Miércoles 12 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 161

View to a Thrill
Por Andre Mayer

Londonstani, the debut novel by British author Gautam Malkani, arrives on North American bookshelves this week amid a familiar chorus of hype. HarperCollins touts it as “the most hotly anticipated book of the season.” I should think so; they’re no doubt eager to recoup the £350,000 (approx. $720,000) they paid for it. Ignoring the bromides of Malkani’s publisher, Londonstani has earned critical huzzahs from British reviewers (“shocking, ball-grabbing stuff,” “a sociological bombshell,” “a bold and vigorous debut”).

Lavish advances and frothy blurbs are hardly unique. The innovative aspect of Londonstani’s marketing drive is that it comes with a trailer. Written in a crude amalgam of British and Punjabi slang — with text-message abbreviations 4 added flava — Londonstani follows four South-Asian youths living in the London suburb of Hounslow. Here, the ideal of diversity is destabilized by tensions between transplanted Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; middle-class values butt against black-market (or “bling”) capitalism; and the risk of violence hovers like London fog.

This atmosphere of conspicuous wealth and cruelty lends itself to a sexy promo. The Londonstani trailer uses Flash animation and provocative images: Bimmers, cellphones, nightclubs, alternately graffitied and blood-spattered walls — all punctuated with juddering, Asian-flavoured drum ’n’ bass. Never before have I felt such a visceral urge to read a book.

HarperCollins has produced close to a dozen trailers since early February. The motivation is “to drive early word of mouth,” says Steve Osgoode, director of online marketing and new media for HarperCollins Canada. To that end, the publisher submits the videos to book bloggers, as well as sites like Google Video and YouTube.com. Though he can’t divulge the cost of the videos or how often they’ve each been viewed, Osgoode reports that consumer interest in them “has far, far exceeded what we expected.” Moreover, the viral marketing online is paying dividends, he says; retailers have increased orders for recent HarperCollins titles like Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers and Martyn Burke’s The Truth About the Night.

The notion of promoting a book like a movie might seem anathema to readers who feel that literature is too refined to borrow the garish devices of the film industry. Judith Keenan may well be the originator of the practice. In 1994, U.S. publishing house Hyperion was preparing for the stateside release of Amnesia, the debut novel by Canadian writer Douglas Cooper. Keenan was working at a PR agency in New York City at the time, when she came up with a radical idea. Taking advantage of Cooper’s theatre training, Keenan shot a three-and-a-half-minute short film of Cooper reading the text — dramatically, of course — underscored by music from Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry. The clip was included in electronic press kits for the book and even aired in television reports about Cooper.

The video proved its worth by extending Cooper’s original U.S. itinerary of one New York reading into a 12-city tour, but Keenan says some reporters condemned the endeavour.

“The consummation of that was that there was an ABC [television] affiliate in Boston, and the arts reporter said, ‘How dare they? How dare they put pictures to words? That’s the last bastion of imagination. I have my own vision of what those characters look like,’ ” says Keenan over the phone from New York. She likens the comment to the initial complaints about MTV. “And look where that ended up,” she says. After spending the next few years launching various web ventures (including consumer music site SonicNet), Keenan returned to book videos in 1999, creating animated shorts for two high-profile graphic novels: Daniel Clowes’s David Boring and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

Keenan says the rationale behind book trailers is to take the onus off retailers to promote books and market to consumers directly. The convenience and immediacy of the internet make it a no-brainer.

An American company, VidLit, has been making book trailers since 2004. Taking a more lighthearted approach, VidLit has created cheeky Flash videos for titles like James P. Othmer’s satirical novel The Futurist and David Foster Wallace’s essay collection Consider the Lobster. VidLit’s best work, however, might be a promo for David Rakoff’s latest book, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, in which the New York humorist describes a visit to a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. While Rakoff’s narrative is inherently droll, the video also features animations of what the author would look like with the doctor’s proposed changes.

Keenan’s latest venture, BookShorts, differs from its competitors by dramatizing events in books. The first BookShort was for Susan Swan’s 2004 novel, What Casanova Told Me. The novel deals with an uncommitted young woman who learns that her great-great-great-grandmother had a scorching affair with history’s most notorious lover-man. A 30-something woman is seen riffling through old letters. Suddenly, a baroque melody starts up — an aural cue that you, the viewer, are about to be transported back in time. Next, it lands in 18th-century Venice, the home of Casanova, who is played by Toronto broadcaster/bandleader Jaymz Bee. With its gauzy cinematography and mannered performances, the clip has the hokey appeal of a Canadian Heritage Moment.

“I chose entertainment over advertising quite, quite consciously,” says Keenan, who has also produced short videos for Patrick Watson’s This Hour Has Seven Decades (McArthur & Company), Scott Griffin’s My Heart Is Africa (Thomas Allen) and Douglas Coupland’s JPod (Random House). “It’s my belief that, going forward in our highly connected, highly media-saturated world, ultimately we do a better service to our potential readers by entertaining them, and by pulling them into the world of the author. The product that we’re selling is not a widget; it’s not a bicycle, it’s not a plumbing tool. It is, in and of itself, storytelling.”

Keenan produced a couple of additional clips for Swan’s book — video commentaries, if you will. In one, Swan interviews Bee, still dressed as Casanova; the discussion is meant to enlarge upon the point that the famous Italian wasn’t “just a lecherous womanizer,” but in fact a proto-feminist. It’s a nice supplement, but seeing Bee step out of character and prattle on about his own views on women — including, strangely, hiring practices for his band — is jarring, if not downright absurd.

Given the newness of book videos, it’s not surprising that publishers are road-testing a number of different approaches. Osgoode says HarperCollins settled on a subtle, suggestive style so as not to spoil a consumer’s potential enjoyment of the book. “We’re trying to capture the spirit and feel of the book without imposing a lot of key elements — like the look and feel of characters and settings — onto the reader,” says Osgoode. “I think, because of that, we’re getting that much more support from authors.”

Keenan applauds all efforts, pointing out that historically, the publishing industry has been quite conservative in its marketing tactics. The introduction of book trailers, she says, represents something of a wake-up.

“The wake-up is the same wake-up that the music industry is experiencing, and the wake-up is tied to consumer habits in the world of technology,” says Keenan. “[The advent of book trailers is] not desperation. It’s evolution.”

  03/07/2006. CBC.ca.