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The good, the bad and the other bad: the Moby book trailer awards

June 2, 2011 |  6:30 am

Thursday night in New York City, a group of self-sacrificing book fans will gather for the second annual Moby book trailer awards. The awards, for which I served as a judge last year, reward both the good and the bad in the still-evolving field of book trailers -- a field in which it's a lot easier to find bad than good.

At least they'll be serving beer and wine.

Book trailers are short videos, designed, like movie trailers, to act as a tantalizing teaser for an upcoming book. Occasionally they succeed, as with the intentionally sort of low-fi trailer above for Mary Roach's nonfiction book "Packing for Mars." It helps that it's funny.

And yes, actors playing astronauts making jokes about stinky underarms counts, in the book trailer world, as funny. Watch a few and this one will make you tear up with the pure joy of being alive. 

After the jump, the book trailer for "Pirates: The Midnight Passage" by James R. Hannibal, one of the worst book trailer finalists. It demonstrates many of the ways that a book trailer can go wrong: bad costumes, bad sets, bad animation, and ... why is a pirate talking to cousin Bob?

The book trailer begins with cut-rate computer animation, which would be bad on its own, but then it jumps to live action. In the live action sequence, one man is dressed as a pirate, while the other looks like cousin Bob from Indianapolis wearing a shiny drape (bad costumes). The window appears to be made of foam core and tissue paper (bad sets). The dialog appears to be overdubbed (a poor choice drawing attention away from the words and to the stiff acting). Then -- boom! -- we're back to that computer animation again. Bad, bad, bad.

Are you still here? You are brave. Maybe you have beer or wine at hand.

To be fair to Hannibal and the other worst finalists, it is really difficult to make a decent book trailer for a novel. Almost the minute an actor is cast in a book trailer trying to portray a character from a novel, things start to go wrong. The acting tends to fall short, there isn't enough time to fit in resonant dialog, and the lighting, editing and direction often are worse than the acting. There's a reason the credits on Hollywood films take so long to roll; there's a reason movies cost millions of dollars to make.

That's why some publishers have opted for creating book trailers that evoke their books without trying to act them out. For this, there is the Moby category "Book Trailer as Stand-Alone Art Object." The book trailer for "Wild Child" by T.C. Boyle has amazing production values, but my favorite of the finalists is by Two Dollar Radio for Grace Krilanovich's "Orange Eats Creeps." Yes, Krilanovich works for The Times, but that's not why it's my favorite: I like the music and feel, which seem to suit her novel, and I think it's very smart that the book trailer includes lines from the book itself -- a much rarer innovation than you might think. 

However, these artsy-in-the-way-early-music-videos-were-artsy book trailers often go wrong, too. Another finalist, for Lisa Dierbeck's "Autobiography of Jenny X" is strange, impressionistic and says nothing about the story other than that you might find it perplexing.

Usually distributed over the Internet, the idea is that a book trailer might go viral, reaching Rebecca Black "Friday"-style audiences. Yet that is more hope than reality; few book trailers have had anywhere near that reach.

The list of finalists chosen by the Moby judges have a somewhat indie publishing bent. Jonathan Franzen, whose book "Freedom" got major press attention last year, is a finalist for "worst author appearance." While their link is broken, I think they mean this video made by his publisher. And it's not a book trailer, per se; it's more like a video interview, so it seems like a stretch to include it.

An interesting omission is the book trailer for Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story." It successfully mixes corny music, Shteyngart acting like a dunce and cameos from literati -- Jeffrey Eugenides, Jay McInerney, Edmund White, a surprisingly funny Mary Gaistkill and, of course, James Franco.

Maybe it's a good thing that Shteyngart's book trailer didn't make the cut. If outsiders can point to valuable, overlooked contenders, maybe that means the field of book trailers isn't so sickly after all.


Is this the best book trailer of the year or not?

Alan Arkin's funny book trailer

A new book from Wesley Stace, a.k.a. John Wesley Harding

-- Carolyn Kellogg