A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Freelance Toolbox

By Quill

Last spring, as the September publication of my new nonfiction book “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” drew closer, I was contemplating what I would do to promote it. A friend and talented social media trainer, Liz Giorgi, suggested we work together to produce a video book trailer.

I didn’t immediately embrace her idea. I had watched many authors’ book trailers, none of which did much, it seemed to me, to advance the cause of the book. Many were long, boring and amateurishly assembled. The slick ones resembled TV commercials and made me feel manipulated. On the rare occasion when a trailer attracted many viewers, the result was not necessarily big sales.

But Liz explained that the notion of advancing a book’s cause is more nuanced than I realized.

The experience gave me some insight into making an effective book trailer. Here are some tips.


If a trailer is created to sell a book, it will probably fail. If, on the other hand, it is designed to help others spread the word about the book, it could succeed. When people make recommendations to their friends and contacts using social media, they like to include links, and a link to a trailer is more engaging than a link to a website. When bloggers write about things they like, embedding a video is more visually appealing than linking to another site that may cause readers to leave the blog.

The value of the trailer — the way it advances the book’s cause — is in giving people something interesting to share on social and online media. Liz had experience making this sort of social-media-aware video, including a very effective piece she produced for the University of Minnesota about climate change.


I liked that approach, and with my publisher’s blessing (but not its funding) I hired Liz to shoot my trailer (see it at tinyurl.com/Nazi-PsychiatristBookTrailer).“The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” tells the true tale of an American doctor’s study of the accused war criminals at Nuremberg and the dramatic effect this encounter had on the rest of the psychiatrist’s life. I wanted the trailer, in less than two minutes, to pique the viewer’s interest by conveying something of my approach to the story, the medical science involved, and the complex relationship between the psychiatrist and his favorite subject, top Nazi Hermann Göring.


We did the filming in a corner of my living room, with a background of bookshelves and a bust that my mother had sculpted of my father. Liz brought along all the equipment and an assistant to help with the audio. She also had written a script that served more as a guide than a blueprint. The shooting took two hours, and Liz spent additional time gathering stock images, commissioning animation of an inkblot, editing and creating the graphics.


The debut of the video came when those who attended the book launch party received an email containing a link to the trailer and buttons to easily share it on social media. Many people did share it, and several blogs have embedded it. I’ve also embedded the video in my own website and on guest blog posts I’ve written about the book. We’re still very early in the book’s publicity campaign, but the counter on the trailer’s YouTube page has recorded more than 1,300 views.


Here’s a medium with the potential to improve writers’ exposure on social media. Are there ways to use it beyond book trailers? I can imagine a writer of magazine articles using a quickly produced homemade video (even a six-second Vine video) to encourage others to spread the word of a new story, or a corporate writer employing the same technology to spark social media discussion of a new client or campaign. I haven’t seen anyone doing this.

The trick is to think of the video as a social media aide, as something people can use to share, and not as a sales piece. Why not try it?

NOTE: A version of this column first appeared on the SPJ Freelance Committee’s Independent Journalist blog.

Jack El-Hai is the author of “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII.” In addition, the University of Minnesota Press recently published his book “Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines.” He previously wrote “The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.” He lives in Minneapolis and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Augsburg College. Contact him at jack@el-hai. com or interact on Twitter: @jack_elhai