Gary Shteyngart's satirical new novel, Super Sad True Love Story, depicts a near-future dystopia marked by a decline in literacy. In his video book trailer, uploaded to YouTube in July, the author went a step further by acting as though he himself was completely illiterate, chasing laughs with an over-the-top Russian accent. When writer Jeffrey Eugenides, making a cameo, name-drops Chekhov, Shteyngart responds by yelling, "Who?! Guy from Star Trek writes story?"
Packed with humour and boldface names - appearing alongside Eugenides are Mary Gaitskill and James Franco, among others - Shteyngart's book trailer showcases at least two ways to achieve the alchemy of "going viral." And at more than 90,000 views, it's safe to say this trailer is a hit.
But is this the future of literary discussion? Viral videos?
"Every time I do a reading, people come up and say, 'I'm at this because of the trailer,' " Shteyngart says on the phone from his home in Manhattan. "Walking one day, this guy came up to me and said, 'Hey, you're that writer who can't read, right?' "
While Shteyngart believes his trailer has had a positive effect on sales - and expects even more of an impact on the paperback version - exact figures are unavailable. (Random House simply says that there are 75,000 hardcover copies in print in the U.S.)
But Shteyngart has also had almost saturation coverage in the mainstream media, everywhere from The New York Times Book Review to Oprah's O magazine. (He is also slated to appear at this month's Vancouver International Writers Festival.)
What the book trailer has unequivocally done is allow fans to forge an interactive relationship with him by posting the video or commenting on it.
"It's really funny, you know. To sell a book, you have to make a movie about it, right?" Shteyngart says.
For Micah Toub, a Globe and Mail columnist and first-time author of the memoir Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, his book trailer was a way to make up for the diminishing budgets allotted book tours. His two-minute trailer, titled "You Have To Be The Erect Penis in Your Life," affords him the opportunity to give an online reading. "The few [book trailers]that I've seen look like movie trailers and that never makes sense to me," Toub says. "Books are not movies."
True, most lack the slick production values of film trailers, but there are notable exceptions. Among them are those for such monster mash-up titles as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which involved crews and even stunt people.
Those writers who succumb are clearly having fun with the pressure to adopt new media. In his trailer for his book Head Case, U.S. author Dennis Cass quips that, "20 years ago, when I wanted to become a writer, a big part of the dream was being able to put little videos on the Internet."
His trailer in fact netted him a prize, a toy rubber whale, at the first annual Moby book trailer awards, held in Manhattan last May. The humour, a key ingredient of many viral videos, is typical of book trailers. With the book biz currently in hand-wringing mode, it may be gallows humour.
Ultimately, though, book trailers are a sign of our evolving consumption of media. Readers, as opposed to those who never indulge in the immersive pleasures of a book, have the same expectations across all platforms.
While they don't expect Hollywood production values from their favourite authors, what they do want from a book trailer is a clever concept that enthralls for a moment, long enough to convince them to close their laptops and bury their noses in those pages. And if anyone can rise to that challenge, it's a storyteller.