Intellectuals always worry about the decline of literary culture. Much like racists opine over an all-white, all-fantastic Britain that never was, they assume there was a golden age for the Good Book – a time when the massed ranks of the workforce were reading Dostoevsky and Kafka, arguing about the use of symbolism in late-period Henry James while jostling through the factory gates.
But shitty stuff has always outsold the highbrow. Around the time Herman Melville was writing his masterpiece about a whale hunt and the inscrutability of the universe, most readers were devouring crappy bodice-rippers about heroines in trouble. Only a few thousand copies of Moby Dick were ever sold during the author's lifetime.
Not a lot has changed. Recently, YouTube star Zoella's inaugural novel became the fasted-selling debut in history, shifting more than 78,000 copies in its first week. Fresh horror: it turns out the 24-year-old vlogger's book Girl Online – a 21st-century teen romance about a blogger's fling with a boy in a band – was constructed with the help of at least one ghost writer.
"To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own," a Penguin spokesperson told The Sunday Times. It's an admission that came as a surprise to literally nobody, but still seems to have aggravated half the internet, to the point that Zoella has decided to "take a few days out and off the internet".
Zoe does not arrive at the gates of the publishing world alone. In fact, she arrives with a horde of shiny, well-groomed vloggers, all ready to storm the book trade armed only with detailed subscriber base data and the ability to arrange facial muscles into adorably quirky poses.
Zoe's YouTube-ing boyfriend Alfie Deyes already has a bestseller called The Pointless Book. It's every bit as futile as the name suggests – a hearty laugh in the face of anyone still labouring under the misconception that books are one of humankind's best tools for mind-expansion. It has two pages inviting you to take a finger selfie. He has two more books in the pipeline.
Their vlogging pal Tanya Burr recently signed a deal with Penguin for a book of beauty tips and life story "snippets", while Faber has acquired the rights to a diary by Louise Pentland (better known by her channel name Sprinkle of Glitter) and Headline will put out a fashion and lifestyle guide by YouTuber Fleur de Force.
I asked a friend of mine who works for the children's division of a large publisher what's going on. "The senior people of a certain age, they've learned to think a certain way when it comes to young people and social media and the internet. It's like, 'If I don't understand it, it must be something we should be doing.' So there's a hunt to come up with names from YouTube."
It does smack of desperation a little: experienced commissioning editors throwing aside their own taste and judgement in a mad scramble for broadcasting wannabes willing to be fashioned into authors.
"There's a push to sign up the next YouTube star because, in publishing, people want the next version of what's taking off right now," says Tom Tivnan, features editor at publishing magazine The Bookseller. "None of the next batch will probably do as well as Zoella or Alfie Deyes – at least not the same kind of YouTubers. But you might see people who vlog on films or music, and you could see a publisher trying to tap into their audience. If a million people are already following what someone says, doing a book is a good bit of business. The reality is, publishers will do anything to make money."
At the risk of sounding like one of those death-of-the-novel worriers, if books are reduced to merchandise for video stars, it must surely devalue the unique joys of the printed word. A book can't just be photos and glorified transcriptions of three-minute videos. Won't teenagers work out they're only going to get that particular experience properly online?
"The YouTube market – it's a market for teenagers who don't really read," says Tivnan. "They will support people they idolise on YouTube, so they'll buy the T-shirt and they'll buy the book. But I suppose you could look at books which have gone through a manufactured process like a gateway drug to 'real books', or better books."§
Leena Normington, a publicity manager and YouTuber who vlogs under the name justkissmyfrog, agrees. "No one buys one book and never reads another author, so if famous vloggers are getting teenagers into the book shop, they're expanding the book market rather than shrinking or monopolising it," she says.
However, Normington also concedes that there's a danger of publishers getting it wrong if they rush into the wrong partnership. "Something that works for three minute videos isn't always book-appropriate," she explains. "A good vlogger isn't always going to be a good writer, and there's costs and time that come with trying to make something transfer into a book – ghost writing, content curation, continually giving them remits to write within.
"If you have a celebrity with a big enough audience, you can't get it too wrong, in terms of shifting units. But there's reputation to consider – whether it's right for your imprint, if it really doesn't work as a book. It's less of a risk for the big publishers, but the mid-to-smaller guys want to build a reputation for doing a certain kind of book well."
There's a considerable irony about publishing's mad dash for the digital natives. Successful YouTubers, tweeters and Viners are hailed for bypassing old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy media. Yet, the serious money still comes from entering traditional platforms: books, radio and television.
So what do YouTubers think about the crossover? What do they make of Zoella's success? I asked Jazza John, a thoughtful 25-year-old vlogger who's been posting since 2007. He recalls being part of a small community of "nerds who made friends on the internet by making videos for each other".
Won't there be career-minded teenagers now vlogging as a means of gaining book deals, Radio1 slots or sitcoms on BBC3?
"Inevitably," says John. "People are very aware you can become a professional YouTuber, but there are also still people pissing about with a webcam simply because it's a fun thing to do. The people who do succeed are taken on by management companies, then encouraged to collaborate with the right people and so on. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
"I'm still having a lovely time on YouTube," he adds. "The nerdy kids making videos still exist; it's just there are cool kids here now as well. It's like the nerds got to the canteen early and made it quite cosy, and then a load of cool kids came along, realised the canteen could be cool and made a lot of noise. And that's fine.
"It's great for Zoe and Alfie – they built their audiences democratically online. But there is a nostalgia among some of us who've been around for a while. Maybe we're just harking back to the days before Oreo wanted to pay people to eat their biscuits in videos."§
It seems strange that Oreo marketeers are in the same business as book editors, hunting out fresh faces for 13-year-olds to envy and admire. But, when you think about it, perhaps it's not all that strange. Perhaps it's been that way ever since capitalism worked out the spending power of youth and invented the teenager back in the 1950s.
If I'm honest about my own reading material as a 13-year-old – mostly Match and Shoot football annuals – it's hard to argue a huge amount has changed. If kids' publishers had worked out a way of making books out of ZX Spectrum games, I might have asked for one or two at Christmas.
New stars rise and fall, the great supply-and-demand machine keeps on churning and someone, somewhere is discovering Thomas Pynchon's novels for the first time. The fall of Western civilisation will have to wait.
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