Book Publishing Comes to YouTube

There’s no denying that the Internet has had an enormous impact on book publishing in recent years—both in the acquiring process and on sales. Thanks to blogs and social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram, writers and readers are able to find each other and form communities, trade book recommendations, and rally behind projects like never before. Publishing houses, of course, have taken notice. With newfound access to online fan bases that can stretch into the millions, editors and marketing teams are trawling for—and trying to capitalize on—the next big thing.

Momma's Gone City

Theo, Beau, and baby sister Evangeline from Jessica Shyba’s blog Momma’s Gone City

Take the picture book Naptime with Theo and Beau (Feiwel and Friends, Feb.). It came to fruition after Jessica Shyba uploaded a series of snapshots of her two-year-old son, Beau, and the family’s new puppy, Theo, taking naps together, for her popular Momma’s Gone City blog. The posts went viral and attracted the attention of senior v-p and publisher Jean Feiwel, who offered Shyba a three-book deal. Then there’s photographer Brandon Stanton: what began in 2010 as a blog featuring pictures of New Yorkers and their stories amassed so many Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter followers that it evolved into two books—Humans of New York (St. Martin’s) and Little Humans (FSG Books for Young Readers). Since their publication in October of 2013 and 2014, respectively, Stanton’s books have sold more than 425,000 copies combined, at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan.

a little human of New York from Brandon Stanton's blog

a little human of New York from Brandon Stanton’s blog

In addition to tracking blogs, book publishers are starting to pay more attention to a form of expression that has exploded over the past decade: fictional web series and vlogging, or video blogging, found mostly on YouTube. Why? That’s where the kids are. According to the 2014 Nielsen Children’s Book Industry Report, watching video content online is the second most popular activity for kids up to age six (after reading print books for fun), and the fifth for kids ages 7–12. And 43% of children under 12 are streaming videos on tablets (up 3% from fall 2013 and up 17% from fall 2012), while 58% of teenage girls and 50% of boys are doing so. For young consumers these days, finding video content and friends with similar viewing interests on YouTube is all the rage.

As a result, certain Web series stars and vloggers, like the bloggers of yore, are quickly becoming household names—at least among those under 30. In response to a survey commissioned by Variety last July, Americans teenagers, when asked to name their “five most influential figures,” picked 20-something YouTube darlings like Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla (who make up the comedy duo Smosh, which ranked #1 in the survey) and Jenna Mourey (aka Jenna Marbles, creator of a YouTube channel with more than 14.5 million subscribers, who ranked #16)—members of a new generation of self-made artists who are producing how-to videos, comedic sketches, or weekly video diaries and have risen to the top on their own merits, often without leaving their bedrooms. The film deals and product endorsement requests—and book contracts—that have started to pour in are merely extensions of well-established brands.

From YouTube Celeb to Author

Viral videos that netted book deals (from top): Ylvis's "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)"; Bobby Novak as Kid President; and "Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos"

Viral videos that netted book deals (from top): Ylvis’s “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)”; Bobby Novak as Kid President; and “Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos”

Whether the transition from YouTube celebrity to book author will work—or generate sales—remains to be seen. Preliminary results have been modest, especially relative to the attention that YouTube stars command online. Still, publishers remain committed to acquiring children’s and young adult books, as well as adult titles that appeal to more mature teens and millennials.

One of the first picture books on the scene, What Does the Fox Say? (S&S, Nov. 2013), originated in Norway with a 250,000-copy first printing, after brothers Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker (aka comedic duo Ylvis) posted a three-minute musical rendition of “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” on YouTube that went viral. Then, beginning in late summer 2014 with the release of Bernie Su and Kate Rorick’s The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet (S&S/Touchstone, June)—a spin-off of the Emmy-winning Web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (itself a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)—the first wave of crossover books by prominent YouTubers hit bookstore shelves. There was Grace Helbig’s Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown Up (S&S/Touchstone, Oct.), a cheeky self-help manual for young women that offers tips on surviving breakups and recovering from hangovers, among other things; Michelle Phan’s Make Up: Your Life Guide to Beauty, Style, and Success—Online and Off (S&S/Touchstone, Oct.), containing beauty secrets, career tips, and stories from Phan’s life; and The Pointless Book (Running Press, Oct.) by Alfie Deyes, an interactive journal and accompanying app filled with suggestions for DIY activities like practicing yoga poses, baking a cake in a mug, and drawing finger selfies; and Paralympic ski racer and motivational speaker Josh Sundquist’s We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, a True Story (Little, Brown, Dec.), a surprisingly humorous memoir about losing a leg to cancer and sorting through past failed romances.

Then in November, Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing Group teamed up with United Talent Agency to launch Keywords Press, the first imprint devoted to giving “digital innovators” a platform from which to build upon the success they’ve garnered online by offering original content in book form. “We’re trying to approach everything that we’re doing from a different point of view and a different perspective, which is why we want a whole imprint as opposed to reaching out to individual authors,” says Judith Curr, president and publisher of Atria and Keywords Press. “[Our authors] don’t come to us with a fully formed proposal. Rather, we’re working with them and their team on what it is they’re really passionate about and really committed to, then we work from that perspective. We’re not just translating YouTube content into books.”

Keywords Press aims to publish six to 10 titles per year, from fiction and nonfiction to offbeat memoirs for adults and picture books for kids. The books will be released simultaneously in digital and print form in all English-speaking markets. “There are a lot of superstars out there who have everyone’s attention,” says senior editor Jhanteigh Kupihea. “The way we figure out who to pursue for book deals is finding people who have a story to tell beyond whatever work they’re doing on the platform that they’re best known for. For us, it’s more about creating a book that makes sense for that author or for that voice and for that readership.”

Girl OnlineThus far, the experiment is working—for the most part. In November 2014, Keywords released its first title, though not without some controversy: 24-year-old beauty vlogger and YouTube sensation Zoe Sugg’s (aka Zoella) debut YA novel Girl Online, about a teenager blogging her way through adolescence. When it was revealed that YA author Siobhan Curran and Penguin U.K.’s editorial team helped her with the writing, some of Sugg’s nearly 16 million YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram followers were miffed that Sugg hadn’t been honest with them about the ghostwriter beforehand and cried “inauthentic!” Still, Sugg’s novel broke the record for highest first-week sales for a debut author in the U.K., selling 78,109 copies—besting J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter titles and E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. In the U.S., where Sugg is less well known, 47,602 copies have been sold thus far via Nielsen BookScan outlets.

KP_IHateMyselfieCoverIn addition to Girl Online, Curr and her team have a number of other projects for 2015, including crossover memoirs by Shane Dawson (Mar.), Connor Franta (Apr.), Joey Graceffa (May), and Justine Ezarik (June). “[Dawson’s I Hate Myselfie!] is a perfect example of what we’re trying to do,” says Curr, speaking about the 26-year-old who recently won the $250,000 prize on the Starz reality series The Chair for his feature-length film Not Cool, and who is best known for parodying pop songs and posting the occasional raunchy comedic sketch on YouTube. “He sent a video out and [the book] went up to 120 on Amazon and is the #1 celebrity book, and it’s not out for another six weeks. Shane has written himself a fantastic collection of essays. Then he went to his audience and said, ‘Here are the names of my essays, I’d love some artwork to go alongside them.’ And so we crowdsourced the artwork.”

KP_ActionMovieKidCoverKeywords is keeping to this approach on another title due out in May: Action Movie Kid, a picture book (ages 4–8) by DreamWorks animator Daniel Hashimoto, about a tiny tot-turned-action hero, based on the YouTube videos he’s made about his son that have attracted upwards of 55 million views to date. Kupihea says that smartphone users can view the front cover of Action Movie Kid through an augmented reality app called Flipper to see a video and other bonus content, including links to a site with “activities you can do with your kid on how to make [him or her] an action movie kid.” She adds, “Every book has a little something different going on.”

Spring Stars on the Horizon

While other publishers aren’t yet dedicating an entire imprint to turning YouTubers into authors, they have certainly started mining the site for potential talent. As a result, there are a number of one-off projects on the horizon.

KidPresidentCoverOn February 3, HarperCollins collaborated with SoulPancake, the media and production company of actor Rainn Wilson, for the release of Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome (ages 8–up) by 11-year-old YouTube and Hub Network star Robby Novak and Brad Montague, Novak’s brother-in-law. The book contains advice on how to stay positive, stories about inspirational kids, and interviews with famous do-gooders (hint: he smooched Beyoncé and talked shop with President Obama in two YouTube videos that, together, amassed more than 9.7 million views), and guest essays from fans. “The explosion of social media has certainly brought some talent to our attention,” says executive editor David Linker. “I think the depth of the attachment and the depth of the engagement with YouTube stars in particular, but also with some of the other people on social media, makes it a natural transition to publishing.”

But Linker doesn’t believe that you can take just anyone who is popular on YouTube and say, “Let’s make a book!”; there must be a reason for the book to exist—and enough new material to fill the pages. “What was so exciting for us with Kid President was that [Novak] had a really strong idea for what he wanted to tell the world, plus it was something that made the most sense coming in book form.”

Linker and his team mobilized Kid President’s rabid following (his “A Pep Talk from Kid President to You” alone has garnered nearly 35 million hits) when planning his seven-city tour in February, while relying on the “traditional media-blitz” approach to publicize the book and reach new readers. “[Robby is] doing a lot through his own resources because his fans know where to find him,” Linker says. “But how do you introduce [the book] to people who aren’t already there? How do you get somebody who might not be on YouTube, but who would really enjoy this book, to know who Kid President is? That’s when it comes down to traditional book marketing and book publicity. It’s a two-prong attack.”

HauntingSunshineGirlCoverOn March 24, an offshoot of ghost hunter Paige McKenzie’s megahit The Haunting of Sunshine Girl—an episodic dramatic Web series with more than 120 million views, written and launched in 2010 by McKenzie, with the help of producer Nick Hagen and McKenzie’s mother, actress Mercedes Rose—will find its way into YA novel form. The Haunting of Sunshine Girl (Weinstein), cowritten by veteran YA writer Alyssa B. Sheinmel (Second Star), chronicles Sunshine Griffith’s misadventures as she races to uncover the secrets hidden within the walls of her haunted home in order to save her mother’s life. As for the novel’s content, there’s a mix of old and new. “Existing fans of Sunshine will recognize what they know and love online, but will now be catapulted into a universe filled with endless adventure and creepy characters,” says publishing director Georgina Levitt.

To get the word out about Sunshine Girl, the marketing and publicity teams at Weinstein Books will target McKenzie’s nearly 313,000 followers on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and they’ll use platforms such as Snapchat, Vine, and Tumblr, according to Levitt. “We are working on a major online and social media campaign for the book, including an exclusive cinematic trailer,” she says. They are also targeting YA librarians across the country for word-of-mouth and for possible Skype visits with book clubs. There’s a weekly contest for readers who preorder the book, using the hashtag #iorderedsunshine. McKenzie will embark on an eight-city tour immediately following the launch, with more stops in the works. And a TV series and movie franchise are under consideration, in partnership with the Weinstein Company.

YouTube Gets Promotional

Publishers are not just scouring YouTube to snap up talented authors, however. Some of the largest children’s publishers, including Penguin, Random House, and Little, Brown, have long been using the social media platform to publicize their frontlists and reignite interest in backlist titles. In 2010, HarperCollins brought Epic Reads, its popular Wednesday teatime YA book chat, to YouTube. Since then, Harper has hosted interviews with YA authors, run contests and giveaways, featured book trailers, and more. Those efforts have garnered more than 3.8 million views and attracted more than 42,000 subscribers. Scholastic’s This Is Teen channel (more than 2,000 subscribers, and more than 1.1 million views) and Macmillan’s Fierce Reads (more than 1,500 subscribers and more than one million views) are two other examples.

Authors, too, are using videos to reach fans old and new. The biggest name in children’s publishing on YouTube, of course, is John Green. Since he produced his inaugural video series in 2007, Green’s YouTube efforts have multiplied. From his educational video series Crash Course, in which he discusses literature and other school subjects, to the launch of VidCon—an annual conference for viewers of online video content—in 2010, Green attracted 6.7 million followers and generated around 6,500 videos, with a total of just over 900 million views across 26 YouTube channels. While no other children’s author has as many followers as Green, some, like Lauren Oliver (the Delirium trilogy) and Kiera Cass (the Selection series), are also using YouTube to promote their books, discuss their writing process, and connect with fans and other authors.

Perhaps the most intriguing development in the ongoing cross-pollination of YouTube and book publishers is a growing class of vloggers called BookTubers—teens and 20-somethings who have attracted tens of thousands of followers just by filming themselves talking about the books they’ve read and enjoyed. Some of these clips are straight book talks. But others, like the informative and often comedic sketches created by 24-year-old Christine Riccio (akaPolandBananasBooks), involve makeup and costumes, scenes adapted from books, and author interviews. “So often readers feel isolated, [but] with YouTube, reading is a community experience,” Riccio says. “When [I’m] done with a book, [I] go over to BookTube and there are thousands of other readers discussing it.”

Jesse the ReaderOne of the few male BookTubers is a 22-year-old who goes by the handle JesseTheReader. “When I stumbled upon the BookTube community in 2012, I knew I had found the place on YouTube that I wanted to be a part of,” he says. “That’s something that I think is so great about this community. I’m constantly watching videos that inspire me to pick up a book and read.”

Tapping into this sentiment, publishers are starting to approach Riccio, Jesse, and other BookTubers to promote their titles. In the last two years, Riccio worked with Penguin on a pair of videos to promote Gayle Forman’s Just One Day series and I Was Here. Last May, Random House Kids asked Jesse to create a video for the launch of E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars. These videos are popular with BookTubers’ established fans, but Jesse believes that publishers need to go further. “While the BookTube community is rapidly growing, I think publishers still don’t know what to do with us,” he says. “I think they should reach out to us and consider collaborating with us [more often].”

From vlogger celebrities snagging book deals to extend their brands to publishers scouring YouTube for potential projects and marketing opportunities, it’s clear that the symbiotic relationship between video and print is strong. And with YouTube’s audience watching more than six billion hours of content per month, the opportunities for collaboration are vast.

While there may never be enough of a print audience for, say, a book about a Home Depot marriage proposal or a goat’s crazed crooning on Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers has announced a picture book, pubbing later this year, based on the popular “A Tiny Hamster Eats Tiny Burritos” clip. There are other platforms to consider as well. Snapchat and Vine are gaining traction with advertising firms and Hollywood. But will six-second skits of housewives falling backward over their treadmills or looping goofy cat selfies be the next big thing in print? Based on the success of Grumpy Cat, it’s a strong possibility.

For a sidebar about AwesomenessTV’s foray into print publishing and for more YouTube-originated titles, read the in-print version here

Originally ran in Publishers Weekly (February 13, 2015)

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