Hello. I’m Karen. When I’m not writing speculative fiction, I’m a freelance photographer and videographer. I spend a lot of time writing, and a lot of time behind a camera. Because of that, I often run into conversations about book trailers: how they’re too expensive, how they don’t work, how they’re so, so boring.
But they don’t have to be.
Since I’ve made low-budget book trailers myself (look up to the menu and click “scripted” to see a couple), I wanted to clear up a few popular misconceptions. I want to tell you that it’s possible: you can have an awesome, effective, low-budget book trailer for your marketing efforts! The key is understanding how trailers work as an art form on their own, marrying those concepts to the strengths of your narrative, and then following through using techniques that you are comfortable working with.
This will be a series, starting with the basics about how trailers work, and then moving into the particulars of putting one together. In this entry, we’ll talk about what makes a good book trailer — and what doesn’t work so well.
First of all, a trailer has to be a trailer. Movie trailers are short, promotional materials made by motion picture advertising agencies like Team Aspect and The Trailer Park. Trailer houses have command over a very particular visual and auditory language that harnesses your gut emotional response to sell a product. A trailer house is not concerned with communicating the plot of a movie in a coherent fashion. Instead, they delve into the film and pick out the hooks and cool bits, arranging them in a fashion that concentrates mostly on mood and theme to get a viewer to say: “Oooh, shiny!”
Those of us in fandom often treat trailers as previews, but they’re not. A trailer exists only to get you to open your wallet. They do this with music (using short mood pieces from labels such as Two Steps From Hell), with color grading (blue/orange in particular) and emotional hooks (like the Inception BRAAAAAAP).
To put it in book terms, a book trailer isn’t a synopsis or even a “look inside.” It’s back cover copy. It’s a query letter.
The very first thing I tell people to do when planning out their book trailer is to not look at book trailers yet. Instead, sit down, open YouTube, type in “movie trailer” and watch as many as you can, especially recent ones, until some guy with a deep voice is in your dreams prefacing everything with “In a world…”
The key here is to learn the shorthand. Look at how trailer houses never let you get more than a glancing look at pretty much anything, but those looks are always visually breathtaking. Look at the easy-to-read, catchy titles and slogans. Hear the audio cues, the places where the music swells and what sound effects are used. Notice how they reach down into your gut and twist (the Inception brrraaaap gets me EVERY TIME). Look at the fact that the colors are always consistent and related to the mood (and are usually complementary on the color wheel, like orange and blue). When you feel exhilarated or nervous, stop, rewind, and look at what the editor did to make you feel that way.
Here’s the most recent movie trailer for Lucasfilm’s SOLO (until the first title card). It hits all the proper trailer notes:
Now watch the book trailer for Justina Ireland’s DREAD NATION. It’s very different, right? No explosions, no spaceship chases… but look how much drama-trailer shorthand they got right:
There are a ton of similarities:
— gorgeous, dramatic music composed specifically for use in a trailer
— great use of color; our heroine is depicted in warm colors, while the zombies are cold, cold blue
— trailer shorthand (titles that move/expand slightly, flashes that occur in time with drums or orchestral hits)
— short and sweet, concentrates on the hooks
— an easy-to-remember slogan (“Rise up.”)
— it tantalizes visually (you’ll have to buy the book to see the zombies and follow the heroine, which I did literally 10 seconds after seeing this trailer).
Trailer language is used in commercials, in documentaries… once you start recognizing it, you’ll see it everywhere! Here’s a trailer I made for the wedding of an awesome couple that met at a Star Trek convention. I tried to use as many movie-trailer cues as I could on my small budget. How many can you find?
If you can write a query letter, you can write a book trailer.
Sure, you don’t have two hours of film sitting in front of you, ready to cut. What do you have?
— One hundred thousand words and the time spent working on it. Readers love spending time with sympathetic and interesting main characters. Good marketing and a cool cover will get a reader to pick up a book, but the main character’s voice will get them to stay. You can pick a monologue from your book, or write a new one. Don’t summarize; instead, tantalize. Use those words! That voice! Roll around in it! Revel in it!
— Themes and symbols. So many themes and symbols. You’ve spent hundreds of hours imagining this world. What sticks with you most? In particular, how would a tenth-grade teacher describe the theme and major symbols of your book? trust me; there’s going to be something there. Can you translate any of what comes out of that thought process into things you can see and hear? For example, if the character is being chased, you can use the sound of footsteps echoing down a corridor, or someone breathing really hard while running.
— You. Can you draw? Are you good at cosplay? Do you paint? Doodle? Fix cars? Skateboard? Take a tally of your talents. There’ll be something there that you can use to set apart your trailer from the others, even if you don’t yet know how to use a camera. (We’ll cover this in the next entry.)
Remember that old Blues Traveler song? “The hook brings you back, I ain’t telling you no lie?”
You’re not making a movie, here. You’re harnessing a gut emotional response to sell a product. You don’t need to hire a full cast of actors and a Steadicam guy to achieve a killer effect, and sometimes, showing less is more. After all, why do you think we go back over and over again to horror movies where the camera never shows the mysterious horror except in shadow, or at all?
For example: even if dragons are central to your novel, it won’t help to have dragons in your trailer if you can’t do the CGI work to make them happen. Viewers have gotten really sophisticated, and they’ll check out. Don’t show too much. Maybe you can have a dragon claw made and tantalize the viewer with knowing they can buy the book to see more. Maybe you can have creepy dragon noises in the background. Maybe you can use cool dragon art instead.
Good book trailers concentrate on tantalizing images and really, really good dialogue and narration. Once you have that, you can go anywhere. That’s why DREAD NATION’s trailer is so damn good: you get teased with images of the heroine, teased with images of the zombies, slammed with emotional content via the narration and music. More than that, though, the character is great: the heroine is talking to you and has something to say. “If you like the heroine of the DREAD NATION trailer,” the marketers promise, “you’ll love spending time with her in the book.”
What is your major hook moment?
This acted trailer for Katie Alender’s YA novel FROM BAD TO CURSED stars audience favorite Zendaya, but that’s not why it works. It’s a lot more simple than it looks. The hook focuses on the main character’s voice, and I think it’s great:
Remember to keep your dialogue pointed, like a main gauche: you want to give people Hershey’s Kisses, not the full bar of candy. You’re making a supermarket sample: so delicious, so particular, that they want to pick up the box and take it to the front cashier. If your audience feels like they’ve gotten the full experience, they won’t want to read the book.
ACE OF SHADES by Amanda Foody gets a lot right: music, atmosphere, and great art and animation that hints at the very cool world she’s drawn in her book, but…
This trailer falters for me when the summary starts. There’s a lot of information, here, and no real hook to hang it on. This is why I recommend that you avoid the synopsis style when working on a book trailer. Imagine what would have happened if we’d started with the delicious main conflict that we only get at the end?
Here’s DIVIDING EDEN, by Joelle Charbonneau, which relies on her main characters’ internal thoughts and some very simple, striking imagery to hook viewers:
Beautiful. Simple. Short. Pointed dialogue. Cool music. Doubling down on the symbolic imagery. I love both of the main characters already. I think it’s pretty close to perfect.
This is the trailer for BLACKLIST by Alyson Noel, which goes a long way to establishing the mood the author hopes the reader will feel when reading the book:
Look at the way the producers use main character narration and tantalizing, quick shots to create a dangerous, Hollywood-sexy thriller mood. They’re very particularly chosen: the black stilettos, the pool, the camera flashes. It looks amazing, and none of this would take a lot of time or money to create (aside from the police car).
Last for now, THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake, which uses only photos and post-production:
One of the reasons good book trailers use voiceover narration a lot is a $$$ issue: if you have one or two voiceovers, that’s going to be a LOT cheaper to produce than a movie-set arrangement where you have to mic two or three actors at once. You can record a killer narration using a decent podcast mic and free software. There are so many good options!
Why are these are mostly YA books? As a marketing tool, book trailers need to reach the audiences where they are. YA audiences are on YouTube, and they’re getting sophisticated, so I find a lot of the most effective trailers to be for young adult novels. I bet a lot of these show up in front of Minecraft videos, for example, or on beauty-guru channels, just like your newest James Patterson trailer will end up on NCIS or Law & Order.
Which brings me to our next topic.
In my next entry, I’ll talk about low-budget filming, and what kinds of things you need to do to make an effective book trailer using what you have at home: your brain, friends, your phone, your gaming mic, your particular talents, and your copy of iMovie. I’ll go through the steps I made to create my last $400 trailer, and cover some of the pitfalls budding producers might not know about, like finding and licensing music, working with narrators and understanding where you can and cannot film and how to keep yourself safe. You also need to put the trailer in a place where your intended audience will see it, and we’ll touch on that, as well.