Books and Videos, It's About What You Leave Out

Self-publishing is a fun way to discover more about both the craft and business of books. My own experience has been one of learning one thing, only to discover how much more I have yet to learn. When the writing is done, the editing is finished, and you've started the publishing process, you might be tempted to think your job is done. Not so fast. There's still the marketing to get to. And yes, if you are a self-published author, that's your business too. One important part of that, which I've spent considerable hours on over the last week, is creating video ads. 

Back when I self-published my least commercial masterwork, Braji, I was advised that a book "trailer" was the way to go. I didn't have a clue. I was relatively new to social media. I'd never a trailer for a book, but I gamely decided to give it a shot. I asked my teenaged son, who threw something together, and we put it on Youtube and later, Pinterest. That was about it. It never garnered us much attention for the book, but it wasn't bad, as far as such things go. It told the viewer a bit about the book, showed the book, gave the title and where to buy it. Check, check, and check. The one thing it didn't do was sell the book. I think that was less to do with the trailer, and more to do with my reluctance to spend a dime on marketing. I bought no ads. I shared it only infrequently. I have few friends (of the real or Facebook variety) so there were few people to do a social media campaign for me. If you have a wide circle of avid readers and loving friends, you might not need to spend a dime to get your book and related posts shared. But if, like me, you are a social pariah, you might want to dig out those dimes and nickels.

Some folks spend quite a lot more than dimes and nickels to hire professionals to make their advertising copy and videos for them. That's great, if you can afford it. I don't know your situation. I'm on a fixed budget, and by that I mean it has to be regularly fixed so that the bills actually get paid at least every other billing cycle. I got no pennies to pinch, most of the time. So I have to get creative. I'll share some of my wackier ideas more later. For now, let's talk videos.

I've spent a fair amount of time having fun on social media these days. I have enjoyed making the Two Grumpy People videos with Panama "The Alien". And I've helped craft several multimedia presentations for social groups and classes. So, I happen to have a couple of movie making programs with which I am familiar. I you don't, not to worry. There are lots floating around. You can spend a little or a lot. It is possible to make a passable video on even the program that came with your computer or laptop. Right now I'm using  Cyberlink's Power Director 14. That's not all that important though. You can make a good video with or without cool features and PiP add ons and the latest transitions and effects. It's easier with a really good program, but then again, you might be tempted to use all that stuff, just because it's there. Just like a good editor will cut out most of the fat from your novel, you have to limit yourself to only those features you need to sell the story.

I don't have to remind myself that I don't need to have heart shaped bubbles. It's easy enough to pass up obvious fluff. It's the stuff that seems like it fits the theme that I want to tack on. With Three Worlds Nations: Monsters and Slaves, I was using Power Director for the first time. I couldn't resist utilizing the awesome titling powers it provided. I played with the color and speed, added "dust" and "smoke", inserted an animated fire, and used lens flares to maximum effect. Luckily, this was a book about old fashioned space type science fiction-y stuff and I got away with it to a certain extent. I sold footage, shot in the desert of Arizona, as the desert of another planet. Blinking lights and a couple close-ups of dials and buttons had to substitute for all the high-tech gimcrackery that I just didn't have. So the special effects being prefabricated in the video production software was nice. I could have used more. But there was also a lot I left out.

At one point I wanted more lens flare. Now I know why Star Trek looked that way. It's so tempting to use such a trick to substitute for real dramatic tension. Some of what I cut out: more titles, cool transitions, voice distortion, animated tornadoes (read the book, you'll get it), and a PiP object countdown clock, and gyroscope. Look, all those things are cool, and they certainly fit the subject matter. But none really were central to the idea I was trying to get across, and they overcrowded the video. Watch it again, if you already watched it, and think, would more really be better here, or less? My thinking is, less, much less. Now some of what is there is there because I didn't have better footage. I was covering for this lack. But is it too crowded with imagery? When I look at it now, it just looks amateurish. It doesn't do the cover image justice, and it doesn't sell the story as strongly as I like. Can you tell me what this book is about? Does the video only convey the necessary information? So with the next one, I really wanted to do better.

My old trailers are all too long. That's right, way too long. Monsters and Slaves and Braji are both nearly a full minute. When I asked for advice, people used to say, "Make them whatever length you need to in order to convey the message." That doesn't work in today's fast paced world. And it doesn't help the author, who has no editor to tell them when they have to cut off the tail to fit the carcass in the coffin. Rule one is, first figure out exactly how long the thing must be. And the first thing to consider in order to figure that out is, where is this going to be used, and how? So I made a list. Yours will look different based on your existing fan base, the book you wrote, and how much time and money you have to invest. This is just a partial list, used to help me tailor the video ads.

  1. Facebook ads. They're cheap, easily budgeted, and highly targeted. I've gotten good results when using them for other things.
  2. Youtube bumper ads. You know those short little blurbs that appear before and after your favorite videos? Did you realize you can do that?
  3. Youtube ads in longer format. These are the ones that have the "skip advertisement" button after the first 3-5 seconds. These have to be crafted a certain way. More on that.
  4. Placement on my website.
  5. Mobile device adverts. Different format, different choices.
  6. Public display at conventions, libraries, and anywhere I can grab eyeballs.

So now that I know why I'm making these videos, I can start making decisions about how. One thing I've learned is that most ads on social media, including Youtube, need to be no more than thirty seconds. For some uses, they'll need to be even shorter. There are exceptions, but let's just assume we aren't the exception. I don't have the production money to do the things necessary to be the exception to any rules here. We need the most bang, for the least buck, reliably and safely. So like a good editor, we're going to start ripping the guts out of our story to figure out how to fit a couple hundred pages or more into thirty seconds. I'll use my latest book as an example; you'll have to dissect your own baby. I need to answer three big questions.

First, what's it about?

Don't you hate that question? Well, I do. I always stumble over it. It's not that I don't really know. It's that I am embarrassed to say it so openly. I'm scared you won't like the very idea, or that I'll say it badly. But if I'm scared to say it in a few sentences, why should they read more? Here we go, my best attempt to flatly say what it's about without putting it into glowing terms or trying to sell anyone. After all, this assessment is just for me, to guide me in crafting the video. This booked is titled, Three Shots Fired from Cinderella Castle. It is about a couple guys who save Walt Disney World from an invasion that is going on in the midst of an unprecedented natural disaster in the form of a tsunami. So let's pick out of that the most important bits, eh? I would say the most important bit is Walt Disney World is under threat of violent invasion. The second most important is that there is a tsunami complicating things. Done. That wasn't so hard, was it? Ripped that bandage right off.

Second, what emotional tone are we trying to set?

We're selling a relatively intellectual endeavor, reading, with a medium that lends itself much better to emotional persuasion, short form video. So we have to marry the two. What is the tone of this book? Braji was a dark, angry, and intense book. Do you think the video for it matched the tone? Monsters and Slaves was hopeful, though occasionally dramatic with a bit of a horror theme running throughout, and explored confusing and painful social issues. Did you get that feeling from the video? So now I have to evaluate this latest project, Three Shots Fired from Cinderella Castle. I'd say it is tense and dramatic, with a hint of nostalgia. People will identify emotionally with Walt Disney World. It makes them think of happy children, sunny days in Florida. Walt Disney World is safe and magical. That contrasts starkly with the fear of an invading force. The stark contrast creates tension, but there is also humor there, breaking up the tension at times. That's what my images, sounds, and overall video have to get across.

Third, who is going to see this ad, and who is the market for my book?

There's more to this question than just "people who read". We have to consider the reading level required. My books tend to be written at the high school level while my nonfiction ranges from middle school to graduate level. There are some online resources to help you figure this out. It used to be that if the reading level of a book was sixth grade, it was expected the book would be marketed to sixth graders. Today we realize that some people prefer easier books, while others like to be challenged. Some sixth graders are reading Macbeth for fun, and some PhDs are reading comic books for pleasure. If your book is easy reading but  covers adult themes, don't be afraid to market it to adults and brag about how easy it is. 

Other considerations about the market include it's genre and special interests. Braji was kind of a tough one to place, not exactly drama, not exactly science fiction, about kids but not really for kids... My other books have been easier. This one is the easiest yet to find a niche for. This is a book written in an easy to read style, features adult protagonists and avoids the most adult situations. So it's marketable to young adults, and older adults who want an easy read. Some kids may also enjoy it, and I don't think there's anything too inappropriate in it, so parents aren't likely to object. The genre is drama and adventure. It will appeal to both male and females, with two male protagonists and one strong female character in the central roles. But mostly, and this is terrifically important, this book will appeal to Disney fans. Not only is most of the book set inside Walt Disney World property, but there are constant references to the parks and all the little details that fans relish. But it isn't a Disney book. It isn't about Walt's characters. In fact, there is little reference to the more magical side of Disney at all. Nor does it spend time tearing down the Disney business empire. It's not a tell-all. It isn't about the Dark Side of Disney. This is an adventure that just happens to take place in this iconic location. So, now I know the types of folks who'll be interested in reading it. Men and women, mostly adults, Disney fans, people looking for a light read. Because I am not trying to appeal to kids, and because I don't want to mislead people into thinking this is a Disney character romp, I will stay away from using Mickey colors, red, black, and yellow. I won't use the many beautiful Disney fonts just sitting on my computer. I won't use the cool magic wand effects available on my video editing program. And I won't be playing It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow in the background of my video. I need an adult way to convey the location and the inherent stakes. 

Ok, so I created the first video keeping these three questions in mind and limiting myself to an upper limit of thirty seconds.

I used the newspaper to give important information quickly in a way that suggests realism and adulthood. The castle reflected in the puddle firmly places the events in the Magic Kingdom. The side articles in the paper provide further hints. The highway marker sign emphasizes Florida, not just the parks. There's no music in the video. Instead, we get a happy day of roller coasters and crowds that turn into a rolling wave that transitions into shots followed by a hovering helicopters. I considered using a wailing siren, instead of the NOAA announcement, but it gave the wrong impression of panic. This story isn't about people panicking. For the most part, the folks in this tale are level headed, action oriented problem solvers. The parks are an island in a storm. That's what makes the intrusion of the invading force, and the shots fired from the castle, so jarring. I hope the final bit with the water lapping over and swamping the scene creates some uncertainty. I don't know that the video does all that I want it to. It's the best I can do, in thirty seconds. I left a lot on the cutting room floor. There are no alligators in this video. There is no narration, ether spoken or written in this one. Compare that to both the last two. Both told a bit of the story or gave us some dialogue. This time, I'm leaving it up to your imagination. It feels risky, but it's probably for the better. It's also necessary. People can only read so fast. I need them to get the title and to read that they can pre-order. That's about all the words they would be able to process in thirty seconds. Now, we're about to leave even more on the floor.

I need a teaser video. This is even shorter than an ad. A teaser appears in more places. It comes out before the book can even be ordered, and will stay up for the duration. Because it is so short, it will be seen more often. A teaser video is between 10 and 15 seconds. No kidding. I now have to compress all the information conveyed in thirty seconds, into ten.  So I cut all the happy beginning stuff. We start with the warning. I cut the shots, too. We're left with the impression a tsunami is coming, or has hit, and a newspaper clipping that tells us shots have been fired. The role of the green army men is left to be inferred as in the original. There are enough visual clues to realize this is more than a book about a natural disaster. It feels so short, after seeing the first one, but it still has a chance to show the title and encourage customers to pre-order.

Whew! That wasn't so bad, was it? Wait, remember those bumper ads we wanted? Bumper ads can be no more than six seconds. That's right, we have to shave another four seconds from our video. And this is where we have to remember what we said earlier about those cool effects that we want to use so badly. They aren't strictly necessary. So the book doesn't shimmer in from the wet sand anymore. It's there from the beginning, giving people enough time to read it and get the message... buy now. The warning is still there, just slightly truncated. Could you tell? Some of the best part of the visual with the wave is diminished, but it's six seconds, who will notice? I'm not Steven Spielberg, but it conveys what the story is about and hints at a mood. I'm gonna call this one done, for now, and move on to the next challenge. Whoever said that a book was done when the author writes the end?