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Why YouTube stars are ruining the book publishing industry

What's good for Zoella's literary career is bad for the rest of us.


Kathryn Lindsay

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 2, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 8:51 pm CDT

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read an article about Zoella’s newest book, Girl Online, I still wouldn’t have as much money as she made during its first week on sale. She’s slated to make more money than J.K. Rowling, and as someone who dressed up as Hermione for three consecutive World Book Days, I’m distressed about it.

If you’re just now hearing the name “Zoella,” it’s probably because you’ve seen her in the news these past few days. Almost as soon as her book was released, it came under fire for being, as most people suspected, not a product of her own writing and just a ghostwritten story with her name on the cover.

It’s probably important to step back and talk about why having her name on the cover even matters. Zoe Sugg, or “Zoella” to her viewers, is a part of a growing number of celebrity YouTubers who are finding their place alongside singers and movie stars in terms of how loudly people scream when they see them. These YouTubers range from comedy “vloggers” to make-up gurus and now, apparently, authors.

Girl Online is not the only YouTube “authored” book to come out recently. Her boyfriend, Alfie Deyes, published The Pointless Book earlier this year, Grace Helbig came out with Grace’s Guide in October, and Tanya Burr is set to release Love Tanya sometime in the future.

While none of the other YouTubers have received any backlash, both Deyes and Burr are under the same management as Sugg: Gleam Futures. So it’s safe to assume they may have undergone a similar process with their books. What’s different is that Deyes and Burr don’t claim to be novelists, and their books certainly don’t hint to any such title. When the news of her book was announced, Sugg said that this was a dream of hers. She had always wanted to write a novel. I wonder if anyone has told her that she still hasn’t.

But I don’t blame these YouTubers. I think the rise of content creation on the Internet is an important and awesome new part of pop culture. I indulge in YouTube binges as much as the next person, and it’s the people like Zoella and Grace Helbig who make this possible. They’ve developed their brands, curated an audience, and created content that is successfully geared towards their demographic. Every subscriber they gain is deserved, and so is the subsequent money they make off of these clicks. YouTube is their job and we keep giving them promotions.

However, YouTube culture and literary culture have very little crossover. The only common denominator can be found in the niche genre of “booktubers.” These are people whose channels tend to focus on book reviews, book-related tags, attending book events, and just generally creating videos with some kind of literary theme.

One example would be their collaboration with Books Are My Bag, a British campaign specifically for local and independent bookstores. Last year, a host of YouTubers were a part of Books Are My Bag’s “Secret Santa,” in which they exchanged books with one another to promote the campaign. Earlier this year on National Books Are My Bag Day, the company sent “Survival Kits” to all participating channels.

These YouTubers are usually in school, recent grads with English degrees, or even a part of the publishing industry themselves. They have an appreciation for the craft of writing as well as the knowledge of what makes it good. But these aren’t the people getting book deals.

It’s the people whose large followings, six million subscribers and counting, will eat up anything they come out with. This means that no matter how bad the book is, it’s going to make money. Video upon video of tags and challenges does a not a writer make, and while I love these YouTubers’ content as a fun distraction, it’s an entirely different medium that does not transfer to the page.

Take Alfie Deyes’s book, for instance. Aside from being a rip off of Wreck This Journal, there’s nothing much else of note about it. And that’s because there’s nothing much else of note about Alfie Deyes. His channel, “PointlessBlog,” does what it says on the tin. It’s mindless fun, with Q&As and collaborations and something called “POO FACIAL!” that I refuse to investigate further. In terms of the literary world, he has nothing to offer, especially when it’s already been done.

And this is why I blame the publishers. This is why I blame the people whose alleged passion for the craft of writing got them the positions they have today, and who don’t seem to hold a handful of famous twenty-somethings to the standards to which they hold talented but normal writers sending in submission after submission. Books and stories are an art that takes soul, passion, and effort. By churning out ghostwritten stories and slapping a famous face on them, publishers are doing a disservice to the industry, to authors, and to readers.

When this happens, this shows that it’s all about the money, which is a realization I know many people will tell me I should have had by now. I guess I’m just holding onto that childlike belief that what makes an editor’s job worth it is the knowledge that they might stumble upon the next great writer, and that lives will be changed because of their words. When emphasis is placed on marketing and celebrity, publishing companies are supporting the name, not the writing, and consumers are buying the novelty, not the words—and this isn’t something we should be celebrating.

The one thing to be said for this is that the influx of money allows publishers the flex to support their more struggling authors, but if that’s the case, I’d like to see it in action. I’d like to hear about the latest and greatest masterpiece just as much as I see Zoe Sugg’s face on my Twitter feed. I’d like there to be five Half of a Yellow Suns for every one Pointless Book. I’d like to see publishers put faith in the talent they produce, and not just the ones they know will make easy money. If you really support the craft of writing, then the writers should be your first priority. End of story.

Photo via Zoella/YouTube

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*First Published: Jan 2, 2015, 12:30 pm CST