From book trailer to Vook – A new short film niche


A new niche has now joined the ranks of the many already filled by short film: the so-called “book trailer”. Book trailers are used to market books online. The idea is to convey an impression of the book’s content and overall mood, a kind of visual blurb and book cover in one. The best of them also happen to be good short films.

When the term “book trailers” was coined a few years ago, it was only a short-lived hype. After that, the trailers were for a long time considered too expensive, and the traditionally conservative book publishers regarded them as superfluous. In the meantime, however, with the growing significance of online sales, attitudes have changed. And ever since the introduction of E-Books and the increasing popularity of tablet computers and other multimedia mobile display devices, there are additional reasons to believe that book trailers will even gain in importance in future.

In terms of function, book trailers are nothing other than advertising films. And yet they are beginning to develop into a modest art form in their own right, similar to the way music videos were first invented only to sell music. Book trailers can draw on a broad spectrum of formal possibilities. The simplest are literature films, which are often not much more than the documentation of a reading or an interview with the author. At the other end of the scale are elaborate short fiction films nourished by a generous budget, some of which come on like trailers for major cinema features. Most exciting, though, is the grey area in between – which ranges from abstract typographic works based on the book’s text, to low-budget animated films illustrating plots and text passages, all the way to visual experiments venturing a cross-media translation of the book at hand.

From the point of view of book publishers and dealers, the purpose of a trailer is to appeal to the emotions of potential customers who might not bother to read blurbs or reviews on the internet or on mobile displays. With a short video lasting from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, the theme and mood of a book can be conveyed attractively. In the belles lettres field, for example, a reader might identify more quickly with a character from a novel whom he sees portrayed in a book trailer. But this is also the problem with most book trailers – at least those that don’t work in an abstract style, but rather act as a kind of ultra-short screen adaptation or pseudo-film-trailer.

In contrast with film trailers or music videos, there is no direct media intersection between trailer and book text. Film trailers are compiled from clips of the film being promoted. And with the music video, the connection is even closer, as the soundtrack is always authentic. Staged book trailers by contrast produce a perceptual experience that can never be compared to what it’s like to read the book. On the contrary, casting the book’s content in concrete acoustic and visual form actually detracts from the pleasure of reading it. After all, conjuring the world of the book in one’s own imagination is a major part of what makes reading so enjoyable.

All the same, the motives for transferring book content to a different media are not only commercial ones. For pedagogical reasons, some American universities are working with book trailers as a way to encourage more reading. The hope is to sway non-readers who spend a great deal of time with multimedia content to pick up a book for a change. The University of Dakota for example has put “Book Trailers – Movies for Literacy” for various age groups online.
A similar strategy is being pursued by the University of Florida, which has posted over one hundred book trailers on its website “Digital Booktalk” .

Despite an article in the weekly newsletter of the German book dealers’ association Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels quoting a survey that determined that book trailers helped to promote sales, their effectiveness is nevertheless doubtful. Still, the book trailers are quite popular on the internet, and a small industry has grown up around their production and dissemination.

Book trailers are offered for download on video platforms and are used on publishers’ websites and sales platforms. Attempts are made to reach the still overwhelmingly sceptical book dealers with off-line versions, i.e. digital signage displays and touch screens for presenting book trailers in stores.

One of the German market leaders in the field, LitVideo, is currently building a trailer database to automatically supply websites, including those of book dealers, with appropriate material. A central video server is capable of directly transmitting book trailers supplied by publishers, referenced by EAN product code, to the booksellers’ respective shop systems.

In the meantime, not only producers and distributors are active in the book trailer market; there are also competitions and festivals. In the USA and Canada, for example, the Moving Stories Film Festival has been founded by the Toronto-based company Bookshorts Inc., whose films can incidentally be viewed online on its own WebTV platform .

In Germany and France, Bertelsmann held competitions for book trailers until 2009, geared especially toward film students. The web page has now been removed, but the YouTube channel still exists.

Another competition, the Moby Awards, is held by Melville House Publishing (New York). What’s likeable about this competition is that, with a certain self-irony, prizes are also awarded for the “most annoying music” and for the “trailer least likely to sell the book”.

Book trailers can of course also be found using a search engine or directly on YouTube or Vimeo. But since their numbers are still quite small, here are a few more tips.

  • “No One Belongs Here More than You” is an anthology of short stories by Miranda July for which Lea Becker from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design London created a book trailer.
  • A good example of a low-budget animated trailer is “Little Things” , which Vance Reeser created for a small publishing house that specializes in short stories (Electric Literature).
  • Comic fans might enjoy “Be A Nose! – Art Spiegelman” by Alex Pawlowski.
  • three animation films for the novel “Tomas” by James Palumbo (Ministry of Sound) were produced based on artwork by Neal Murren
  • A good example of a more elaborate short fiction film is the book trailer for the mash-up novel “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” by Seth Graham-Smith.
  • Marc Thümmler, who was nominated for the German Short Film Award in 2009, made a trailer for a German translation of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” .
  • Politically up-to-the-minute and an example of a trailer for a non-fiction book is “Tweets from Tahrir” by Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns.
  • The Huffington Post has published a whole list of the best and worst book trailers.

It will be exciting to see whether, and in what direction, the format continues to develop. Book trailers definitely provide a way to utilize the multimedia capabilities of mobile display devices, in particular tablets and E-Book readers, to augment the text audiovisually. Work is already being done on sound and visual effects for E-Books, for instance when virtually turning the page.

Everyone’s talking these days about “Enhanced E-Books” – the latest hype on the book market. They already have a catchy name – “Vook” (video + book) – but not there are not many around yet. Whether this kind of hybrid medium can be successful remains to be seen. And it will be especially interesting to see whether Vooks can offer more than Yoga courses and recipes. There is already at least one exception: “Best of Times”, a collection of blog entries from The New York Times Opinionator Blog by filmmaker and painter Jeff Scher. Vooks might however be doomed to the same fate as the interactive CD-ROMs in the 1990s that were created with Hypercard – they can only be played by those who still have their old computer.

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