Follow the Trailer: A Publisher’s Lead Balloon, Art, or a Jest-Fueled Engine for More Book Sales?

KENSINGTON, MD — If you aren’t paying attention or you’re buried somewhere under a three-and-a-half foot drift of snow, you may be missing one of the most fascinating multimedia developments in the book publishing industry. There’s nothing new under the next-generation iPad sun, of course. But for a Luddite-leaning publisher slow to adapt to the latest cyber fad, this techno-geek party has just started and I’m not only grateful to drink from the punch bowl, but I’m anxious to know the ingredients and find out exactly who spiked the Kool-Aid, how they pulled it off, and what on Gutenberg’s greenish-turning planet does it all mean?

Granted, natural born marketers do not consider these thinly veiled plugs novel, and media hounds covering the e-book revolution hardly think they warrant a Farmville cow’s backside speck of attention, but with fascination (and envy), I’ve been watching as more and more publishers get on board with the medium. After all, most of them are nothing more than product pushes that borrow crass, commercial elements from TV, Hollywood, and other parts of the advertising-driven entertainment industry. But the damn things are everywhere you turn these days, and they range from surprisingly stellar and creative to mostly horrendous and boring. They’re called book trailers. And I’m having the damnedest time having them produced for Atticus Books.

My attempts at creating trailers for our book releases have run the gamut from no- to low-budget (pizza with toppings, and a case of beer) productions to desperate measures. First, I begged Atticus authors to take the initiative and make mini-movies on their own. That’s right: I more or less implored Atticus writers to leave their No. 2 pencil-lead comfort zone, find their inner Coppola, and produce (if not become) a youtube sensation on their own time and nickel. Publishers are nothing if not persuasive, cost-conscious, and resourceful. I figure if Canadian author Stuart Ross (Buying Cigarettes for the Dog) could star in his own spoof video to sell his stories (see below) and Ron Charles could have fun pointing the camera inward for The Washington Post Book World, then certainly it’s within reach of our authors. My result thus far: Nada. Though I’m encouraged that at least one Atticus author, Steve Himmer (The Bee-Loud Glade), has promised to step to the plate with a promising trailer in the works (coming soon to a website near you).

Next, I turned to an unemployed friend in sales, with no video-making experience but an aptitude for gadgets and cameras that far exceeds my ineptitude of awkwardly pushing buttons with unsteady fingers sometimes confused with sausage links. My dear childhood friend gave it the old college try, but after a few decent but uninspired versions, we both agreed to part with a newfound appreciation of specialized training and that adage about not mixing business with friendship.

I then reached out to my cousin’s daughter, Chris Pagliei, a young college graduate who describes herself on her blog “as an upstanding gormandizer of film, music, media, the written word, good food, ideas, and schlock.” In an astoundingly short period of time, Chris created a two-minute video for the debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day, that demonstrated her own talent and ingenious resourcefulness. In the process, she made me realize how unrealistic it was for me to expect original, contemporary photos and footage (of Philadelphia, in this case) for a montage-driven trailer on zero budget without concerns of copyright infringement or familial exploitation.

FFYLD from Chris Pagliei on Vimeo.

The more I pursue this idea of making trailers with limited, internal resources to control costs, the more I conclude that I better defer to an outsider with credentials and actual experience in this department. For proof, check out this terrible video which I spent an entire Sunday afternoon attempting to create. I’ll spare you other creations that I cumbersomely threw together that day. The xtranormal software may be quite acceptable and fun for those who have worked in animation, but given my limited patience and skill set, I found the interface and orchestration tiresome.

Poets have proven particularly savvy in this evolving medium. One might say it’s the perfect avenue to project a poet’s word wizardry. As an example of a simple, yet highly effective trailer, I present to you the poignant reading of “Canvas” by Djelloul Marbrook, author of Brushstrokes and Glances, Dearbrook Editions). The videographer is Brent Robison.

Even though small presses may be hard-pressed to prove a return on investment, it’s book trailers such as Djelloul’s that should inspire publishers of all stripes and sizes to sacrifice a few dollars for the sake of art and the advancement of literature. If we at Atticus Books are part of a growing coalition of literary presses that say our goal is to make a difference and redefine the role of literature, then trailers undoubtedly must become part of that equation.

Photo source: Typewriter in Snow, Salcha, Alaska #6, Copyright Doug Von Gausig, Critical Eye Photography and 2004-2007

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