Annals of YouTube Superstardom

by Natasha Wolff | November 2, 2015 11:00 am

It would be hard to imagine a medium as distinct from the dead-tree book as YouTube. Set aside the age gap—books have been around for millennia, while YouTube turned 10 just this spring—and consider instead what each demands. On the Marcel Proust side of things: silence, contemplation, unbroken spans of focus. On the Marcel the Shell side: a good Wi-Fi connection and minimal engagement. 

It seems remarkable, then, that recently several of YouTube’s biggest stars—including the creators of that anthropomorphic nautilus Marcel the Shell—have turned from their own rowdy, playhouse-like environs to the staid, hushed world of traditional publishing. In 2015 alone, no fewer than 10 of YouTube’s most recognizable faces—among them Joey Graceffa, Rosanna Pansino and iJustine—published books. The genres are varied: memoir, cooking, fiction. The houses are major: Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins. And the results, so far, are promising. Within days of its publication late this July, YouTube comedian Miranda Sings’ debut book shot to the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list in the advice-and-how-to category—the very genre that her book, Selp-Helf, means to parody. 

Given the popularity of celebrity vloggers—Sings, for example, has more than four million subscribers on YouTube and almost two million followers on Twitter[1]—it’s not hard to see why their books generate interest. What’s less obvious is why a YouTube star with legions of fans would turn to book publishing, by most accounts an ever-thinning slice of the arts and entertainment pie, for his or her next move.

The Storytelling Impulse

The YouTube-to-page literary genre may be established by now, but it took some time for publishers to warm to the concept. When Hannah Hart, the star of “My Drunk Kitchen”—a YouTube series in which Hart, 28, cooks a new dish each week, purportedly while intoxicated—began pitching her book, she had difficulty finding takers. “I was the first one. Nobody was interested,” she says, looking back.

Together with her agency, William Morris Endeavor, Hart convinced Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins, that “it was worth taking the risk.” Her 2014 book, My Drunk Kitchen, a playful collection of recipes and life advice based on the series, went on to be a bestseller for six weeks.

While My Drunk Kitchen is derived from her YouTube series, Hart’s interest in writing preceded her career in video. “I went to college [at UC Berkeley] for literature and Japanese language. Writing had always been a dream of mine,” she says. “Publishing a book was the only thing I wanted.”

For fellow YouTuber Caitlin Doughty, writerly aspirations also came first. Before launching “Ask a Mortician”—a kitschy educational web series about death and mortuary practices—in the fall of 2011, Doughty, 30, studied medieval history at the University of Chicago, and worked as a mortician for four years. (She now owns and operates a funeral home.) The idea for her 2014 book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, “very much predates the Web series,” Doughty says. “I found a literary agent who knew I wanted to do a very serious book that was part history, part memoir and that wasn’t an ‘Ask a Mortician’ coffee-table book.”

Deep Stuff

Even for popular vloggers without early literary ambitions, the ability to tell a more personal story has proved alluring. Joey Graceffa, a 24-year-old YouTube star with more than five million subscribers, has amassed his following mainly by posting short, frothy, homespun videos centered on his daily life and friendships, with titles such as “Puppy’s First Christmas!” and “Pink Farts!”—both of which have been viewed over 600,000 times apiece. But in his first book, this year’s In Real Life, which he began conceptualizing in late 2013, he wanted to go deeper. 

“I started developing the idea of writing a book about growing up with an alcoholic parent,” he says. “I’d done videos in the past talking about that, and I saw the reaction of viewers—how people could relate.” In conjunction with a music video posted to his YouTube channel, In Real Life also constituted Graceffa’s official public coming out. “I talk a lot about my early experiences with beatings, and being in the gay world,” he explains. “In videos, it’s hard for people to really get the full story.” 

Strange Bedfellows

At the same time that YouTube sensations are looking to break into publishing, literary agents and editors are doggedly pursuing them. In May of 2014, Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, together with United Talent Agency, which represents several notable vloggers, launched Keywords Press—an imprint devoted exclusively to online talent. Judith Curr, the president and publisher of Atria, says, “It was time to do something with YouTube talent, and not in a traditional way.” 

Thus far, Keywords has published seven books by digital influencers, at least five of which have gone on to become New York Times bestsellers. According to Curr, books—or, as she calls them, “screen-less communications”—offer YouTube stars “a way of expanding themselves into other media. I don’t believe that anybody anymore is a single-media talent,” she says.

The collaboration between publishers and vloggers has also produced novel approaches to storytelling. Shane Dawson—a Keywords author whose YouTube output includes comedy sketches and impersonations of celebrities—crowd-sourced illustrations for his 2015 book, I Hate Myselfie, from his almost seven million YouTube subscribers.

Jeremie Ruby-Strauss, a senior editor at Gallery, which published Miranda Sings’ book, adds that he and his colleagues “have learned so much from [YouTube-star authors] about analytics, social-media marketing and best practices for engaging with generations Y and Z.” 

The benefit seems to run in both directions. Case in point: iJustine (a.k.a. Justine Ezarik), a YouTube star whose videos focus on technology. Having published her book, I, Justine: An Analog Memoir, with Keywords Press in 2015, she says of the experience, “I’ve always done so much stuff all by myself. All my YouTube videos—I never ask for help. So being able to have an editor and people to bounce ideas back and forth with was amazing.” 

That’s to say nothing of the serious financial rewards that publishers and YouTube stars can reap by collaborating. Vlogger Connor Franta’s 2015 memoir, A Work in Progress (Keywords), has reportedly sold more than 200,000 copies and spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Paul Olsewski, vice president and director of publicity at Atria, which houses Keywords, explains, “Collectively, Keywords Press titles have one million copies in print.”

Something to Hold Onto

Vlogger-cum-author success stories aside, could YouTube and other forms of digital media eventually lead to the demise of traditional book publishing? That feeling is certainly in the air, but insiders on both ends of the supposed conflict reject the idea that such a threat exists. “I don’t think books are dying,” says Graceffa, noting that the way people read them will continue to evolve, given the ubiquity of devices like Kindles and iPads. “We’ll end up saving the environment!”

Curr, of Atria, adds a publisher’s perspective. “If we want books to stay in the conversation, we have to go where the people are,” she says. “And if the people they’re listening to have something to say which would be better articulated in words, then we need to do books with them.” 

The surge of YouTube-to-page projects may also signal that Millennial and Gen-Z audiences aren’t as apathetic toward books as some believe. The New York Times recently cited surveys suggesting that “younger readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper.” And, according to Atria’s Olsewski, a majority of Keywords’ sales have been in print, as opposed to in electronic format.

Rosanna Pansino, author of The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook, a new cookbook based on her geek-themed baking YouTube series “Nerdy Nummies,” says one of the biggest appeals of writing a book was creating something physical. “There’s so much nostalgia in holding a cookbook while you’re baking,” she says. “Both take a lot of work—making videos or making a cookbook[2]. They’re both creative. The only real difference is that it’s just another medium.” 

  1. on Twitter:
  2. making a cookbook:

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