Coming soon to a shelf near you: The publishing industry has gone mad for film-style trailers

But can they really influence what we read? Tim Walker finds out.

How do you market a book in the internet age? Build "buzz" on literary blogs, encourage your author to tweet furiously, and make absolutely sure their friends and family compose five-star reviews on Amazon. These strategies all involve writing – which happens to come naturally to writers. Nowadays, however, many unsuspecting authors are also expected to produce a book trailer. And the medium, which began as simple YouTube clips of writers discussing their work, has become increasingly elaborate: encompassing mini-documentaries, mesmerising animations and misjudged pseudo-movie trailers.

In the US, the annual Moby Awards have been celebrating the book trailer since 2010. Its organisers, Melville House Books, don't pander to high-profiles: the two past winners of the Moby for Worst Performance by an Author (in a book trailer) are Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer. "We applaud the best work," explains Dennis Johnson, one of the Moby judges. "But we also make fun of the silly work that was a waste of money." Johnson, a publisher at Melville House, was also a film major in college. "The American book business is deeply envious of the movie business, and does a lot of dumb modelling on other industries," he says. "A couple of publishing houses made some big trailers for their books, and suddenly it became de rigeur."

Publishers Random House hold an annual book trailer competition for students from the UK's National Film and Television School; the 2010 winner was a commercial for Norwegian Jo Nesbo's thriller The Snowman, which mimicked a B-movie trailer beat for beat. Genre fiction inspires more book trailers than any other publishing sector, but its sales aren't reflected in YouTube views. Lee Child has sold more than 50 million books, but the promo for his latest, The Affair, attracted just 4,000 viewers on YouTube (ind.pn/leechildaffair). And trailers featuring the likes of Nesbo's detective, Harry Hole, are problematic: they contain plot spoilers, and put an actor's face to a favourite character – something book fans frequently criticise in movie adaptations. (cf. 5ft 8in Tom Cruise as 6ft 5in Jack Reacher, in the forthcoming film adaptation of Child's One Shot.)

Unlike film trailers, which appear on television and in cinemas, book trailers have no natural home besides YouTube. The largely futile ambition of publishers is to generate a viral hit, but a viral book trailer is a rare beast: market research reported by The New York Times in 2010 revealed that just 0.2 per cent of readers surveyed discovered their last book through an online video.

Hodder & Stoughton's trailer for young adult fantasy author Laini Taylor's 2011 novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone was an exception, accruing a meaningful 60,000 views thanks to some judicious seeding on genre blogs and other appropriate sites. The publisher's latest YouTube ad, for its non-fiction title A Street Cat Named Bob (ind.pn/catnamedbob), is an effective way to advertise the relationship between its author, Big Issue seller James Bowen, and Bob, the street cat he befriended. "The trailer is important to pre-publication promotion as it shows the special relationship between James and Bob," explains Emma Knight, Hodder's publicity director.

"Seeing the two of them interacting together on film and having the author talking directly to camera is a very powerful way of showing the unique friendship that is captured in the book."

Viral success often lies in humour, and one of the first houses to find fans on YouTube was Quirk Books, which prints classics/horror mash-ups such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina.

Its surprising and surprisingly slick trailers became genuine viral hits beyond the book world: the bloody clip for Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has almost 350,000 YouTube views, and another of his historically dubious titles, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, has now been made into a Hollywood movie with a trailer of its own.

Author Gary Shteyngart persuaded an all-star cast to appear in a comic trailer for his 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story: as well as fellow authors Edmund White, Jay McInerney and Jeffrey Eugenides, the clip features film star James Franco as one of Shteyngart's creative writing students.

Shteyngart plays himself as a loveable but illiterate savant. With a micro-budget and more than 200,000 YouTube views (many of them, no doubt, thanks to Franco), it too counts as a genuine success. "Publishers are not filmmakers," says Johnson, "they're not commercial makers. They really don't know how to do it."

Which is why many of the most compelling book trailers were made with the collusion of film professionals. The winner of the first Moby for Best Cameo went to Zach Galifianakis, for his performance in a promo for Lowboy, by John Wray.

A seven-minute film (ind.pn/shockdtrail), made to accompany Naomi Klein's 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, was shot by Alfonso Cuarón, shown at the Venice Film Festival, and downloaded more than a million times. Julie Klam, author of two bestselling books about dogs, enlisted actor Timothy Hutton and actor- comedian Denis Leary to appear in her trailers.

Some of the best book trailers are those that, like Shteyngart's, play on the persona of the author: the elusive Thomas Pynchon made a rare (audio) appearance, reading a passage from his 2009 private eye novel Inherent Vice for its trailer – and earned more than 100,000 views.

Publicity for Christopher Hitchens' 2010 memoir Hitch-22 included a YouTube selection of "22 Comments" from the celebrated raconteur. The key to a good book trailer, says Johnson, "is often just to portray the author as an attractive person who you want to spend more time with. With Shteyngart, everybody who watched the trailer just thought he was a cool guy and maybe they should read his book."

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