When Gary Shteyngart asked Random House about creating a trailer for his book Super Sad True Love Story, the marketing team tried to temper his expectations. “We told him with a great deal of candor that they don’t usually go viral,” says Avideh Bashirrad, a director of marketing at Random House who worked on the campaign. “I think Gary saw that as a challenge because he went away and he came back two weeks later with this amazing script that he wrote himself and a cast of high-profile friends who agreed to be in it.”
The finished trailer—which features cameos by James Franco, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jay McInerney, as well as a hilarious star turn by Shteyngart himself—did indeed go viral, picked up by sites like The New York Times, io9.com, The Huffington Post, and, yes, The Daily Beast. Since it was posted in July, it’s had more than 80,000 views.
Shteyngart’s trailer is part of a larger push by the publishing industry to meet the marketing demands of an increasingly multi-platform world. “TV shows are now on computers, books are now on reader devices, platforms and content are all merging together,” says Emily Romero, vice president of marketing for Penguin Young Readers Group. All the competition for eyeballs across the Web has forced publishers to try new ways of cutting through the digital clutter to reach their target audience. So when Penguin wanted a unique way to drum up buzz for Nightshade—an upcoming young-adult paranormal romance trilogy by first-time author Andrea Cremer—they turned to Campfire, the group behind the successful viral campaigns for The Blair Witch Project and True Blood.
“Teens are savvy, they can tell when they’re being marketed to,” Romero says. “We wanted to create something that was more meaningful for our audience. Sure, a print ad, a banner ad campaign, a TV spot, those are pretty traditional ways to market a book, but we just wanted to try something completely different. We wanted something that spanned multiple platforms since that is how this target audience consumes their media.” What they created was a six-week, interactive campaign that kicked off September 1 with webisodes and a robust Facebook presence for one of Nightshade’s main characters, Shay Doran.
Since September 1, fans—or, rather, potential fans, since the book doesn’t actually hit shelves until October 19—have been interacting with the actor playing Shay using Facebook and YouTube, helping him solve puzzles and creating fan art. Once the campaign ends, author Andrea Cremer will pen a prequel that encompasses the events of the webisodes, even writing some of lucky fans into the story.
Gallery: View Clips of the Best Book Trailers
“The entire process pivoted around my ability to create content in real time, and it was very exciting for me because it felt like a new challenge,” Cremer says “It also meant I would get to write in Shay’s voice, which is very different from [ Nightshade narrator] Calla’s voice.”
Which highlights another big component in this new digital push to book marketing: author involvement. It seems it’s no longer enough to write a good book; authors are now actively encouraged to get involved in their own marketing via Twitter and blogging.
“We have seen directly, book by book, the success when an author is engaged, but the conversation also has to be organic,” Romero says. “If an author isn’t comfortable doing that, we certainly don’t force it. But the authors who are enthusiastic and love it, you can see the results in how their fanbase is built.”
At Random House as well, there’s no desire to force reluctant authors into the blogosphere. “We will do for our authors anyway the things we think are effective,” in terms of marketing on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook, Bashirrad says. “I firmly believe that it doesn’t work unless you bring energy and enthusiasm to it. If someone doesn’t want to do it and you force it, it’s not going to have that magic.”
Indeed, when reluctant authors are cajoled into participating in viral marketing, the results are less than spectacular. Jonathan Franzen used his trailer for Freedom to "register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this." It certainly didn't hurt his book sales— Freedom is No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list—but it does make the author, who once famously snubbed Oprah Winfrey, seem like even more of a grump.
But for the enthusiastic and engaged author who gets into the grassroots marketing, there’s a benefit beyond simply boosting sales. “When I write my blog and when I tweet, I get to talk about things that are really important to me and find out how my readers feel about that,” Cremer says. “It takes away some of the isolation that writing can sometimes bring.”
The Nightshade campaign also allowed Cremer to see one of her characters on screen, something usually reserved for authors lucky enough to snag book-to-movie deals. “Shay is such an important character that to get him wrong would have not only been heartbreaking to me but also ruined a lot in the book. So I watched probably 50-60 auditions, maybe more, and got 100 percent to say who I thought it should be.” The role ended up going to Will Browning, a 24-year-old student at the University of Central Florida. Browning has acted as the face of the campaign, interacting with fans and introducing them to the world of the books.
With any luck, the thousand-plus fans of the Facebook page will turn out to buy Nightshade, and the next two books in the trilogy as well. But not all book trailers and digital campaigns are created equal. For every attention-grabbing, cinema-worthy trailer like Shteyngart’s, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, there are 50 more that stick to the standard book commercial mold and subsequently fail to go viral. Trailers for other Random House books released at around the same time as Shteyngart’s—like Karin Slaughter’s Broken and Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James—haven’t even broken a thousand views each. And in May, the Moby Awards honored the best—and worst—book trailers with cheeky categories like Most Annoying Performance by an Author. (The dubious honor went to Jonathan Safran Foer for Eating Animals.)
But it only takes one enthusiastic author to help catapult a book trailer into the hallowed halls of viral videos alongside Keyboard Cat and Numa Numa guy. “I had someone forward [the Super Sad True Love Story trailer] to me who didn’t know I had worked on the book, and that was the moment I knew the video was working,” Bashirrad says.
Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.