The Curious Case of the Self-Loathing Lit-Fic Book Trailer

The art of self-deprecation meets the business of publishing.

Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshots via YouTube.

Sometimes it seems like everyone is a brand and everything we do is a product. This makes us sad, or at least we’re conflicted about it, content though we occasionally are to let LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter choke our inner lives, leaving us glittering and empty like plastic bags in a sunlit drugstore parking lot. When advertising complicates the personal, and vice-versa, advertising can succumb to self-hatred. And unsurprisingly, given the traditionally difficult relationship that serious—and self-serious—artists have with self-promotion, no form of advertisement is more self-hating, more apologetic, than a book trailer for literary fiction.

Did you know about book trailers? Once amateurish clips awash in cheap graphics and cheesy music, they’ve gained in confidence and polish over the past eight years. They can come from publishing houses or directly from authors themselves. While YouTube videos promoting celebrity memoirs, lifestyle guides, and children’s stories appear more or less existentially secure, lit-fic trailers belong on a therapist’s couch, working through their guilt at prostituting imaginative worlds to market appetites. These spots may be best understood not as commercials but as reality shows in which the tasteless, endlessly derided objective is “Pimp My Muse.”

Behold Jonathan Franzen, opening his book trailer for Freedom with the words: “This might be a good place for me to register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this.” Behold Slate editor Gabriel Roth, who transformed the trailer for his novel The Unknowns into a comment on the existential futility of book trailers. “Look, it’s my novel,” Roth tells the camera. “I can’t sum it up for you in like 30 seconds.” Behold The Love Song of Jonny Valentine author Teddy Wayne, pretending to lift the veil on book trailer production hell, protesting “No, I told you guys I don’t want to do this” as a Teddy Wayne bobblehead in the bottom-left corner of the frame hawks cheap-o Jonny Valentine merch. “Can you imagine James Joyce—” the real Wayne begins, then hopelessly chugs his beer.

Even book trailers that don’t explicitly denounce book trailers traffic in pathological self-mockery. In his video for Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart plays a nebbishy, pink-bathrobe-clad version of himself, his new book eclipsed by Fifty Shades of Gary, an erotic tell-all from his husband James Franco. The trailer for Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge eschews plot summary in favor of a doofus guy wearing a “Hi, I’m Tom Pynchon” shirt. (“My friends,” the doofus guy says, “call me Sleazus.”) But wait—there’s more! At the end of his Inherent Vice video, Pynchon also makes fun of his books for being overpriced. Promoting the fiction collection One More Thing, writer and actual actor B.J. Novak lounges in a Parisian café, jabbering wannabe sophistiqué palaver in a crazy attempt to impress Mindy Kaling and her coterie of author friends. Kaling pooh-poohs the New Yorker, in which several of Novak’s stories appear; he replies in French, “We all must be whores for commerce, no?” The spot for Sloane Crosley’s novel The Clasp features Amanda Seyfried guzzling red wine and raving about the novel, which she hasn’t read. (“I had a busy week!”)

On one hand, this is all self-deprecation in the service of comedy. According to Daniel del Valle, the marketing director for digital strategy and technology at FSG, humor is one of the most effective tools you can throw at a book trailer. Authorial wit and charm translate well on YouTube, especially for funny writers like Crosley or Pynchon. But even hard-boiled crime scribe James Ellroy must share screen time during his video for Perfidia with a statue of “Knopf’s venerable, 99-year-old colophon and mascot, the sacred borzoi,” atop whose marble head someone has perched a pair of sunglasses, and whose deadpan expression throughout rivals Ellroy’s own.

This is also self-deprecation in the service of something else: an awareness of the long-running tension between art and commerce. In his video for Freedom, Franzen elaborates: The sphere of reading, he says, represents “a quiet alternative” to our frenetic, multitasked lives. Franzen’s romantic view of literature casts books as bringers of solace and stillness, hideouts from worldly concerns. It follows that the artists crafting these books are as impervious to marketing realities as they are allergic to the type of calculation that might result in the canny appearance of a dog in the Crosley clip. And anyway, as Roth plaintively points out, a work of literary fiction isn’t summarizable in a two-to-three minute spot—novels already stand as the only possible expressions of themselves! So creating a book trailer means acknowledging the financial dimension to writing words and also undermining the perfect ordering of those words. No wonder authors approach the task so ruefully.

But the market is competitive, and every edge helps, or at least gives the illusion of helping to those who feel helpless. (“I was literally trying any kind of publicity thing I could think of,” Roth told me. “You do interviews with regional public radio in Australia and you’re grateful.”) A writer can get mileage out of scorning the book trailer while also promulgating the book trailer. And if you must pander to viewers, you might as well simultaneously broadcast your movie-star friendships; and why not throw in the dog, too, seeing as you’ve already shown the requisite self-awareness?

Creating book trailers “has been a learning experience from the beginning,” says Sue Fleming, the executive director of content and programming at Simon & Schuster Digital. The publisher, which launched its in-house video marketing lab in 2008, now customizes trailers for a plexus of YouTube channels, including Simon & Schuster Tips on Life and Love, Simon & Schuster Humor, and Simon & Schuster Holidays. When promoting narrative nonfiction, Fleming says, video best practices are straightforward: distill an argument or fact from the book and present it in a visually appealing way. She points me toward a delightful ad for Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Genius; a cartoon Weiner traipses through Silicon Valley, Mozart’s drawing room, and Einstein’s study, checking off a list of social factors that nourish human brilliance. “Any time you can leave viewers with a usable piece of information, that’s hugely important,” Fleming says. Meanwhile, for literary fiction, the key is “setting the subject and the author in a time and place,” and “giving some atmospheric flavor of the read.”

Yet the videos are relatively reticent when it comes to the work being advertised; we don’t learn much about Little Failure or Freedom or The Clasp from their respective trailers (though we are duly impressed, perhaps, by the fact that they have trailers). What does emerge, in author interviews and other promotional spots, is a detailed portrait of the personalities behind the prose. Jonathan Franzen is conscientious. Gary Shteyngart is neurotic. It’s as if some protective instinct had kicked in around the objet d’art and a decision had been made: sell the author, and then sell the book as the objective correlative of her sensibility.

Does this strategy explain the distaste that seems to encircle the videos like a faint odor of gasoline? Perhaps everyone is embarrassed by the apparent fact that a soft-shoeing writer gets people’s wallets out faster than flashes of plot and craft. Perhaps authors resent that it’s so hard to sell their actual books, or phone it in because the clips feel tangential to this tower of words they’ve made. Perhaps hustling your person is just grosser than hustling an object. Or perhaps writers appreciate not having to “pimp” their novels, retreating, instead, inside their winning personalities, if applicable, and the self-mockery represents a kind of nervous laughter.

As for the million-dollar question: What does all this hemming and hawing and hawking accomplish? Do book trailers work? “Our holy grail would be pointing directly from a video to a lift in sales,” Fleming told me, “but there are so many things happening simultaneously, it’s hard to say. We’re confident,” she added, “that we are increasing the author’s overall visibility.”

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.