Ghouls on film: the making of a prank video

Did you hear the one about the book video that received 100,000 views? No, me either, until we did something unusual with Michelle Paver...

We wanted to do something to spread general consumer awareness about Michelle’s new book, Thin Air (Orion). Her previous bestselling ghost story, Dark Matter (Orion), was published five years ago and is currently being filmed by the producers of the Oscar-nominated "Brooklyn". Orion’s publicity director Helen Richardson and her team had done a terrific job getting Thin Air chosen by Simon Mayo for his BBC Radio Two Book Club, ­ the single best piece of book-focused publicity you can get on conventional media these days.

We had previously used a consumer PR agency, Ketchum, to handle the launch of Michelle’s wildly successful Wolf Brother series (Orion Children's Books), so we were well disposed towards non-specialist agencies. Readers are, after all, simply consumers who decide to read a book in preference to any other leisure activity.

After seeing pitches from a wide range of agencies, we settled on Frank PR for their low animal cunning (whoops ­ meant to write “excellent creative strategy”). They proposed the idea of a prank video and since no-one had ever done this before for a book, we bit.

The director was appointed even before a script was worked out. We picked Andrew Gillman, a television director with a long track record in comedy, including Peter Kay, Lee Evans and the award-winning "The Day Today" with Chris Morris and Steve Coogan. As it turns out, Andrew had started his television career with the computer-generated character Max Headroom, which was significant in terms of the effects we would later use.

Finding a suitable shooting location turned into a bit of a nightmare. We initially wanted to shoot in a book shop, but in central London it proved all but impossible. We considered about two dozen other locations, ranging from the Theosophical Society to the Alpine Club. None of them was right. Whole days were spent trudging around town, fruitlessly.

Eventually, Hachette came to our rescue, with the offer of two large meeting rooms, ­ one for the reading itself, and the other for the all-important technical control room. The look is very clean and modern, ­ quite the opposite of what you might expect for a spooky ghost story. I think that is part of what shocked the audience ­ you don’t expect to experience paranormal activity in an average office environment!

The setting up was very complex and time-consuming. Fortunately, Hachette was very understanding when it came to having spectral actors, makeup artists, video technicians and theatrical special-effects consultants milling around its offices.  Hopefully, it brightened up their Friday!

The ghost effect itself is a closely-guarded theatrical secret, although you may well have seen something quite similar recently featuring in a certain magician’s show in the West End. Not even Michelle was allowed in the room when the filming was happening, so it’s no use asking her how it was all done!

The audience consisted of horror fans who in some ways I think were ideally predisposed to having a massively extreme reaction when the one thing they never expected to happen did actually happen ­ a real-life paranormal manifestation! They knew their “reaction” to the book would be filmed, but no-one realised just how visceral that reaction would be!

Michelle gave a little introductory talk, and then left them to the tender mercies of our actor and technicians. We had chosen some of the creepiest lines in the book for our actor to deliver, and at the crucial moment, it all happened, as you can see ­ pranked!

The video has garnered in excess of 100,000 views in less than a week. Compare that to Tom Hiddleston’s book video (7k views), or Caitlin Moran (2k) or even Ian McEwan (200) and I’d say even at this early stage, we’re looking good.

And the video will continue to pay dividends beyond paperback publication.

Will this ultimately stimulate book sales? It’s too early to say conclusively, so much depends on whether the trade seizes the opportunity and gives the book decent show space. One thing we have certainly proved is that book videos can work, given a commitment to high creative standards and proper resources. Thin Air has opened the door on this. It’s time for the trade to make videos work for them!

Peter Cox is a literary agent at Redhammer Management.