A Brief History of Book Trailer Failure


Sadly, nobody calls me the Orson Welles of book trailers.

This really is an oversight on behalf of the world at large. Shame on you. I mean I’ve written, directed, produced, shot, starred-in, catered and stunt coordinated my last three book trailers. I even whipped up a storyboard for my newest book trailer, Fake Fruit Factory, after I saw the Coen Brothers make one in the special features of Big Lebowski. Not too shabby.

Welles nod or not I still pack ’em in for one of my stadium-sized book trailer screenings. During the Q&A portion of these events fans often ask where I mastered the tools of the trailer trade. Did I attend USC’s famed book trailer film school?

Perhaps I made some sort of Robert Johnson-esque deal with Satan at the crossroads?

Maybe I was touched on the shoulder by the Gods of Windows Movie Maker 12?

Actually, becoming the self-proclaimed Orson Welles of book trailers was far simpler. Much like any art form, I learned by studying the masters. Specifically, I looked back at history’s most famous book trailer screw ups.

So now, at no cost to you, here is a Master’s class on book trailer no-nos.



Big Mistake: Run Time

Fittingly, the cardinal sin of book trailers was committed while promoting a book that detailed all the other sins.

When the Church of England completed the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 they needed a way to sell the sizzle. After a failed campaign of troubadour songs and promotional witch burnings, they invented the book trailer.

By now we’ve all seen the video and I say it still holds up, even though it’s nothing more than a clip of King James himself (We’ll discuss celebrity endorsements later) reading Genesis for twelve minutes.

Much like with authors themselves, shorter is better.



Big Mistake: Excerpt Choice

Another common mistake is what material to read during a trailer. Moby Dick is 822 pages long, so there was no shortage of juicy stuff to include. As Herman Melville learned the hard way, you should stick to thrilling dialogue like the Ahab whale-hunting speech. Don’t make a trailer using your clam chowder chapter.

Or better yet, don’t read any excerpts (Like, ahem, one Welles-ian genius we all know.)



Big Mistake: Cost

Sadly, Post did not pen a chapter in her highly regarded bible of good manners about book trailer etiquette. If she had, her 1922 promotional video probably wouldn’t have mentioned the book’s list price six times in the first minute. Real classy, Em.



Big Mistake: Choice of Link

Eventually, authors figured out that a book trailer can’t last more than 90 seconds before viewers get bored and start looking at listicles about Clark Gable’s butt. However, Fitzgerald’s famous gritty, low-budget trailer was brilliant until the closing seconds when, in a rare unprofessional lapse, the trailer encouraged viewers to visit F. Scott’s Blogspot page for more information.

Go with a dot-com or nothing at all.



Big Mistake: Image Overkill

We get it, Flannery. You like peacocks.

As I always say, these little promo videos should really never ever contain more than, oh, let’s say, six minutes of plumage.

When I taught my successful seminar on book trailer making at Harvard, I made sure students left with the sage advice: Use peacocks sparingly, kids.



Big Mistake: Soundtrack Choice

Good call, Papa. Nothing makes us want to pick up a beautiful book about love and loss like a Metallica soundtrack. To quote Salman Rushdie: “Background music should match the tone and feel of your book. Preferably something subtle and Lars Ulrich-free.”



Big Mistake: Riding the Praise Train

Sylvia Plath made a huge misstep with her first book trailer when the film quoted everyone from her former English professor to her dry cleaner claiming it was, “Super good” “The first book I’ve finished in years” and “Kinda like Shakespeare, except really really depressing.” Lesson being, if you have a good review or a nice blurb, that’s okay, but don’t beat viewers over the head with your praises.



Big Mistake: Shock Value

Regrettably, Seuss tried making a big splash with his famously NSFW book trailer. As I so eloquently put it at my last TED Talk about book trailers, “it’s pretty hard to shock viewers and even tougher to surprise them into buying a book…even with lots of nudity.”



Big Mistake: The Earnest Author Approach

Oh, good, everyone loves a camera hog. Listen, Pynchon, I think I speak for the book buying public when I say nobody wants to see a trailer featuring an author yakking about their inspiration or how hard they worked. Book trailers should offer a little mystery and intrigue. Nothing screams “amateur hour” like plastering your face all over your video.



Big Mistake: Celebrity Endorsement

Give Don Delillo credit for trying. The New York native went to his roots when filming the trailer to this National Book Award winning novel. However, he made the desperate decision to appeal to young readers by populating the clip with cameos by 1985’s biggest names in hip hop, LL Cool J and The Fat Boys.

As I famously told Congress last time I addressed them: “The only celebrities who belong in book trailers are…none, really.”



Big Mistake: Lawyer Cameo

Speaking of cameos, when it was announced that Harper Lee’s second novel would be released, the literary world was buzzing. But when its book trailer hit the web, featuring Lee’s lawyer telling everyone how excited the author was about the new book and how Lee claimed she had the world’s most kick ass attorney, fans were suspicious.

Lesson being: even a Grisham novel is better off with sixty seconds of puppies than a lawyer talking.


Patrick Wensink is the bestselling author of five books. His work appears in New York Times, Esquire, Oxford American, Men’s Health and others. In 2016, HarperCollins will publish his first children’s book, GORILLAS A-GO-GO. He lives in Louisville, KY.

His most recent novel, Fake Fruit Factory (Curbside Splendor), will be released September 15.

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1 comment

  1. Gripping advice. Sat with pen and paper taking notes. Your own trailer above was a great example of how to inspire interest in our work. Thanks for this succinct lesson.