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Turning over a new leaf: why are so many YouTubers writing books?


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YouTube has spawned its own class of seemingly superhuman individuals. They, in a manner not overly dissimilar to the plot line of many a science fiction franchise, have eased themselves into world domination – for the teen generation at least. 'YouTuber' is now an entirely valid – highly lucrative, even – job title, the key qualification for which is a legion of loyal subscribers to the individual in question's channel. A YouTuber's mysterious power is his or her effortless and impenetrable guise of normality, whilst influencing our opinions, purchases and tastes.

Of course, the cult of the YouTuber owes its success to the immediacy and interactivity of the internet. Channels are supported by accounts on other social media websites such as Instagram and Twitter. Yet in recent months, there has been a growing trend in YouTubers extending their influence beyond the virtual and into new, literary realms.

For example, British 24-year-old Zoe Sugg – whose channel 'Zoella' boasts over 6.5 million subscribers – released her debut novel Girl Online in late November this year. As to be expected, the book was an instant success and became the fastest ever selling debut novel, smashing J. K. Rowling's previous record.

On YouTube, Sugg offers big sisterly advice on beauty, fashion and the more troubling issues teens today face such as anxiety and online bullying. Her new book features a protagonist constructed around these themes. Earlier this year, Sugg's boyfriend Alfie Deyes, whose main channel 'PointlessBlog' focuses on wacky challenges and vlogging released The Pointless Book, filled with games and activities. His signing event at a London Waterstones was so mobbed by young fans a police helicopter was drafted in to monitor crowds.

This expansion into the literary world may seem like an unusual move. For the younger generation, the internet – or even the simple reading of any kind of text on a mobile device – has overtaken the humble book (yes, made of real paper pages!) as new consumers prefer its interactivity and ability to quickly connect with others sharing a particular idea or interest.

Yet despite the merits of an enormous social media following, writing a book can seem like a YouTuber's crowning achievement, proving that the individual in question has truly become a sparkling media star. The internet belongs to everyone as its users engage with one another as equals, yet this makes for a diluted environment in which high quality media can be lost amongst ubiquitous hashtags, selfies and trolls. To be an author wields implications of authority, as a book condenses an individual's ideas and anchors them firmly in one place, safe from the threat of the unsubscribe button. Many YouTubers initially began making videos to supplement their blogs. However, a clear distinction is always made between being a blogger and an author, even though the two are based on the same principle – writing and sharing this work with others. Today, social media ironically places value on the material, as books are appreciated for their ability to distance both writers and their readers from the babble of voices online.

Books provide a flexible means for YouTubers to establish a lasting monument to themselves. Professional make-up artist and YouTuber Tanya Burr recently announced her upcoming literary offering, Love, Tanya. This is intended to be a collection of her life experiences, also featuring chapters on beauty tips and confidence. Burr states that her book will include 'lots of pictures', perhaps understanding that a colourful, shiny tome appeals to the magpie in all of us. Indeed, Love, Tanya, alongside Youtube's other book spawn, are arguably released with the intention of being keepsakes or novelty items, valued for their sheer possession.

It's worth noting that the earliest texts were highly valued material objects. Ornate manuscripts are associated with long gone civilisations such as the Ancient Egyptians and are both highly decorative and painstakingly produced by hand. Above all, they were – and indeed still are – thought of as rare treasures, considering how few of the population at the time was literate. Later, in the Renaissance, the invention and growingly widespread use of the printing press rendered texts accessible to the masses. Moving forward through the centuries, literary culture continued to develop alongside the expansion of the middle classes and the resulting increase in literacy. The Victorian period in particular witnessed the rise of cheap texts produced on a large scale such as 'penny dreadfuls' – gory ghost stories that appealed successfully to the mass market.

But now, it would appear that things are somehow back at the beginning as the YouTube book encourages us to specifically appreciate its material value. Elsewhere on the internet and supporting this point, the 'shelfie' hashtag propagated by the Guardian newspaper encourages readers to photograph their bookshelves, often perfectly organised and held up as prized possessions.

The variety of forms adopted by the YouTube book – novel, brain wringer, photograph album – reinforces the fact that its very publication is a carefully made business decision. YouTubers are astute individuals, masters of self-promotion and slickly selecting the best way in which to encapsulate their online personas. Rumours of ghost writers and an official statement from Sugg's publisher Penguin that she didn't write Girl Online entirely alone don't seem to have greatly troubled publishers or the book's young and devoted readership. Of course, anything YouTubers market is intended for a loyal, guaranteed audience and is therefore destined for commercial success – making it no wonder publishers are embracing the phenomenon.

The very idea of expanding a personal brand into the literary world is nothing new. Autobiographies have topped bestseller lists for years, with releases clearly timed for the Christmas market. These books are valued because reading them feels like a private experience, a very personal insight into another's experiences and thoughts. This year's YouTube books are of a similar ilk, as readers deliberately step away from the many eyed, many mouthed monster that is the internet. Girl Online, The Pointless Book and Love, Tanya give channel subscribers the opportunity to own a piece of their beloved YouTubers, making them a real, physical part of their lives.

This internet is an endlessly expanding entity, yet perhaps its exponential growth is a symptom of our underlying dissatisfaction with the experience it provides. Each new social media fad provides us with the opportunity to inch closer to the lives of others yet we ultimately remain separated, peering at our laptop screens as through a window. YouTube books, in a sense, serve as a kind of teleportation device for our online superheroes, bringing them physically into the space of our very own homes. The future of the book may well be owed to its very distance from our increasingly virtual world – its solid nature serving to forever preserve its contents.


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