Today we’re going to talk about book trailers. They are an interesting sort of thing. I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject, beyond watching a great many of them over the last few years. Generally, much of what I have seen is pretty grim. Last night, I saw one that finally made me want to read the book it was promoting, but more on that in a moment.

I’ll take it as a given that the intended purpose of the book trailer, much like the movie trailer, is to sell a given product. Examining how the movie trailer does that seems to be a natural starting point for this discussion. Within its two minutes of screen time the movie trailer needs to do three things to get my attention: introduce the principle cast of a flim, set up the plot, and showcase the movie’s x factor. Take this trailer for Inception as an example.

The trailer depicts a cerebral “action” movie about planting ideas in a person’s mind via a gizmo that exists within the real world. The actors and text panels give me a sense of the characters involved in the story. The x factor, the plasticity of an individual’s dream, is something that most audience members should find accessible. Dreaming as plot gimmick also has the benefit of being an untapped well in recent cinematic history. Interesting characters, good concept, and a newish plot device makes Inception’s trailer a solid piece of work.

Now comes the hard part; transitioning a medium that has been perfected by big budget film studios into a tool that is effective for selling novels. Problem one: the average movie screenplay is 150 pages with a lot of blank space in the margins. Novels are 300 pages of small print and skinny margins that often amount to 75,000 words worth of text. Problem two: where a movie has the benefit of actors who will convey characters beyond the printed dialogue, the novel has no such advantage. On paper, good characterization is the result of cooperation between the author and the reader. Problem three: on plot and x factors, movies tend to sell better when they are obvious about these sorts of things. For the novel, the opposite is true.

Even the math doesn’t work in favour of book trailers having an easy task. Inception’s runtime is 142 minutes. The trailer is two minutes long. That means the trailer is offering 1.3% of the finished product to whet my appetite. I happen to have a copy of Starship Troopers sitting on my desk. This edition is 263 pages in length. In two minutes of reading at a normal pace I managed exactly two pages. That is 0.7% of the novel. The numbers get even uglier if you apply the same math to something like Neal Stephenson’s latest 980 page tome, Reamde: 0.16%. I know, it’s hardly a scientific study, but I can’t imagine the numbers improving if I conducted this test with books I hadn’t already read. Given this unfriendly ratio, it seems to me that book trailers run the very real risk of inviting a potential reader to commit that most capital of sins, judging a novel on its cover.

Say nothing of low budgets, crappy audio, lousy directing, bad lighting, and air of rushed production that have hobbled so many recent book trailers. The very idea of “book” and “trailer” begins to seem downright incongruous.

Then along comes Canadian SF/Horror writer Matt Moore. He posts this video on his Google+ account.

And I’m blown away. Within ten seconds of finishing the video I’m tracking down the publisher, Orbit Books, and contemplating sending in a request for a review copy. Why? Because the trailer gives me my three essentials: plot, character, and x factor. More than that, it invited me to ask questions. Good literary questions rather than the banal details about the speed at which the zombies move. I want to know what sort of man is driven to bury the dead in a zombie infested wasteland. His bringing peace to others implies that he can’t find it on his own, what sort of trauma does that to a person? The trailer for The Return Man has done with its 0.2-0.7% what all good books must do: make the audience engage on a meaningful level with the material.

Nor should we neglect the fact that The Return Man’s trailer is aesthetically pleasing. Never, ever underestimate just how picky people/critics/me will become when they/we/me can find fault in a two minute trailer. “If you couldn’t be bothered to use a camera dolly in the trailer, why should I expect the prose’s transitions to be any more fluid?”

Kudos again to Matt Moore for the find.