Super sad book trailers

Here's something you don't often hear: “Did you see that new book trailer?” In fact, I never hear those words at all, let alone utter them myself. Which is odd. I am an ardent reader. Large portions of my day are spent online, scanning Twitter and traditional media websites, as well as sites that cull popular memes and viral videos. And not once have I have stumbled upon a book trailer in the natural course of my Internet wanderings. The awkward cousin to movie previews and TV teasers, book trailers have been around for a decade or so, offering glimpses of newly published books. Not that anyone noticed. If the concept has yet to make cultural inroads, the reason is obvious: Most book trailers are terrible.

They don't have to be — check out the one created for Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" (more on that later). In fact, book trailers shouldn't be terrible, not when more and more readers rely on the Internet as a key resource — one awash in mind-blowing videos about everything, it seems, except books. We read reviews online, buy books online and search out author interviews online. Book trailers, if done right, could fit rather nicely into that equation. Here and there, people are starting to give the concept a closer look. But first, they will have to rethink it entirely.

Book trailers are made on the cheap — and they look it. Some are created in-house by publishers. The rest are generated by small production companies that charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $10,000. Rarely is it money well spent. What you tend to see are literal representations. Videos that feature unknown actors as characters from the book are as awkward as they sound. Lower on the food chain are videos that rely on b-roll footage; a heist novel about sunken treasure might feature random scenes of underwater marine life. Some are even more stripped down, offering little more than a slow pan of the cover art to a generic soundtrack.

And good luck finding them: They're hidden away in random nooks and corners on the Web. Amazon would be a logical place to start, but the retailer pushes book trailers so far down on the page (on tiny media players) that they are easy to miss. Unless you're searching a specific author or book title, Google isn't much help, either. The handful of book trailer sites that do exist are clunky and half-hearted, with a limited (frequently obscure) selection.

"I do see them from time to time," said Robin Sloan, a writer and self-styled "media inventor" based in San Francisco. "But I feel like people are still pointing you to them as oddities — 'Hey, look at this weird thing.' And never with that sense of delicious anticipation that we feel with movie trailers."

The visual life of a book

Schlocky, boring, lackluster, unimaginative. By and large, book trailers are not just unwatchable, they fail as enticements to read the very book itself. And yet it's not as if publishers aren't giving deep and considered thought to a book's visual life. Just look at book covers, many of which have become iconic.

Peter Mendelsund designs book jackets at Knopf, and his work includes the multi-colored zigzags of Ben Marcus' "The Flame Alphabet" as well the day-glo cover of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." To his mind, book trailers tend to look like "super, super low-budget film trailers — or that's at least what they seem to aspire to be. And it's so wrong-headed. We know what brings people to the table online is good content. And if anything, publishers have that in spades. So there should be a way to make the most of that without having to pretend that we're in the film industry."

To read is to engage in an act of imaginative personalization — of the narrative, the images, the setting. Which means any kind of literal video representation is going to run into problems, said Mendelsund. "It's really not fun to be told what something looks like in a work of fiction. So the question is, how much do you show?

"In a way, that's the key to jacketing books: You have to respond to what the key themes of the book are, what the author's project is, but you cannot give too much away. You have to respect the fact that people's imaginations are deeply private."

That's an almost perversely abstract assignment, but not an impossible one. There is an entire industry devoted to crafting title sequences for films, many of which work as stand-alone entertainment bites. Surely a comparable group of innovative graphic designers and video artists can crack the riddle of the book trailer.

New York filmmaker Nick Davis has been talking with major publishing houses about doing just that. "What publishers obviously should be doing — and I think many of them know this now — is trying to create a viral video that is attached to a book. And to do that, they should probably hire a single production company to do 10 of these for a year, and make a study of it. They'll have a level of quality they don't usually attain, and chances are one or several of them will probably hit."

But first, someone needs to come up with a better name.

"My theory is that one of the huge reasons they're so bad is because they're called book trailers," said Davis. "No one has said, 'Wait a minute, this is its own thing.' How can we take advantage of what it can offer that a movie trailer can't? How can we get inside the reading experience in a visual way? In order to do that, there needs to be a new word." Such as? "Maybe bideo?"

I don't know if bideo will stick, but he's right. "Book trailer" sets up all the wrong kinds of expectations. "As soon as you ditch that label, I think things could get really interesting," Sloan agreed. "But you have to get that 'book trailer' monkey off your back."

Pynchon's voice

There's another problem, as Davis pointed out: Even the ones that are good don't make you want to buy the book.

Mary Roach's nonfiction work "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void" has a dandy tongue-in-cheek NASA-themed video that spoofs industrial films of old (with a tally of 32,500 views on YouTube). But I'm not sure it generates interest in the book any more than the title does on its own.

The presence of James Franco and James McInerney no doubt helped goose the number of views for Shteyngart's sketch comedy video poking fun at the literary world for his novel "Super Sad True Love Story." The video has logged almost 230,000 hits on YouTube. But in no way does it tell you anything about the book, let alone that it is a post-apocalyptic black comedy.

And while animator Erin Cosgrove's video for "The Flame Alphabet" (24,000 views) is quite stunning and visually arresting — something akin to a graphic novel version of the book — ultimately I found the images too distracting. It was only when I closed my eyes and listened to the narrated excerpt that I was able to absorb and connect with its dystopian premise, in which the words of children become poisonous and lethal to adults.