Words for Writers: Adventures in Self Promotion – Book Trailers and Tax Reciepts

Here’s the first of a series of posts I hope to do about what little marketing tips and tricks that I’ve been up to in order to help promote Triptych.  I’ve worked as a publicist for an arts organization in the past, and do outreach at my current job, so while it’s not my main field of work, I do have experience in the area; so, let’s get cracking!

Firstly, I was admonished this morning by my mother to be certain to keep all my receipts from all these endeavors, so I shall pass the mother-love on to all of you: KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS.

Whatever you spend on marketing can be considered a small business cost, and therefore (at least in Canada) you can write it off come tax time.  This includes the price of mailing manuscripts, galleys, and ARCs to reviewers. This includes the coffee you bought when you met with your editor, the lunch with the cover artist, the pizza you bought for your book trailer cast, from the plane ticket and hotel costs to attend a con down to the sharpies you picked up for your signing.  Keep track of this stuff, make a folder, jam it in an envelope, whatever, but keep them.

And speaking of book trailers…

That is our first topic!

First of all, what is a book trailer?  Well, it’s sort of like a movie trailer, but for your book. That is, it’s a short video that is produced by either the publisher’s marketing department, or the author or the author’s publicist, and it is intended to be utilized for advertising purposes. It is a cross between your back-of-the-book copy and a commercial.  Think of the movie trailers you see on TV; which ones make you go “oh, I really want to go see that!”

How long is it?  That’s up to you, and it also depends on what kind of trailer you’re aiming to make. Some are upwards of six minutes long, some are just forty seconds.  But remember, people generally pay attention for around a minute – after that, they lose interest and wander away. You need to be able to get across all the information in a condensed amount of time, but clearly and in a way that entertains. If that takes you ten minutes, then ten minutes it is!

What kind of trailers are there? Generally, there are three types: the visual back-cover trailer, the excerpt trailer, and the movie-style trailer.

The Visual Back Cover Trailer: This is the type of trailer which generally just reiterates what is on the back of the book. Usually it’s expanded somewhat and includes different information or excerpts, but more or less follows the structure and outline of the pitch/back cover copy.  As a way of drawing in audiences, I’m not certain that it’s as effective as a movie-style trailer, but it is excellent at making it clear what your book is about and linking it visually with your other marketing.  Generally people also avoid using any live action in this version, choosing instead to focus on still images, versions of the cover, and images from the interior. If done well, this can be extremely engaging and appealing.  The biggest danger of this style is being too literal in your interpretation, and not offering the viewer anything new and exciting to further pique their interest. Good Examples – Leviathan, Plain Kate

The Excerpt Trailer: In this version, someone will act out/narrate an entire segment of the book in order to give the viewer an idea of the genre, pace, mood, and characters of the book. If your book is a character driven or character study piece, then this style of trailer works exceptionally well, because it offers the viewer a chance to meet and falling love with your characters. The biggest danger of this style of trailer is boring your audience with choosing a piece with not enough dynamic or too much of an info dump, and by keeping your actors stationary.  Movies are called movies because they move. Good Example – Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

The Movie Style Trailer: This is the version where the creator of the trailer has pretended that it is a movie they are advertising. It is created by choosing scenes from the book like a trailer-maker chooses scenes from a movie to condense into a quick pitch for why the audience should go to see this/buy this book.  The danger of this style: it can be too fragmented. Make certain that the scenes you choose neither give away too much, nor give away nothing at all. Every single second matters, so make sure that they audience is being told why this book is cool and why they should read it.  Good Examples – Night of the Living Trekkies

(Check out My Youtube Channel for more great Book Trailers)

What do I use for my script? A great place to start is your pitch. Look at the information that is in your pitch, the way you paced it, the way that you chose every word carefully and made certain that the sentences were just right. Obviously there was something in that pitch that made your agent/publisher/editor want to pick up your book. Maybe you want to do a literal audio-visual interpretation of your pitch, maybe you want to do it of your back-cover copy, or maybe you just want to use that as the starting off point.

I pretended like my book was an actual movie, and studied the tropes of trailers for movies in the same genre – War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Stargate, District 9, etc.  I pulled text out of my manuscript and picked the few dramatic, pivotal scenes that would create interest and give the gist of the story without giving everything away.  I actually had a really hard time with deciding which of the genres the story encompasses to focus on. I wanted to focus on one, because to fill the trailer with contradictory signals would just confuse the viewer, and I went with the action-adventure trailer because it was the most dynamic and would hold people’s attention more. But my novel is also a poignant, tragic love story, and I also wrote a script for a more Lost In Translation kind of trailer, too. Friends who had read the manuscript voted for the action trailer.

What info should it include? Besides the obvious final shot of the cover, the name of your book, your name, and your website or your publishers website, consider including a short blurb or review you’ve received. Also, make certain that your trailer answers the question “why?”  It seems strange, but think of it like this:

You’re watching the Transformers trailer.  You ask the trailer, “Why should I spend money on this movie?” and the trailer says, “Because we have a hot chick and some cool action sequences and explosions and oh yeah, those robots you really loved when you were a kid! We have robots!!”

You ask the “Jane Austen Book Club” trailer why, and it answers “Because you love Jane Austen books just as much as we do, and aren’t we clever, we’re setting up a story where these women go through an Austen-esque comedy of manners (see, here’s the hot wild boy who is good for no one but that no one can resist, just like Darcy! Swoon!), and there’s going to be romance and heartbreak and joy, and did we mention, Jane Austen books? Yay! Jane Austen rules!”

How do I make sure my trailer “feels” right? Think of the pace of your prose, the tone and the mood that you invoke. Now think of the sorts of music that match that.  Look at trailers or music videos set to that music, figure out what sort of lighting it evokes, and what sorts of colours you associate with those moods. Set and environment are just as vital as character and dialogue in film, so be aware that you might have to change the colour of the lighting or make choices about what colours the actors wear.  Look at how highly stylized films like Indiana Jones and MirrorMask are.  For example: Firefly had a visual language all its own, filled with shaky handsets, lens flares, and off kilter framing, which gave it a sense of being handmade, cobbled together and quick-and-dirty; this reflected the circumstances and themes of the show.

Do I show my MC’s face? That’s up to you and depends on your genre.  Generally the trend is to not show the face for YA, or any book where the character is meant to be a conduit or surrogate for the reader. I would also advise against it if you can’t find an actor who looks pretty much exactly like what you envision and describe in the book. However, if the book is more about blowing things up and things happening than the people who feature in the story, then it’s easier to show a whole face because what the character looks like isn’t as vitally important.  You can also get around this by showing distorted reflections, only parts of faces, and by using contacts, makeup and wigs.

Should I be in my own book trailer? Depends. Is it a cameo that is appropriate for the tone of the book? Then sure. Is it to play your main character? Well, I personally find that a bit gauche, but if you feel that you can do it and do it really well, and if you look exactly like your MC, then go for it. Just remember that people are going to know it’s you in the trailer; your face is in the back of the book and will be in the rest of your press. If having you in the trailer will yank people out of the experience, if your presence is jarring or self indulgent, then maybe you should reconsider. (Think of how you felt when you first recognized Stan Lee in the Marvel films, or saw Stephanie Meyer in “Twilight”. Was it cool or corney?) Some authors do cameos in their own trailers, and if it’s appropriate, I think it’s cool. Lesley Livingston is in her trailer for Darklight, if you can find her (so is author Adrienne Kress)! But in this case, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the tone of the trailer I was trying to make.

How should I structure it? Be ruthless. Think of scripting a book trailer like writing flash fiction. In flash fiction you only have 100 words to tell a whole story, and you wouldn’t waste 50 of them describing something that doesn’t help the plot. Are you really willing to waste some precious seconds lingering on an extended view of the sunset? Well, that depends on the genre – if it’s a slow-paced, character driven, smoldering romance, then yes, maybe you do want to linger on the sunset to set the tone, pace, and mood. If it’s a face paced, action driven story about a vampire killer, then the sunset isn’t the important part, is it?  The vampire killing is. So kill some vampires.

Can I remix existing media texts? Using clips from movies, TV shows, and recognizable music from bands is a risky choice. Not only are you treading on shaky ground in terms of copyright infringement and fair use laws, you also don’t want to give people the wrong idea about what the book’s themes are. Using Nathan Fillion to represent your hero seems logical if he looks a lot like your hero does, but remember that if you put up a clip of him as Captain Hammer, people are going to assume your hero is a brainless bruiser prone to cliché; not what you want if your hero is instead a timid and thoughtful archeologist.   If you use a Linkin Park song as the soundtrack for your video, it may imply that it’s about whining emo teenage angst, instead of a story about a mature woman getting divorced and finally living for herself. See what I mean? Instead, invest in royalty free stock images, footage, and music. Better yet, rent a video camera for the weekend (and keep the receipt for taxes!), and go shoot your own footage. If you’re not in NYC but your book is set in Central Park, consider taking a trip into the city and filming a whole whack of footage, including some of you reading from your book in the setting, and answering interview questions.  If you can’t afford it, then bribe a resident to get you footage with the promise of an ARC.

Use the filming as an opportunity to get other marketing material. Take behind the scenes pictures to post on your website as a teaser for the launch of the trailer. Do on-camera interviews, even if you have to get a friend to make up the questions. Read an excerpt of your book on camera. Film the behind the scenes hijinks for a blooper reel. Any and all footage you can take out of this is worthwhile material. Just remember: Don’t ruin your plot by posting spoilery stuff!

What if I’m rubbish at scripting/filming/editing? There are some companies out there that exist soley to create book trailers. Work closely with them, provide them with a copy of the manuscript, and be available to answer all of their questions – but also remember that you hired them, so be prepared to step off and relinquish control. Failing that, find a local videographer – they’re the ones who are advertising doing your wedding video or taping special events. Sometimes they’re up for trying something more artistic and new. Talk to your local university/college’s film department. See if there’s a teacher who is willing to make doing your book trailer an assignment for (extra)credit, or post a flyer asking for help in the faculty and student lounges.

Should I be present for the filming? If you’re not the director of the piece, then you’re not in control on the set. It’s a hard truth to handle, but just because you wrote the book doesn’t mean you get to back-seat direct. If you think you can keep your opinions to yourself and your fingers out of the pie, then by all means, there’s no reason why you can’t be on set (unless the director requests that you not be).  But remember, you hired this guy to do it because you didn’t want to. I was on set for my book trailer, mostly because the director wanted to make certain that he had the “look” of things right before rolling film, and because I was also the costume/ SFX makeup person.  But the minute he started blocking, rehearsing, or filming, I made a point of being elsewhere. Generally on the porch reading a paper. Not only was it to stymie my temptation to backseat direct, but it was also to keep the actors from looking to me as the authority and ignoring the director.  This means that the trailer is going to be as much of a surprise to me as it will be to my audience when it comes out, but I’m okay with that. I also didn’t want to accidentally get caught on camera.

Should I make a trailer for a book that isn’t sold yet? Depends. I personally think it’s smarter to focus on editing and polishing your manuscript instead of gimmicks to attract attention to a product that might be suffering neglect and not be worth showing an agent/publisher if you do attract their attention. If you feel that your book is the best it’s ever going to be and that this trailer would be a useful tool for shopping, go ahead. But also remember that pretty much every agent that accepts slush submissions also very clearly states that they do not want any extra materials in the package – that means no CDs or DVDs of trailers.  You can mention that you made the trailer in your query letter and provide an URL, but what if after the book is picked up the editor wants some significant changes and the trailer is suddenly invalid or wrong?  That’s a lot of wasted time and money. Personally, I think it’s best to save making the trailer until after the book is picked up.

How much will it cost? This one is hard to answer. I was in a friend’s audio-drama book trailer, and because he was a professor at the local university he got access to their professional recording studio for free. I know he paid the sound engineers, though. He didn’t pay the actors, but he gave us copies of the book, which was good enough for me.  I was lucky enough to know someone with his own production company, so the cost of cameras, lighting, audio, and post-production came prepackaged with his offer to do this for me as a gift. All I had to do was buy the supplies and props for the shoot, and feed the volunteer actors both breakfast and lunch.  That ran me about a hundred dollars. I know full service companies that charge you a flat fee (anywhere from $200 – $800 plus), but then pay all their actors, engineers, editors and creative personnel from that envelope.  You can rent a professional grade camera from between $50 and $1000 per weekend, but then you may need to edit it yourself, or pay for an editor, or get an editor friend to do it for free.  Generally, it’s possible to find creative ways to get the trailer made, but you have to be willing to put a lot of work in yourself making costumes, finding props, securing sets and locations, and scripting.

Other Tips and Tricks:
-Leave title cards on the screen for no less than 4 seconds, no more than 10. Avoid putting huge blocks of text on at once – if you have to, break up sentences at logical grammatical points, like commas.
-Always close the trailer with an image of the cover, and a link to your website or your publisher’s website, so people know what to look for on the shelves in the book store and where to order it online.
-Make as big a deal of the trailer launch as you do the book launch.  Count down on your site, or as a local convention if they’d make a big deal of it and show it prior to their masquerade, or in a panel, or at an evening event. Ask a local bookstore to host a trailer launch party.
-Launch the trailer no more than three or four months before the book comes out. If you tell people about it too early they will either forget that the book is coming out, or get so sick of seeing the trailer that they’ll avoid the book.
-Use the trailer wherever you can. It is a tool. Give the URL or mention the trailer when you are interviewed, provide it to news agencies so they can put it on their sites when you’re on their radio program/in an article/etc. Put it on your own site. Put it on Amazon. Get a digital photo frame or lug a computer monitor to conventions and having it playing at your table – motion attracts the eye and therefore people will stop to talk to you. (Although, for the sake of the sanity of your table-neighbors, I would suggest playing it with no/low-sound)
-Where possible, create a trailer that is understandable even with the audio off.  Sometimes you might not get to be somewhere where the audio is available, or the speakers are large enough.
-Watch as many movie trailers and book trailers as you can. Figure out how they set the  pacing of trailers for movies in the same genre as your book. Is it action, made to make your heart pump? Is it rom com, full of one liners and pratfalls?
-Get your trailer nominated for book trailer awards. Do it yourself if you have to.
-Where possible, try to use a professional post-production guy/gal. Unless you’ve taken film or do a lot of youtube videos as a hobby, the intricacies of editing footage are beyond a lot of people. If you have a friend who can do this as a favour to you, ask them.

What do I do once it’s done? Last but not least – before you release your book trailer, make certain that your publisher has pre-ordering prepared and ready to go. There’s no point in releasing a trailer that makes people go “OMG, I want to read that book!” without providing them the opportunity to purchase the book. Make sure to provide a link to pre-ordering either within the trailer on a title card, or in the video’s description. Mark it clearly and in big letters if you are doing it in the text of the post, and make it the first thing that the viewer sees – don’t bury it at the end of the video description.  If the book isn’t out for pre-order yet, then chances are you’re releasing the trailer too early.

Here are just a few of the sites I’ve discovered that host or archive, analyze or discuss book trailers. These are great places to post your trailer and let it be seen, or to check out other people’s trailers:


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Adventures in Self Promotion – Book Trailers and Tax Reciepts


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