to buy the book (even though it totally contradicts your message about saying “Buy the book”)!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I completely agree with you. Despite my saying that book trailers don’t by themselves get people to buy books, I have to confess that this one might just convince me! 😀

  6. Claude Nougat says:

    I tried to tell you this morning, but Google crashed on me, hope this comment will get through…because I think you’ve absolutely outdone yourself! This is one of the best, funniest and most interesting posts yet, congrats Catherine!

    Andnow I know why I hate book trailers and why they leave me cold. I’ve been hesitating about doing one, I’ve been told again and again that I should…well, I think that thanks to you I now have a clearer idea! Someone mentioned on the comments thread that actually the 2 booktrailers work best in tandem, which suggests that neither does a perfect job. I would tend to agree with that…

    But then who (or what) is perfect in this imperfect world? LOL!

  7. Jae says:

    I too am growing weary of all the “please buy my book” tweets. At least link me to your blog with some interesting news about your book. I’m seriously considering unfollowing all of these folks… Mostly it’s a time and effort thing…

    Thanks for putting me on to Marian Keyes. I hope to learn from her example how to make my own Twitter account more engaging and delightful.

  8. Christian Frey says:

    That really applies to most commercials, don’t you think? The ones with entertainment value, like the Old Spice guy, are far more likely to get passed around. And “entertainment value” doesn’t necessarily equal humor, although I think that’s probably the easiest one to do low-budget. Also, flashy animation is not always expensive these days. A simple vector graphic animation can be put together in Apple’s Keynote if you’re able to put the time in to learn how to so it. In fact it’s likely quite a bit cheaper than professional video production.

  9. Louisa says:

    Excellent post with great examples! I agree — I couldn’t even get through the first trailer. It seemed like a bad sitcom trailer for TV! The book trailers I’ve enjoyed typically had great, expressive music, along with poignant images. They didn’t have to be expensive-looking or complex, just compelling ideas… Whether or not trailers sell books, I’m not sure. But I think they do get people more excited about reading, which is a good thing!!

  10. Martin says:

    The name ‘Social Media’ is the clue. It’s about being social. Ads aren’t social, they’re intrusive. Looks like I’ll have to rethink my trailers.

  11. Adam Cushman says:

    This post made my day. Direct advertising is dead. What’s so exciting about book trailers is the form is wide open and there’s enormous creative potential, and the results could be massive for the literary world. Music videos saved albums back in the day. Now they’re a recognized art form that spread the idea of the book, the band, and everything about the band. Book trailers deserve the same standard of cinematic integrity that music videos offer.

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