San Francisco Chronicle, September 2006

Seeking readers via ‘book trailer’ / Publisher tries out movie-style preview to market new title

San Francisco Chronicle, September 18, 2006

by Justin Berton

In his quest to bring literature to the masses, Jeffrey Lependorf turned to an unlikely ally: YouTube.

Lependorf, executive director of the Literary Ventures Fund in New York, recently invested $10,000 to help promote a French memoir on the verge of being published. Instead of the usual press releases or book tours, his money was used to create a short video about the book that was distributed on the popular online video site that attracts an estimated 20 million visitors per month.

The “book trailer,” as the promotional video is called, is living up to its name. Complete with actors, arty cinematography and a noirish voice-over, it’s the closest the book industry has come to a movie-style preview for a new title.

In late August, as copies of the “The Mystery Guest,” the memoir from French author Grégoire Bouillier, hit bookstores, the short video was simultaneously released on YouTube. It’s a reversal on the traditional book-to-film scenario, and depending on the industry analyst who weighs in on the matter, book trailers signal either a fresh marketing strategy or an act of desperation from an industry that’s losing customers every year to an online, film-centric culture.

“We don’t think this is something that will work for all books,” Lependorf said. “But in this case, there are many layers of ‘meta’ in this book, and we think the trailer reflects that.”

Lorin Stein, 33, an editor at the book’s publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, conceived the YouTube spot and said it was an attempt to reach the broader, Internet-savvy reading audience, who might skip the traditional newspaper book review section. Stein said he’s heard from bloggers who are critical of cinematic ads for books and shares some of their concerns.

“But publishers are in the business of putting books in people’s hands,” Stein said. “We’ve been advertising our wares in silly ways since putting a dirty picture on the cover of a Faulkner book.”

In the memoir, the narrator descends into a humorous tailspin after an ex-girlfriend he hasn’t heard from in four years invites him to a dinner party. His arrival at the party is depicted in the 1-minute, 40-second video, which is shot in black and white, a satirical reference to French cinema.

David Teague, a 29-year-old filmmaker in Brooklyn who was hired to make the YouTube adaptation, said his main goal was to “make the person who saw it so intrigued, they’d want to go out and buy the book.”

For the filmmaker, who never discussed his adaptation with the author, the challenge was to condense a 120-page book into something “people would want to e-mail their friends.” The online medium is based on humor and brevity, Teague said, and just as thick books can intimidate customers in a bookstore, a video clip that runs more than three minutes can go overlooked on the increasingly crammed Internet.

“I wanted to give them just a hint,” Teague said, “and leave them wanting more.”

More customers are precisely what U.S. publishers could use these days, according to Albert Greco, a senior researcher for the Institute of Publishing Research in New York. A steady decline in U.S. book readership, coupled with fewer dollars spent per reader on books annually, has forced publishers like Farrar, Straus and Giroux to become more nimble in their advertising strategies, Greco said.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with revenue of $325 million last year, is the seventh-largest publishing house in the United States. Yet it’s dwarfed by the industry-leading Random House, which reported $1.2 billion in revenue last year.

“Farrar, Straus and Giroux has to be more creative,” Greco said, “because they’re out there competing with giants. They’ll get killed if they don’t stand out.”

Aside from typical press releases and advance copies, “The Mystery Guest” clip is the only marketing plan for the book. It’s too early to determine whether the preview has had any impact on sales, a publicity representative at the publisher said. A 2005 study by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a New York investment banking group that specializes in the media industry, found the average time spent reading books by U.S. adults had dropped from 117 hours annually in 1999, to 106 hours in 2005. Publishers, Greco added, have long tried to use the Internet to attract new customers, including fan sites and author-hosted chat rooms. But with competition from online activity, films and video gaming, even those attempts at putting real books in real hands have fallen short.

“While these things have worked somewhat, they’re not working enough,” he said. “The bottom line is, it’s not good for publishers.”

Ted Weinstein, a San Francisco literary manager and agent who’d heard about “The Mystery Guest” clip when it was released, said he was pleased to finally see the industry use film and the Internet to market its goods. Books, more than other products, Weinstein said, rely on word of mouth because they don’t usually receive the huge prerelease marketing budgets that CDs, movies and even video games enjoy. “Our industry has to go out and grab people where they’re spending their time and bring them back to the books,” Weinstein said. “This is just the most compelling example of how to do it.”

Early attempts at book trailers have been around for years but usually have shied away from actors and production sets, said Liz Dubelman, owner of VidLit, a Santa Monica online site that promotes books with Flash Player clips and author narration.

For the past two years, Dubelman’s site has featured three-minute clips that are patterned after author readings. Authors read a passage from their work, while clip art or animation is used to add to the visual story.

But now, as book trailers emulate Hollywood-style productions, Dubelman said, an invisible line has been crossed.

“I think it takes away from the reader’s imagination on how a character should look,” Dubelman said. “It should be up to the author, not me, or any producer.”

Even so, Dubelman said, she is pleased with the mission of the trailers. “Anything that promotes reading is good,” she said. “It’s good to see publishers aren’t just waiting for people to walk into bookstores and discover a book.”

Earlier this summer, the Book Standard, an online industry magazine, created the Book Video Awards contest. The online magazine sent manuscripts to film students who returned storyboards and scripts. It selected three winners, who each landed a $3,500 shooting budget.

The winning trailers, said Kelly Roman, marketing director for the Book Standard, translated into book sales. Roman credited the trailer for one book, “The Thieves of Heaven,” a thriller based in the Vatican, with generating interest in the title, bringing 200,000 hits to the author’s personal Web site and garnering interest from Hollywood executives who wanted to secure the movie rights.

“One of the big things for any author is to pitch it to Hollywood,” Roman said, “and I think these trailers give the execs a clear idea of what kind of potential the book has.”

Michael Norris, a senior analyst at Simba Information, a publishing industry research firm, said that although no data exist to track marketing dollars spent annually on books, the need to keep up with online activity and stand out has pushed publishers to expand their budgets and resort to uncommon methods.

“It reeks of gimmickry for sure,” Norris said of “The Mystery Guest” clip, “but if that gimmickry translates to increased book sales, hey, my hat’s off to (the publisher) trying something new.”

© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle