Tuesday, November 10, 2015

YouTube Wins the Literary Lottery

YouTube vloggers are increasingly what publishers want . . . even if they don't write their own books. ♦
If you’ve ever scrolled through YouTube looking for more than that funny cat video you saw on Buzzfeed, then you’re probably familiar with any number of star YouTube content creators working in virtually any category or genre you could think of, from daily vloggers to beauty gurus, comedians, collectors and enthusiasts, amateur political pundits, fashionistas, and, now, authors. Major publishing companies, anxious to work with personalities who already have mega-platforms and large built-in audiences, are dishing out big book deals to any YouTuber with a subscriber count large enough to occupy a small country. One such YouTuber is Zoe Sugg, more commonly known by her fans on YouTube as Zoella. She’s your average English 25-year old; she’s got a dog, a boyfriend, and a whopping 9 million subscribers who tune in weekly for her vlogs that cover fashion, beauty, and, more recently, her literary career. In June of 2014, Sugg signed a deal with Penguin to write two novels, the first of which, Girl Online, was billed as “a modern-day Notting Hill for teens.” But the novel, which saw print in November 2014, soon became embroiled in scandal when it was revealed that it was actually ghost-written, not authored by Sugg, raising serious questions about big publishing’s rush to capitalize on YouTube stars’ celebrity, whether or not they have anything to say. So when and how did the idea of YouTube-stars-as-authors propel itself into the next pop culture phenomenon? Why are publishing companies backing YouTubers with no writing experience for big book deals, and what does this media alliance mean for the publishing industry?
     The idea of a YouTube author isn’t as new as one might think. Probably the most famous example of a successful crossover star is author/YouTuber John Green, of VlogBrothers and The Fault in Our Stars. Green wrote his first book, Looking for Alaska, two years before he and his brother entered the YouTube scene in 2007, and for the most part his readership was developed the old fashioned way: through agents and publicity and through writing a good book, which is to say, it had everything to do with the storytelling and very little to with the author or cashing in on his celebrity. Looking for Alaska was well-received, but it did as well as any first time author could expect; no records were broken, but some money was made. Green continued to write, publishing eleven pieces (five short stories and six novels) before his channel hit the millionth subscriber mark in 2013. And of course it’s true that The Fault in Our Stars was an enormous hit. But if anything, Green’s career as a writer perhaps helped propel his career as a YouTuber, not the other way around.
     Then again, Green also joined YouTube nine years ago, when it was still a relatively small community of people making videos for their friends, not the major media corporation it is today, stacked with employees quickly compiling brands around their channels. YouTube’s most successful stars are now turning out stationary lines, makeup brands, and T.V. shows, and faithful followers tune in from all over the world to watch these people live their lives as if it’s perfectly natural to talk to a camera while you’re at dinner with friends, purchasing a “haul” from a store, or walking your dog. These everyday stars, so it seems to their viewers, are doing more than showing us their lives; they’re bringing us into them. We believe that we are a part of their worlds. And how could we not, when every time we click on a link we’re greeted a warm smile and, “Hello, friends!”? The YouTube phenomenon has hit so big, at least in part, because the personalities that thrive in the medium seem closer to us, more accessible, than stars from traditional media. And the loyalty that engenders is one that’s made these stars into virtual one-person brands…brands which might then carry over from the very small screen to, say, your local bookstore.
     Which brings us back to Zoe Sugg.

     It seems unlikely many authors, agents, or publishers would consider breaking the news of a new book by giving a fairly detailed summary and backstory on a YouTube channel. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t place it alongside a completely unrelated vlog of what could be any other day in anyone’s life. But then, many authors don’t have a personal brand behind them like Sugg does, who reached over 1.6 million people in this video announcement for Girl Online. Sugg’s first published work sold more than 78,000 copies in its debut week. It was the fastest selling book of the year and knocked J.K Rowling off the pedestal for most copies sold in its first week.
     But just as quickly as it rose to the top, Sugg’s book came under fire for being a ghost-written story that was sold to the public as the YouTuber’s own creation.
    "To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own," a Penguin spokesperson told the Sunday Times. The revelation divided Sugg’s fans and split the literary community surrounding Girl Online. It seems that the reading public was willing to support the idea of a YouTuber-author hybrid when it was “authentic,” but once the offline reality (and reputation) of Girl Online was shattered, readers asked an important question: why would Penguin offer Sugg a deal when she never was, and never planned to be, a writer?
     To put it simply, because it was going to sell. Big time. These YouTubers have worked hard to create and promote a brand, a brand that is summed up in one photo, one name, one URL. Their presence on a paperback is enough to take the piece to the top of the charts. So here we might pose yet another question: how long have we valued the corporation over the (literary) community?
     The answer is always.
    Many of Sugg’s subscribers feel close to her because she puts so much of her life online. There’s a personal connection there, one that encourages subscribers to support her by purchasing her latest creation. The upside of this is that YouTuber-authors like Sugg are driving young readers back into brick-and-mortar bookstores. If they’re buying a book from their favorite online star, you bet they’re going to want all their friends to know it, and nothing is quite so effective as a glossy, iconic, analog hardback. These books aren’t just literary endeavors, they’re accessories. Our beloved literary marketplace can and will turn down passionate submission after passionate submission if it means that they can support what they know will sell.
     Perhaps one reason the literary community is in an uproar over the Zoe Sugg debacle, and perhaps over the idea of YouTube authors in general, is because, for the first time, it’s clear that publishing is distinguishing the novelist from the novel. We’ve always been walking the line between community and corporation. Publishing companies are out to give the people what they want because it’ll make them, and their writers, successful. And in those terms, looking at the potential for cold hard sales, YouTube is a literary goldmine. Its content is rapidly expanding to encompass every aspect of our culture. Anyone with a WiFi signal can get the videos, and now loyal subscribers can flood bookstores like they flood the comment sections. Even a Youtube book deemed a flop would be a success to any regular writer.
     Aspiring writers, put down your computers, pick up your camera, and get to work collecting those subscribers, because in terms of what it means to win the literary lottery, YouTube just changed the game.
  • About the Author
    Emily Kaminski is a fan of books, bacon, and boys with accents. She spends most of her time trying to convince Miami University to give her degrees in both Creative Writing and English Literature. You can usually find her at King Library or any ice cream establishment, avoiding her responsibilities and watching Netflix.

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