4 Simple Steps to Creating a Book Trailer

Like a fresh crop of apples, they’re piling up in bushels all over YouTube: short videos to promote books by mimicking the style of Hollywood movie trailers. As a writer with more than 20 years of experience in video production, I’ve seen evidence that this trend carries huge potential as a promotional tool for authors.

No experience with this sort of thing? No problem. You already have many of the creative skills you need to try your hand at this increasingly popular way of promoting your book (whether it’s traditionally published or self-published). Here are some artistic methods you can employ to polish your promo until it shines like the apple on Twilight’s cover.

1. Do comparative research.
You can get a feel for what makes a good book promo by watching a few (see the sidebar on the following page for links to some good examples). So, pass the popcorn, but keep your pen handy. Analyze your reaction to each promo. Take notes on what you like and why, and where you think the production could have been improved.

You’ll likely notice that most use one of two approaches: beguiling viewers with tidbits of the book’s plot, or employing an attention-getting gimmick to hook interest. Whichever style you prefer, you can approach your production a variety of ways.

2. Choose a format.
Your own skill set, the subject matter of your book and the resources you have access to will all play into which format is best for your trailer.

YOU, THE STAR: If you have acting experience, feel comfortable in front of a crowd or have a fun and quirky personality, you might consider pointing the camera (or webcam) at yourself. Whether the results are humorous, dramatic or even embarrassing, this format gives viewers a more personal connection with you, which can make them more likely to look up your work the next time they visit
the bookstore.

THE CINEMATIC APPROACH: Video production can quickly become expensive if you’re buying or even renting equipment. While some great high-definition cameras are now readily available, they may be cost prohibitive. Still, that doesn’t mean your trailer can’t have a Hollywood feel.

When using your own equipment or coercing friends and family to help, choose the best camera available. Cameras that capture the red, green and blue colors of the picture on separate chips (known as 3CCD) often result in higher-quality images. But even if your camera is a little substandard, there are ways to help viewers look beyond those limitations:

    •    Consider your cast before writing your script. You may have friends in high places, but if all you have to work with is cousin Fred who once played a tree in Peter Pan, you may need to employ some ingenuity. You might try giving all the lines to a narrator, editing it over your actors doing simple actions, like walking down the street. Or, devise a format that can rely on close shots of the action. For example, viewers will see feet dancing while hearing about the night your protagonist met the love of her life.

    •    Pay attention to lighting. If you’re filming outdoors, watch for harsh shadows cast by sunlight and for areas that are ultra-bright and glowing. Also, be wary of the dappled light cast by the leaves of trees. Indoors, turn all the lights on and reposition lamps to light the scene as much as possible without creating strong shadows.

    •    Upgrade your sound. Most in-camera microphones are low quality, so use the input for an external mic. A shotgun microphone picks up sound directly in front of it and will give you good results. When filming, wear headphones plugged into the camera, so you’ll notice if that police siren in the background overpowers the dialogue. If you’re recording narration, position your narrator in a closet full of clothes, or in a small room where you’ve draped the walls with blankets. This will absorb echoes and give your sound a fuller quality.

    •    Keep camera moves to a minimum. Use a tripod or a stable surface for your camera whenever possible. If you zoom in or out or pan (where you move the camera to the side), keep the movement slow and steady.

THE MOCKUMENTARY: If you prefer a more raw approach, consider styling your promo as if it were a documentary, or an amateur spoof of another type of program (a talk show, for example). Viewers readily forgive poor lighting, camera jiggles and mundane settings in this format, where such foibles are expected.

Similarly, some producers dress an actor like a character in their book and conduct a mock interview with the character, often to humorous effect.

THE SLIDE SHOW: If all this cinematic talk makes your head swim, you can go for another option, one used by the vast majority of book promos. A slide show doesn’t have to be as mundane as it sounds. Stock photos, music and sound effects are readily available on the Web, either in public domain or for a nominal fee. You can visit sites like Sounddogs.com and BigStockPhoto (bigstockphoto.com) to sift through thousands of images and sounds. Unlike your favorite pop tunes, these files are royalty free, granting you permission to use them when you pay to download them (be sure to read the fine print on your licensing agreement). You can even purchase stock video clips to give your trailer a cinematic feel without juggling a camera yourself.

As you’re choosing images and sound, keep in mind that people—especially people who convey a sense of action or drama—are more interesting to viewers than empty landscapes or meaningless objects.

Whichever approach you take, make time for planning before you dive into production. Write a script and/or draw your ideas in storyboard panels. Then gather your footage—be it original or downloaded—and get ready to polish.

3. Edit your first draft.
There are numerous editing software packages available, many of them free and very user friendly. Mac and Windows operating systems come with access to iMovie and Windows Live Movie Maker, respectively. Simply follow directions in the Help menus to learn the ropes.

Editing is all about rhythm and pacing. Sound is a huge part of this, with the power to make or break your production. A sprinkling of sound effects can paint a picture in the viewer’s mind, even without video to back it up. And you can transform the emotions of your audience with wisely chosen music. A stirring march will make your protagonist seem heroic, while the same video paired with tense violins will elicit expectations of disaster.

The emotional reaction of your viewer is also dictated by how often you use cuts, in which one shot is displaced abruptly by the next. If your book is a fast-paced thriller, use this technique often to convey a sense of urgency.

When making transitions, cuts or dissolves (where the first shot melts into the next) work best. Transitions made in patterns, known as wipes, call attention to themselves and should be used sparingly and for a specific purpose (for instance, a clock wipe indicating the passage of time).

Likewise, text should be used only to emphasize a point—and with a clear font that stays on screen long enough to be read. The summary on your book’s dust jacket better serves as narration than as screen after screen of text getting in the way of the pictures. You don’t want viewers to give up in frustration before they get to your website at the end. In keeping with this, make sure your video is short and sweet—no more than a few minutes.

When you’re finished editing, host a premiere viewing for friends and family, then observe them as they watch. Are they laughing in the right places? Are their eyes glued to the screen? Is anyone yawning or fidgeting? Afterward, ask for their honest opinions, then use that feedback to tweak your promo until it feels perfect.

4. Roll out the red carpet.
All that’s left now is to get your trailer out there for the masses to enjoy.

YouTube offers tutorials for uploading videos—but don’t limit yourself to that haystack. Check out the  sidebar above for additional outlets. Increasing your exposure increases your chances for book sales—and other opportunities.

Jeff Carlson, author of the Plague Year trilogy, found great marketing success with his video promo. Romanian rights for his first two books were optioned when a foreign publisher came across his trailer on the Internet. The video also has generated great online buzz, leading to numerous radio and TV interviews. You can watch it yourself on his website, jverse.com.

So, don’t be afraid to dive into the director’s arena. If you’re lucky, you’ll concoct a gleaming caramel apple covered in nuts and bits of chocolate that no bookworm will be able to resist.

This article appeared in the February issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. Click here to a digital download of the issue, click here.

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