Let me tell you a secret. When I was young, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be a film maker. Specifically, I wanted to make big budget science fiction and fantasy movies in Hollywood.
I wanted to be a film maker from the age of five on, when I first saw Walt Disney’s Dumbo and thought, “I want to make something like that”, well into my early twenties. I even briefly flirted with the idea of going to film school, but at the time the only film schools in Germany were in Munich (far away and full of people with funny accents) and Potsdam (far away and full of people with funny accents and in East Germany, which might just as well have been Siberia). And the people who went to those film schools only ended up directing the dull crime and family dramas that saturated German TV. If I wanted to work as a director in Hollywood, I’d have to go to UCLA (which was even further away, but at least not East Germany or Bavaria).
So I put the film school plan on hold, but not the dream. And so I wound up joining a local film group that shot documentaries which were broadcast on a citizens’ TV channel (which I couldn’t even receive, because we didn’t have cable). I worked on documentaries about traffic problems, war memorials and the volunteer fire brigade. I did features about local artists and music events and climbed a wind turbine for a documentary about wind power.
I also learned how to use the video equipment of the analog era, shot videos with bulky cameras the size of a suitcase, did video and sound editing on equipment that looked like the TARDIS console, I did voice over work and manned the vision mixer at two different live broadcasts, which still ranks among the top ten most stressful events of my life, particularly when the sound mixer broke down right next to me and I had to continue my work, telling my camera operators to get some good visuals (since we didn’t have sound), while people were frantically trying to get the sound mixer back on line.
After approximately three years, I realised that film making wasn’t for me after all and concentrated on writing instead. However, one thing that I learned – apart from how to operate now long obsolete analogue editing equipment – is that even a five minute video clip is a whole lot of work, when done properly. And I always prided myself in doing things properly.
Now, some twenty years later, my laptop has more powerful editing equipment than my entire film group of old and uploading a video to YouTube can get you more views in a day than the old citizens TV channel got in a year. One thing, however, hasn’t changed. Making a professional looking video is still a whole lot of work.
And hence, even though I bought a digital HD video camera that is smaller than the batteries of the cameras of old, I don’t use it nearly as often as I’d like, because editing the footage is still a whole lot of work, work that takes time away from writing at that.
Luckily, the internet has not just given us YouTube, it has also given us programs and websites which allow anybody to produce a professional looking video with very little technical knowledge and a lot less work than if you do it from scratch.
I have tried out a few of these websites and programs over the years to produce book trailers and short videos. So far, I’ve only found two I really like, because they’re easy and intuitive to use and the results look great.
The first of these is the now sadly defunct Xtranormal (though it might be coming back), which allowed you to type in some text and have it spoken by CGI characters. There was a selection of voices and characters as well as backgrounds available. You could also add gestures and change camera angles.
Altogether, I made three videos with Xtranormal, though I lost one of them when the site closed down with hardly any advance warning. And indeed my experience should serve as a warning to always download any video you make using an online service, because otherwise you could lose your video and all your hard work, if the service goes down.
Here is an example of a book trailer I made with Xtranormal, for The Butcher of Spain, then known as El Carnicero, a historical romance novelette set in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. The clip has Napoleon Bonaparte, who was one of the CGI characters on offer, expressing his outrage at the slanderous story (the hero is a British officer, the heroine a Spanish guerilla fighter and the villain a French commander) and helpfully informing viewers where to purchase copies for a book burning. I had a lot of fun writing Napoleon’s dialogue.
With Xtranormal gone, I started looking for alternatives and hit upon Stupeflix, an online service which allows you to create videos from images you upload. You can choose from several themes and also add in titles, text overlays, voice overs, maps and music. You can create regular resolution videos for free, but have to pay for HD as well as for some themes. Stupeflix seems to be mainly aimed at creating videos from vacation or party photos, but you can also use it to make book trailers.
One drawback of Stupeflix is that many of the themes work best with images in landscape format and have problems with images in portrait format, which is of course also the default format for book covers. Some of the themes also don’t support text overlays or support only very short text fragments.
My first attempt at creating a Stupeflix video was a short clip about myself and my books, assembled from book covers and some personal photos. I picked some music and a cool comic/pop art theme. You can see the result below:
For my next attempt, I decided that I wanted to create a book trailer for the Shattered Empire series. However, merely uploading the covers of the existing four books plus the series bundle made for a rather short and boring clip. A bit more content was needed. So I got some spacey stock art, uploaded it and used the opening narration of the Shattered Empire books (basically a kind of series blurb) as a text overlay, followed by the covers of the books themselves. Finally, I picked some suitable music. Here is the result:
The corkboard theme doesn’t look all that science fictional, but it has the advantage of supporting text overlays (I’ve done voice over work, so I know I’m not suited to it) and displaying the covers in their full glory.
Because I was quite happy with the Shattered Empire trailer, I decided to create a new trailer for the Silencer series, since the old one I made with Xtranormal was a bit outdated by now. Now the Silencer stories are pulp thrillers set in the 1930s, so finding suitable images took a bit of work. In the end I used various vintage public domain graphics, postcards and photos to introduce the characters and their world. I used the corkboard theme again, because IMO it works best for book trailers, and added some jazz music. The result is below:
The most important rule of making videos and book trailers using online services like Stupeflix and Xtranormal is still the same as it was back in the analogue era, when I was making local documentaries. Just assembling some footage and/or images doesn’t make for a compelling video. You need to have a plan and a story a tell. Thankfully in the digital era, you can change around your clips and images with the click of a button rather than wasting hours of work, when you changed your mind and needed to recut your video. Nonetheless, you still need a plan.
Having story to tell is even more important. If you look at TV commercials, nearly all of them have a story to tell. It’s not necessarily a good story – I for one am not really interested in Ms. Sommer telling suburban housewives which coffee brand is best – but it is a story.
This is where writers have an advantage, because we already have a story. However, we still need to condense a novel or – worse – a series of novels into a short video clip of one to three minutes. There are different approaches how to do this. In the general trailer, I basically introduce myself and my books. The Shattered Empire trailer focusses on the universe of the series and overarcing plot. The Silencer trailer focusses more on the individual characters, while hinting at the conflicts between them. The Butcher of Spain trailer finally takes a (peripheral) character and lets him shares his view on the proceedings.
Do these trailers sell books? I honestly don’t know. I believe having a presence on YouTube is a good idea. You can also share the videos on your social media. Many retailers such as Amazon, Smashwords or DriveThruFiction also allow you to post videos on the respective book and author pages.
Finally, they are really fun to make and will help you to look at your story in a new way.