Friday, December 23, 2011

On book trailers and the visual medium paradox

I just finished reading this post over at Ripple Effects from a couple weeks back about book trailers. Arti writes a few seriously thought-provoking passages:
Will you go and buy this book to read after watching the trailer, or, are you more likely to just add another view count to the video and a click on 'like'?
Book trailers are, at the end of the day, trailers. They're meant as a preview, not as a review. They might make something seem particularly impressive (or particularly unappealing), but that's because they're meant to. They don't aim to summarize the book, but rather present it in a particularly visual form to hook readers. Sometimes they work more effectively than others. For example, despite long believing that Lauren Oliver's romance-looking young adult novel Before I Fall was definitely not the book for me (not the style, genre or approach I typically enjoy), after watching the very sleek, very well-done book trailer, I want to read the book.

This is the rarer outcome. In my experience with book trailers, I find them to be supplements to books about which I've already made up my mind. They don't succeed in convincing me to a read a book previously disregarded... usually, only a very good review will do that.

Then there's the question of the "visual medium paradox", as I call it.
In this eWorld of ours, we need a real hardcover book to explain to children what a book is… or used to be, if you take the apocalyptic view.  We’re told a book isn’t something you scroll, tweet, or text, and no need to charge up. But the fact is, those are the very functions you do to view and share the trailer. And it’s a book trailer, with all its visual images and special effects, uploaded and viewed online and hopefully gone viral, that helps boost book sales. Another mash? Or simply an inevitable paradox nowadays?
In modern literary culture, the use of a visual medium to present a story is considered an upgrade. A book is deemed successful if adapted into a movie, and the other way around: a popular book will inevitably make it to the big screen (or even to the small screen - look at A Song of Ice and Fire). This is nothing new, obviously (look at the sheer amount of movies based on plays and books from sixty, even seventy and eighty years ago), but it still serves as an indicator.

I digress. The point of the visual medium paradox is that, well, it doesn't really exist. It's a conceptual thing. A book trailer isn't a paradox. It's just a use of a visual medium to blurb a book. Perhaps it's one that better captures a potential reader's attention, one that can give them tools to imagine the characters and the setting, and one that can use visual effects to enhance the image of the book. It's not like a movie, it's like a movie poster - a quick visual glimpse into the story, presented in a way that attempts to catch the reader's attention. But this is all - again - as a supplement. There's no need for the trailer - a reader can pick up the book, read it, enjoy it, and set it aside all without knowing that the trailer exists. The trailers may help boost sales, yes, but they are not the single factor determining the popularity of a book. The written word is much stronger than that.

On the other end of the visual medium paradox scale, I find myself thinking again about movie adaptations. Movie adaptations are reworkings. Much in the same way an adaptation of a play isn't exactly the same as the original, a movie or TV adaptation of a book takes advantage of its medium to tell the story differently. Yes, our culture views the visual medium to be more accessible to a wider range of people, but this doesn't actually mean that the adaptation is an upgrade.

And here I admit something I'm loathe to admit under any circumstance: I was wrong.

The book is not weakened by such visual reworkings, not by movie adaptations and not by book trailers. If use of the visual medium to supplement the written word is a paradox, so is a movie review that is not done in the visual format. Modern technology allows us to explore different mediums to express ourselves. I don't think it's necessarily ironic to use different mediums as supplements. It's inevitable.


  1. That Before I Fall book trailer does look great - and I'm not someone who usually reads YA!

    I've had a love hate relationship with book trailers. At their worst, I feel as if they have nothing to do with the book they're marketing at all (sorta' like cell phone & car commercials). At their best, they can completely sell me on a book by capturing the essence of the story visually without resorting to a basic plot summary.

    Book trailers tend to be so short - and I think it's such a new medium that it's still not quite "there" yet. One that really sold me was for a Canadian novel. You Comma Idiot. I wanted that book because of the trailer. (I included the link in my gravatar). It has the right balance - because I think too often designers equate book trailers with movie adaptations.

  2. Great post. I'm not a big fan of book trailers but I think they're basically harmless. Amberville had a great trailer, as did Super Sad Love Story. I think they're more for buzz from book people than anything else though! BTW thanks very much for the kind words you left on my blog! <3


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