When I published my first novel, I made the common mistake of assuming my work was done. The logic was reasonable: A publisher had just paid me real, actual money for the right to sell my book, surely they would support that investment by aggressively promoting and marketing it. I could pour myself a drink and get to work on my next novel while I waited for the fat royalty checks to roll in (sadly, I’ve since come to realize that any strategy that begins with pouring a drink and waiting for money inevitably ends in tears).
I quickly came to understand the truth, which is that there are an enormous number of books published every year. Worldwide, more than 1.5 million books are published annually, with more than 300,000 in the United States alone. Some of those books will get a lot of attention and promotion automatically, but most authors need to put some thought and effort into how they’re going to surface their book over the noise. This becomes especially challenging if you’re on a limited budget—but that also means you can’t pass up any affordable channel of promotion.
When writers think about book promotion, there are some common and obvious strategies: Book reviews, advertising, tours—virtual or in-person—giveaways, and contests. Each of those efforts can have an impact on your book’s visibility and sales, and taken together they can be extremely effective—but there’s one thing missing: Video.
If you’ve ever published a book, whether traditionally or self-published, then you know how hard it is to get your book in front of potential readers. Even online, where technically your book has the same “shelf space” and potential for discovery as any other book, the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty terrible. And that online democracy can work against you: Sure, Amazon will serve up your tiny thumbnail book cover when someone types in the right keywords, but if your horror novel is sitting next to the new Stephen King cover, or your thriller is next to the latest James Patterson book, your tiny cover won’t help much.
Video offers a chance to not only give a potential reader an idea of the tone and style of your book, it also gives you the opportunity to blow things up a little—take over a screen in glorious 4K. Instead of a few seconds’ view of a thumbnail, you have the potential for a meaningful interaction that lasts much longer.
And video doesn’t just expose your book to new platforms, it actually brings your book to where all the people increasingly are. Nearly 80 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 35 interact with Youtube daily, and Facebook serves up 4 billion videos every single day. People like video content, but more importantly video platforms are where the eyeballs are. There’s a reason Superbowl television ads are so expensive, after all—it’s one of the few times a year we know where most of the country’s eyeballs will be.
A final—but no less important—consideration is the long tail of video. It’s actually one of the most permanent pieces of promotion you can create—some of the book trailers I’ll use as examples in this article are more than a decade old. You might even buy a book based on one you’ll see here right now. Video can be a passive form of promotion for your book for years and even decades, turning up in Youtube’s algorithms or shared on social media when people stumble upon them years later and find them to be surprisingly entertaining. Releasing a book trailer when you don’t have a huge social media following or a publicity team can sometimes feel like a non-event as the world aggressively ignores you (I feel very seen, suddenly), but that trailer can work on your behalf for a very long time.
So how can you promote your book, which is a decidedly non-video thing, on video-centric platforms? Simple: Make a book trailer.
I know what you’re thinking: You don’t have the kind of fancy-pants money it takes to make a book trailer, which can run you anywhere from $500 to a couple of grand. While hiring a professional company to create a book trailer for you is always an option—and an option that removes a lot of the stress that comes with doing it yourself—it can get pricey.
The good news is, you don’t need a professional company. Or a lot of money. If you have a relatively modern personal computer and a little time, you can create a book trailer for no money at all, in fact. You can find all the software you need for free on the Internet, including image, video, and audio editing programs. You can find plenty of royalty-free stock images, video, and audio files to give your trailer a great look and sound. While stock assets can be a bit generic and limited, you can easily supply more custom sound and video using your phone—even the oldest smartphones have pretty robust audio/
Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need to make a book trailer:
There’s a lot of fancy, expensive video and audio editing software out there, and you don’t need any of it. On the video side, OpenShot is 100 percent free and pretty feature-rich for folks who don’t edit video regularly. It’s relatively easy to use and comes with a short list of pre-installed effects and tools, like inserting title cards. There are other free-to-use video editors out there, like **Lightworks—**but most of them aren’t as simple to use and require a bit more of a learning curve. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Movie Maker Online, which works in your browser. It’s … not great, but it has the advantage of working with almost any computer without having to install anything.
You’ll also need audio editing software, most likely. While you can do some basic audio editing in a video editor like OpenShot, it’s a little awkward. You’ll be better off using something like Audacity, which is also free to use. Audacity is fairly straightforward when it comes to the basics of cutting down audio files and applying simple effects like echo.
Finally, you’ll very likely need to manipulate an image or three for your trailer, even if it’s just creating a slide at the end with your book cover. For that you can use GIMP, a free Photoshop-like program that’s really incredibly powerful, or a free online photo editor like Pixlr, which is powerful enough for the light image manipulation you’ll likely need.
While your book trailer could be as simple as a static image of your book cover followed by a an URL, to really grab people’s attention you should include some more varied media. You can pay for videos, images, or music if you want—or if a specific piece is essential to the trailer and you have the budget for it. Sites like Pond5, Shutterstock, or StoryBlocks offer a wide range of assets of every type either as a per-download charge or via a subscription.
But if you’re operating on a low budget there’s a surprising amount of completely free stock images and video out there on the Internet. Pexels offers both photos and videos that are free to use, as does Videvo (which also offers sound effects and music), and many other sites.
The key is to look for “royalty-free” material—and check for the terms of the license being offered. Just because music or video is free of charge doesn’t mean the creator has given up their rights—they can still set the terms. For example, the Pexels license allows you to use and alter the photos and videos on the site without offering attribution, but materials licensed under some Creative Commons Attribution licenses require you to credit the creator, and some CC licenses forbid using the asset in a commercial project.
Similarly, you can find free professionally-recorded music for your trailer at a lot of sites online—for example, Free Stock Music. For sound effects, Freesound has a huge database that can be searched according to license, making it easy to ensure that you’re getting usable assets for your trailer (because nothing breaks your spirit more than finding the ideal song, sound, or image for your project after hours of searching only to realize the copyright holder won’t allow you to use it). There are tons of sites offering selections of free-to-use material. The same caveats about licensing terms apply, but your main limitation is going to be matching the specific vibe in your head with an actual piece of music or sound effect.
Adding some narration to your trailer might be desirable, although it’s not necessary; a few title cards or overlays can be just as effective. But if you want a voiceover you have two choices: One is to supply it yourself. As an author you’ve likely done readings, and you can probably carry off a pretty decent line reading or two. Your phone is probably good enough as a recording device for a short voiceover—pop into your closet for some sound dampening and record several takes so you can choose the best one. And your voice is probably good enough even if you’re not a professional voice actor—in fact, being a little rough will add some DIY charm to the whole affair.
It might be a good idea to purchase a microphone (searching on “best podcast microphone” will get you a lot of choices in a wide range of prices), but it’s not necessary, and if you’re going to make one book trailer a year it’s probably overkill. The one thing you should definitely invest in if you’re going to make your own voiceovers is a pop filter. This is a little screen that goes between you and the microphone to prevent your plosives (like the “P” in plosive) from becoming annoying little bursts on the recording. You can buy these pretty cheaply, but you can also make your own without spending a dime, in a pinch. But getting those plosives out of your recording will have an enormous impact on the final product.
If you’d prefer a more professional result (or if you’re not right for the voice work—for example, your character is a different gender) you can find a lot of cheap voiceover artists at Fiverr. The range of experience and talent is pretty wide, but with a little looking you can get a solid, brief voiceover for as little as $5.
We all have some pretty amazing camera technology right in our pockets, and your phone plus a cheap stand can give you some pretty impressive results for simple things. Plus, most camera Apps include some basic filters to give the resulting footage some instant production value.
First and foremost, you should treat your book trailer as an independent creative project. Yes, it should complement and promote your book, but it needs to be interesting on its own. You can take a few different approaches to this:
Often an author’s persona and personality are imbued in the book they wrote, which means you can just film a funny or intriguing bit with yourself to give readers an idea of what the reading experience is like. Dennis Cass’ trailer for Head Case is an all-time classic in this category—it’s just a funny bit with Cass riffing on the disappointing truth of being a published author. If this lo-fi effort doesn’t seem all that effective to you, consider this: Ten years later, we’re still talking about it, and you just heard about the book Head Case by Dennis Cass.
On the other end of the spectrum, please do watch Jonathan Franzen’s book trailer for Freedom and take notes, because this is everything you should not do when selling yourself. He’s uncomfortable, he complains about making a trailer, and he basically talks you out of watching his video and reading his book—and possibly any other book he might ever write.
You might not be able to hire a Hollywood star to appear in your book trailer, but you can use stock video to knit together a movie-like trailer. I did this for the trailers I made for my own novels Chum and We Are Not Good People, and they turned out really well. The key here is to find stock video by the same creator, preferably featuring the same actors and settings—or, barring that, videos that have the same basic aesthetic. When you find something appropriate that offers dozens of video clips, you can find creative ways to stitch them together.
Cinematic doesn’t necessarily mean like a movie trailer, with actors and little vignettes. Sean Ferrell’s trailer for The Man in the Empty Suit feels like a series of cinemagraphs, still photos with subtle movement. Combined with the subtly urgent music and Ferrell’s assured narration, the trailer manages to convey the tone and basic concept of the novel quite well while standing apart from other trailers.
Sometimes, the hard sell can work best. James Patterson made dozens of weird, hard-sell commercials for his books for years and that seemed to work out pretty well for him. With some decent lighting, your phone’s camera, and some simple graphics and music you can put together an effective trailer in a small amount of time. Alternatively, a book trailer that simply uses the cover and some review blurbs can also be very effective. If you have a publisher or if you hired a designer to create your book cover, you may be able to get a lot of useful image files and the like from them.
Most book trailers are up-front about promoting your book, but another approach is to make supplemental material that is only tangentially related to your book.Neil deGrasse Tyson did this to promote his book Letters from an Astrophysicist: The book trailer isn’t a trailer at all, but rather a short film where Tyson answers questions. This still accomplishes everything you need a book trailer to do, however—you understand the whole tone and purpose of the book, and you’re enticed to go on and order a copy if you find the video at all entertaining or intriguing.
If you can’t come up with a concept that you think sets your book trailer apart, you can always go at it sideways, which is to say just be weird and funny and interesting. If we ignore the fact that it features appearances by famous actors and writers, the trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is fascinating in the way it almost aggressively ignores the book itself, and is really just four minutes of people insulting the author. In other words, when in doubt do something unexpected and weird. At the very least you might get some attention.
Book trailers are advertisements. Yours might turn out to be witty, artistic, or emotionally powerful—but it’s still essentially a commercial. As such there are a few guidelines you should keep in mind when planning one.
While people will certainly watch Twitch videos of other people playing video games for hours, when it comes to stuff like book trailers short and sweet is the best way to go. The most effective book trailers will be about a minute or so long, and definitely no longer than about 2 to 3 minutes at most. While you’ll come across exceptions, just because someone decided to upload a 7-minute book trailer doesn’t mean anyone actually watched the whole thing.
The phrase “call to action” is smarmy marketing speak, but it’s essential. Your CTA comes at the end of your trailer and it’s where you exhort your viewers to, you know, actually buy your book (that’s the “action” you want, as opposed to other actions like send you an angry email for wasting their time, or making some sort of creepy effigy of you to burn in public). At the bare minimum you should display an URL for people to go to (and replicate it in the description of your video). You should include it in the video itself even though people might not be able to click on it there because you never know where that video might show up.
A good CTA will also include your book cover and your name, because some folks may not click immediately, but if they see your book a few days later they might decide to purchase then.
So, you’ve created a killer book trailer—now what? Well, the trick is to post that thing everywhere. This is not the time to be picky and discerning. This is the time to wallpaper the world with your creation. There are a few obvious channels to post your video to:
Youtube dominates the video world, so this is a no-brainer. If you don’t have your own Youtube channel you should probably create one. When posting your trailer, be sure to include relevant keywords so its algorithm can seed it into the right feeds.
Tik Tok increased the maximum length of video to 3 minutes recently, and there’s a huge audience on the site. That audience tends to be younger, so your erotic thriller about cannibals might not be the right fit—but if you think your audience might be there, it’s worth it.
If you have a blog or author website, post your video there. If people come across you via some other search or happenstance, you want to give them every opportunity to be sold on your book. If you’ve already posted the video to Youtube, you can simply embed the video feed from there—however, it’s advisable to host your video on your own site directly in addition to Youtube. Youtube is notorious for changing its policies frequently, and it’s incredibly easy for someone to get a video taken down (often due to an erroneous copyright claim). Having your video locally hosted means that even if it’s removed on other platforms it will still be accessible.
Pinning a trailer to your Twitter account, posting it to your Facebook and/
If you’re a Redditor, this can be an effective place to post your book trailer. While there is a specific book trailer subreddit, it’s pretty small—branch out to the writing- and self-publishing related subreddits as well.
If you have an author page on Amazon (and you should!) you should add the trailer there as well. Book trailers are often thought of in terms of discovery, but they can also provide a final push for people who have discovered your book via other means but remain uncertain about purchasing it.
Youtube dominates, but there are other video aggregation sites—you might as well post them there. These include Vimeo, Twitch, and Dailymotion. In fact, there’s literally no reason not to Google “upload video share sites” and just put it everywhere.
Book trailers aren’t magic, and viral videos are impossible to engineer on purpose. But if you’ve got a book and a writing career to promote, video is a powerful tool you shouldn’t leave in the box.
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