You click on a YouTube video titled something like “MY SUPER SECRET SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT.”
You hear the YouTuber say, “I’m writing a book,” followed by concerns that “people might be skeptical.” There are two ways you could respond to this: you either roll your eyes, or you don’t.
I have to be honest—the world of YouTube books confuses and intrigues me. It becomes almost an instant eye-roll reaction at this point when a YouTuber announces they’ll be writing a book. If they haven’t, it feels like a waiting game until they do. The announcement comes with a bit of self-awareness, and the reactions are immediate and intense; fans are either excited to preorder their copy, or upset that another “non-writer” is ruining the world of books.
I understand the reaction on both sides. YouTube is a platform that was created primarily out of intimacy, and its top creators rose to fame by capitalizing on that. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but personability is a commodity. You can watch one person, feel like they are talking to or with you, and they make money from that.
The oddest thing about YouTubers writing books is that from a publishing standpoint, it makes sense. The writer already has an audience. There are already people guaranteed to buy the book. And books can often function as an extension of the intimacy that garnered creators their viewership in the first place. That is what books often do—extend familiarity and encourage more creativity. But of course, I understand the backlash too.
Writing is an art form. People go to school for years to master that art and so it feels almost like a slap in the face and a mode of selling out when content creators are given book deals based on personality rather than literary merit.
A majority of the YouTube’s most popular creators have written books—Zoella, Tyler Oakley, Joey Graceffa, Shane Dawson, the list is unending. Simon & Schuster, a publishing house, even created an imprint called Keywords Press, the self-described “publishing home of online’s greatest storytellers.” But I think that lumping together “YouTube books” in a fit of rage is sort of missing a massive point—while discussions of whether books are good as books are important, I think saying they’re ruining culture does a fair bit of damage also.
Ultimately I do not think the problem that we have with these sorts of books is their writing—I think the issue navigates the strange, new type of celebrity we’ve created, and watching that tamper with art. Artistry has long mixed with the notion of “selling out” and reducing the purity of art, especially when there’s cross-over between mediums.
This reminded me of the time when I was younger and I went to see the Jonas Brothers Concert movie. Was that “movie” taking away screentime from better-made films that would’ve been more challenging to make? Of course. But I do not think this means these distinct types of media should not exist because of their interference.
What I mean is that Keith Richards surely would likely never have (co)written LIFE had he not been famous first, and that’s okay. If you’re a fan of a particular YouTuber, buying their book might enable you to develop a better sense of how they want to portray themselves on the page. If you’re not, though, don’t just laugh them off. Don’t examine them as inherently good or bad in and of themselves—of course, good writing matters—but instead, try examining what they are doing.
Even the most controversial books should be fairly assessed as cultural artifacts, and when we write these books off as jokes we lose out on moments to use books as an entryway to what’s grabbing our attention, where society’s eyes are currently focused, and of the kind of art contemporaries are making now.