YouTube’s smokin’ hot and influential stars are cashing in on their celebrity status and pumping out inspirational reads for their billions of hyper-connected teen fans. Many of these books are self-help in nature, raising questions about how qualified these authors are to give advice to youth. 

Publishing heavyweight Simon & Schuster knows a slam dunk when they see it.  

The book-publishing giant has created a separate division whose sole purpose is to carve out book deals with the hottest digital celebrities on YouTube. This new division or “imprint”, Keywords Press, started releasing titles in 2014 and their goal is to add energy, oxygen and a whole lot of “social lift” to the Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA) categories by harnessing the social media connectivity of Generation Next. Keywords Press represents the merging of Hollywood talent management firm United Talent Agency with Atria Publishing Group. Ever savvy to the fleeting nature of youth celebrity, their goal is to cash in on the current YouTuber craze and push out 6-10 titles annually.  These digital influencers, including Shane Dawson, Grace Helbig and Tyler Oakley, represent the new guard of celebrity and their millions of loyal followers watch their vlogs and follow their snapchat, Instagram and Twitter social feeds with a religious fervour that makes the old guard TV networks weep.

It’s easy to see why publishers want to be part of this wave. Traditional publishers are desperately trying to maintain their footing in a shifting digital landscape. Jennifer Canham, group publisher at Owlkids, says she understands why a struggling publishing industry would jump into this highly marketable category. She also thinks it’s important to keep youth reading books.  “That (kids) still want to read books is great. If a YouTube sensation gets them into a print book, I’m thrilled with that.”

Amy Tompkins, a literary agent at the Transatlantic Agency in Toronto, weighs in. “I can say that YouTube generally is of interest to publishers because the authors come with a platform.”  This means they can promote and sell their book to a ready-made market of loyal, connected followers.  Publishers don’t have to find the audience; the heavy slog of awareness building has been done for them, and the audience finds, or seeks out, the publisher. In the case of YouTuber celebrity, billions of video views and millions of subscribers virtually guarantees sales. It’s a publisher’s dream!

In many ways, this isn’t a new trend. Mary Maddever, publisher at Canada’s leading marketing magazine, Strategy, compares it to teen heartthrobs or celebrities from previous generations releasing books. “I don’t think behaviour has changed,” she says. “It’s just these are the new celebrities.”  But digital communication has profoundly changed things. People can achieve a worldwide audience and following, almost instantly, in ways unheard of previously. 

The audience may be scattered around the world, but their engagement with their favourite digital stars fundamentally shapes the content of these books. Many of these YouTuber books are crowd-sourced, which means content is obtained by enlisting the contributions of digital audiences. Kids share interests and concerns, often influencing the creator’s video content.  That’s why, for these publishing companies, it’s not just “views” on a young author’s YouTube vlogs that are important; “comments” and “likes” are, too.  The content creators’ fans become directly involved in the storytelling decisions, which provide publishers with a huge benefit; a built-in audience generating a constant stream of market research. By incorporating material from subscribers’ comments into their final product, they’re giving the audience exactly what they want.

In financial terms, youth are one of the most coveted target audiences. They influence household purchases – but even better - YA and NA audiences have their own pocket change and they make many of their own entertainment purchase decisions. Crowd-sourcing means they have a greater stake in the genre and virtually guarantees they’ll like the final product.

Money can also be made beyond book publishing. For the most influential YouTubers, book publishing is just one of many licensing channels being exploited. Authors like Zoe Sugg and Alfie Deyes have been signed to multiple book deals and Grace Helbig has even been signed to her own show. Squeaky-clean (read: no swearing) online stars or “brands” like Joey Graceffa or iJustine, are being hired as advertising ambassadors for companies like Top Shop, Audible, Microsoft, Mattel and more.  In developing these “brands”, talent and literary agents and the posse of other marketing stakeholders investing in the young creators, have the ability to profit greatly from a multitude of platforms.            

But despite the guaranteed revenues, there are still considerable risks.

“The biggest risk is that you’re signing somebody who’s not a writer,” says literary agent Amy Tompkins. “YouTube is a visual format. It’s not even the same as a blogger where you can see their writing. It could be more challenging to get them to deliver the kind of manuscript that a publisher needs.”  Some publishing houses have solved this problem by hiring ghost writers, like they did with Zoe Sugg. The British Internet celebrity, known as Zoella, published her novel, Girl Online, with the help of a ghostwriter. This ensures publishers get the manuscript they need.  But there’s a greater risk with signing YouTube stars, says Tompkins. “You would want to be fairly careful, I would think, that the person you are signing on isn’t going to change tracks on YouTube and start doing videos on something that you wouldn’t want to be associated with.” This is most important for companies that exclusively publish books for children, since most of their sales come from schools and libraries.

This means not every publishing company is going to be signing YouTube celebrities. While Canham is glad these books have got children reading, she says Owlkids isn’t likely going to publish them because the company focuses more on school markets and is less interested in promoting celebrity.

Are we exploiting kids and their real life issues for ROI? 

Along with concerns about the quality of writing, there are concerns about the quality of the advice these young authors provide, and the worry that youth are especially vulnerable to poor advice. Many of these YouTuber books are first person autobiographical confessionals/inspirationals that promise “self-help”. The narrative arc for almost all of these books is the same: when I was young, my life kinda sucked - sorry yours does, too - but, I’ve made it and so can you!

Anne Secord, a clinical psychologist who has worked with children for over 30 years, says many youth turn to social media, YouTube or online forums for companionship and validation of their feelings and experiences. “This online content could be potentially harmful for a kid who is feeling desperate and does not have a safe place with adults he/(she) trusts.” According to Secord, the Internet helps youth who may often feel alone, like transgender, gay or lesbian teens. 

But YouTube personalities may not be qualified to give good advice about life. Many transfer their vlog shtick to their book and write in a humorous and even outrageous style, and it can be hard to separate advice from personal stories or jokes. Secord puts it into perspective. “I do think it is possible that some YouTube materials may have some merit.  I think the real issue is that, unfortunately, there is no system in place that regulates information, nor do I believe that it is possible to regulate this any more than it is possible to regulate Uber initiatives.” Secord emphasizes the importance of parental involvement in teaching youth how to navigate and evaluate information. “We ‘streetproof’ our kids at very young ages to learn how to keep themselves safe -  we will need to do the same for kids about how to navigate the information presented to them,” she says. These books should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Parents and children need to have conversations about what the books say.

It seems clear the publishing industry is going to keep evolving - especially when this genre brings with it a ready audience of hyper-connected fans that do the marketing and promotion for the publisher. While this is, no doubt, a near perfect business model, it’s clear these books can help youth, specifically pre-teens and teens make sense of the world around them.  At such a difficult stage in their growth, these books offer a place for them to go and identify with others who are facing the same issues.

So yes (!) to any content that gets youth reading; the larger question remains - how many of the burgeoning list of YouTubers will translate vlog success into publishing success? Read on…

Youtube Stars #Brandofme

“I never watch normal TV. We love the YouTubers. When you’re having a bad time you can just enter their life, they’re with you every day.”

Q: When did kids become brands?
A: The moment they, their parents or their handlers saw revenue potential

Marketers have wrapped marketing discipline, strategy and brand-building tactics typically reserved for dish-soap, cars and soft drinks around these digital celebrities and if book sales are any indication, the market is responding!!

Miranda Sings

Connor Franta

Grace Helbig

Shane Dawson

Zoe Sugg

Alfie Deyes

Tyler Oakley

Joey Graceffa

Jenn Mcallister