Youtubers and Books: Ghost-writers, plagiarism and pointlessness in the latest literary trend

YouTube has propelled the careers of many a celebrity since it began in 2005. Justin Bieber, Kate Upton, Jenna Marbles and Ray William Johnson all have the video-hosting site to thank for their success. Once, YouTube was a video-streaming service used as a platform for comedians, actors and other professionals to connect with an audience. Since being purchased by Google, the site has undergone a huge redevelopment, so much so that it facilitates and drives the careers of many Gen-Yers seeking fame and fortune behind the camera lens. With partnerships, sponsorships, advertisement revenue and the ability to tailor your page like your own personal brand, “Youtuber” is now a legitimate professional occupation and it comes as no surprise that it can be a lucrative career path.

It was hard not to come across Youtuber Zoe Sugg’s name in the tabloids in late 2014. Even in Australia, the success and then controversy of her debut novel, Girl Online, was shared around as quickly as one of her videos. Sugg, with the screenname Zoella, made her name as a fashion and beauty vlogger on YouTube, uploading makeup looks, fashion advice and ‘favourite’ videos, which describe her current favourite products. Since starting her channel in 2007, Sugg has 9.1 million subscribers and has won numerous awards, including Cosmopolitan’s “Best Beauty Vlogger” in 2012, and “UK Favourite Vlogger” at the 2014 MTV Teen’s Choice Awards.

In 2014, Sugg signed a 2-book deal with Penguin books and soon released Girl Online, a YA coming-of-age novel about a blogger who struggles with fame when her blog goes viral. Girl Online broke the records for the most sales in opening weekend – 73,000 copies – and was the catalyst for the newest trend sweeping YouTube: book deals with high profile publishers.

But soon after the success of Girl Online, it was revealed that Sugg hadn’t written the novel, not entirely, and had used a ghost-writer. Sugg immediately denied the rumour, but Penguin eventually confirmed it, stating that Sugg had not written the story alone and had needed help to bring the characters and the story “alive”. This resonated poorly among fans, and despite the book’s commercial success, it retains a rating of 3.8 on Goodreads with mixed reviews. Many high profile writers criticised Sugg for not being more open with her collaboration.

Eventually, the controversy behind Girl Online simmered down and several high profile publishers snapped up successful Youtubers, including Tyler Oakley, Mamrie Hart, PewDiePie, Miranda Sings, Shane Dawson, Sprinkle of Glitter, and Dan and Phil.

But what do these books bring to the table – what makes them different, important and needed?

PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjelberg, is the most popular Youtuber in the world, with over 39 million subscribers. He found fame in 2011 when he recorded himself playing horror game Amnesia, and became notorious for his reactions to the game’s ‘jump scares’. In his Broken podcasts, with friend and colleague CinnnamonToastKen, PewDiePie said, “no one gives a shit” about autobiographies of famous Youtubers, and publicly slammed Sugg for denying she didn’t have a ghost-writer, claiming she didn’t “do most of the work,” to which CinnamonToastKen agreed.

PewDiePie is also set to become a ‘BookTuber’ later this year with the release of his satirical inspirational quote book This Book Loves You, published by Penguin. His girlfriend Marzia, the Youtuber CutiePieMarzia, is also scheduled to release a book.

Autobiographical books seems to be the name of the game with many YouTubers telling their story on paper, despite the fact their lives are constantly documented on social media. With YouTube trends such as Draw My Life (where YouTubers draw and narrate their lives before fame), and the use of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, you have to question what else they have left to say.

The Pointless Book and The Pointless Book 2, written by Sugg’s boyfriend, Alfie Deyes, (ThePointlessBlog, 4.5 million subscribers), is an anthology of pointless things: mugs baked in a cup, orgami-making and other funny, pointless anecdotes, which is also the content of his YouTube channel. The book integrates do-it-yourself pages, intending to individualise the book as uniquely yours such as “write down your favourite quote and who said it” and “write your celebrity crushes”. Following the release, Deyes was criticised for plagiarism and The Pointless Book was seen as a cheap imitation of Wreck this Journal by artist Keri Smith, and the “Booktuber” trend gained further scrutiny, this time circulating artistic merit and plagiarism.

In a similar but not so similar vein, The Amazing Book is Not On Fire is a soon-to-be-released autobiographical book by YouTubers and BBC radio hosts Dan Howell (DanIsNotOnFire, 5 million subscribers) and Phil Lester (Amazing Phil, 2.9 million subscribers), best friends who gained world-wide fame after posting a series of skits and being picked up to host a Christmas radio show for the BBC. The Amazing Book is Not on Fire is set to be released in October, and documents the life and world of Dan and Phil – a task they do online and on the radio almost every day. The book claims to teach people how to make YouTube videos, and depicts how their success started as well as potentially offering humorous anecdotes about their life. When I first proclaimed I wanted to be a writer, the first piece of advice my Dad gave me was: ‘never tell the funniest story – save it for your autobiography’, you can only hope that Dan and Phil have done the same, save you wondering exactly what they have to say that they haven’t said before.

However, for Tyler Oakley (7 million followers) and Shane Dawson (6.9 million followers), their autobiographies Binge and I Hate MySelfie, respectively, explore a deeper principle within YouTube fame. Shane Dawson, who documented his bisexuality and breakup with his girlfriend through his YouTube channel in early 2015, describes his self-doubt, body image issues, bullying, his religious views and his own sexuality through an anthology of twenty essays. It’s a tangible and honest documentation of something that can’t be recorded on camera, an emotional combination of inner monologue and prose. Similarly, Tyler Oakley’s to-be-released essay collection is set to combine his infectious personality with his story of success and social rights advocacy, notably LGBTQI+ community. These books that are more than autobiographical or nonsense books. They’re books by people who have something legitimate and powerful to say and are using their success for good and not evil – or, debatably even worse, for nothing.

From a marketing perspective, YouTubers are a perfect investment for a publishing house. They’re a marketing department’s dream. They’ve already got the fan base. They’ve already got the brand. They’re a bankable low-risk project, and with their success comes more money to invest into other literary projects, some which wouldn’t reach shelves. In some ways, YouTuber books are no different to the typical celebrity book. They write books for the same reasons celebrities do – to gain fans, publicity, to further their business and brand. Very few do it, arguably, for the right reasons: the love of writing, or the passionate story to tell. YouTuber books range from the silly to the serious, the funny to the “is this really content?” They’re on a fast track to becoming a dime-a-dozen.

Despite this trend, YouTubers are especially good at their jobs and their talent, charisma and effort translates into multi-million dollar revenue and engagement with millions of people. There is talent, commitment and downright hard work displayed by every YouTuber, no matter how much fun it looks like they’re having onscreen. Hundreds of hours of work are done behind the camera and offline to bring continuously quality content to the masses. And many YouTubers use those masses to bring about change. PewDiePie has raised millions of dollars for charities like Save the Children and Charity: Water and has been an advocate and supporter for independent games. Tyler Oakley and his fans donated $525,000 to the Tyler Project which provides suicide prevention programmes and support to LGBTQI+ individuals, with more being raised by fellow YouTuber Connor Franta through Prizeo, a company that offers prizes such as celebrity visits and holidays for charity donations.

No doubt, YouTube can be proud that makes wonderful people, but wonderful people don’t always make wonderful writers. Writers, like YouTubers, put in a lot of hard work to be great at their craft. It was why people were so outraged when Sugg continuously denied having a ghost writer, because she had claimed she’d always wanted to write a novel, and she had, and it was as easy as that. For her Girl Online sequel, to be published late 2015, Sugg confirms she’s doing more of the work herself, quoted as saying it’s been a “fun” process.

But the damage has already done, says PewDiePie, who elaborates that because of Sugg’s actions, other YouTubers have been criticised as being “fakes”. Fans state they can’t trust that their favourite online personalities have really written their books, which are nevertheless almost always snatched up in the pre-order. With such a small tight-knit online community of top YouTubers, the actions of a few have been felt by the lot. Shane Dawson and Tyler Oakley have both tweeted stating that they wrote their own books, similarly, Marzia of CutiePieMarzia released an Instagram post detailing the process.

So what does this trend mean for the literary world? Very little, it seems, as publishing is a business like any other. The financial success of YouTuber books, and the subsequent track records for editors, gives many green lights to smaller projects by lesser known or emerging authors. But the real gain is with the online community. A chance to learn from mistakes of others and take the opportunity to be published and distributed world-wide with a high profile publisher as the huge opportunity it is – a chance millions will likely never have. As for how long this trend will last, no one can say.

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