The Ethnographic Book Trailer?

Movie trailers have been around for decades, and part of the fun of going to the cinema was always the sneak peaks of upcoming movies. With the proliferation of digital software like iMovie, and the ease of uploading just about anything to YouTube, the trailer has migrated from the world of movies over to the book industry. Trade presses regularly create book trailers to promote their new releases even while some authors bemoan the fact that they must now push their written texts using visual media. In her 2013 New Yorker article, “The Awkward Art of Book Trailers,” Rachel Arons recognizes that although book trailers “are often dismal,” there exist instances of genuine creativity.

Should "academic" be added to the standard templates for trailers in iMovie?
Should “academic” be added to the standard templates for trailers in iMovie?

University presses seem to be jumping on the bandwagon, and some now produce trailers for their “cross-over” books. For Ruth Behar’s latest book, Traveling Heavy: A Memoir Between Journeys, Duke University Press released a short trailer featuring the author as she prepares for a trip. For her monograph, We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program, author Bernadette Atuahene gives a passionate two-minute overview of her argument. Princeton University Press produced a dramatic one-minute trailer for Adrienne Mayor’s book, The Amazons, and a thoughtful two-minute synopsis featuring sociologist Amin Ghaziani discussing his book, There Goes the Gayborhood?.

Harvard University Press’s trailer for The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, has almost 7,500 views, and Yale University Press has an entire YouTube channel called “Book Trailers.” The University of California Press promotes its book, God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, through a video that makes use of the author’s charming illustrations. Cambridge University Press even has a short trailer promoting itself, apparently to convince aspiring academic authors to consider CUP for their next book project.

Obviously, book trailers make more sense for books that might find an audience beyond the tight circle of the author’s disciplinary peers, but even so, my initial reaction to the academic book trailer phenomenon was that it might contribute to the McDonaldization of scholarship. Intellectual work becomes trivialized if reduced to a soundbite.

A friend recommended that I watch this short video of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the “Anatomy of a Soundbite,” and after some consideration, I wondered if perhaps the academic book trailer could serve as a kind of multimedia abstract. After all, every book, no matter how voluminous and complex, gets reduced to a three-to four-hundred-word blurb on its own back cover. We all write short paragraphs summarizing the findings of our articles, and even edited volumes with multiple authors require short promotional descriptions.

Reluctantly, I took the plunge. For my latest book, my colleagues, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin at Carnivalesque Films, generously agreed to put together a short trailer using some of my historical images. The Left Side of History is a somber book about leftist ideologies, World War II, and the Bulgarian Holocaust, and the video had to distill a complicated historical argument into three minutes. They did a beautiful job, but I still felt nervous and uncomfortable about the whole book trailer genre. It just didn’t feel like the kind of thing a serious academic book should have.

I was therefore quite stunned yesterday morning when Shelf Awareness, an electronic newsletter that reaches about 33,000 professionals in the book industry (publishers, editors, librarians, booksellers, etc.) featured David and Ashley’s video as their “Book Trailer of the Day.” While it’s wonderful to know that people outside of academia might be compelled to read the book, I fear that my scholarly peers will be more inclined to ignore it.

So Savage Minds readers, what do you think of the academic book trailer? Are these trailers a harmless by-product of our Internet age or do they contribute to the increasing trivialization of scholarly research? Please weigh in.

2 thoughts on “The Ethnographic Book Trailer?

  1. It’s interesting that you find that book trailers – as a multimodal audio-visual snippet of a book – would trivialize or “McDonalize” scholarship. Is this because its somehow more accessible to a general public, and does this in turn, relate to disciplinary anxieties about carving a intellectually elite space where only particular members have access? Or is it due to an unfamiliarity with how images and sounds can also help theorize a particular phenomenon? A growing number of academics are looking towards multimodality, or using images and sounds, to allow them to theorize about the world in different ways, and many of us are constantly grappling with what are these affordances and limitations? At Penn, we’ve formed the group camra ( that’s devoted to answering these sorts of questions…

  2. Dear Sofia, Ouch, that hurts: “disciplinary anxieties about carving a intellectually elite space where only particular members have access.” As much as I hate to admit it, I think that might explain part of my anxiety because I came of age before the digital revolution (I wrote college papers on my typewriter!). I am so glad to hear about your group at Penn because I think that upcoming scholars need to be able to work across a variety of media. Thanks for your comment.

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