It’s likely that many people over age 25 were confused to see debut authors named AmazingPhil and Danisnotonfire sell out an event at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., in November 2015, and even more perplexed to see fans desperate for a meet and greet offering $100 for a ticket that originally cost $25.
But these two British vloggers, otherwise known as Phil Lester and Dan Howell, had already amassed millions of YouTube subscribers, and their comedic memoir, The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire (Random House, 2015, ages 12 and up), has gone on to sell more than 200,000 print copies, according to Nielsen BookScan.
The pair’s obscurity to the world of grown-ups is part of their appeal. They, and others whose platforms include YouTube, Instagram, and Vine, have created a world separate from traditional adult-oriented media, and they speak to fans as friends sharing an inside joke.
“Kids may want some direction or help with the issues they’re facing, but they don’t want to hear from their parents—they want peers or their slightly older brother or sister,” says Judith Curr, president and publisher at Atria, who launched Keywords Press, a partnership with United Talent Agency, in 2013 in order to showcase what she calls “digital influencers.”
Curr gives the example of Keywords author Joey Graceffa, whom she calls “Dr. Oz for a new generation.” He’s amassed more than 5.6 million YouTube subscribers by talking fans through emotionally charged issues such as learning difficulties and questions of sexuality and abusive friends; his 2015 memoir, In Real Life, has sold more than 115,000 print copies, according to BookScan.
The imprint’s numerous forthcoming titles include It Gets Worse, a book of essays by Shane Dawson (July), a YouTube vlogger with 7.2 millions subscribers whose 2015 memoir, I Hate Myselfie, has sold more than 101,000 print units, per BookScan. Also on the docket are the YA novels Dream House by Marzia Bisognin (Apr.), better known as vlogger CutiePieMarzia, and How to Be Famous in Six Seconds by Rudy Mancuso (Aug.), who, as hinted at by the title, made his name on Vine, the six-second video platform, amassing a following some 10 million strong.
Social media personalities gain online fans through their telegenic charm and savvy self-marketing skills—attributes that also make them a publisher’s dream. But editors caution that online viewers don’t translate directly into book sales.
Much-heralded debuts by some of the biggest digital celebrities have sold well compared to those of most first-time authors, but modestly compared with their online followings. (For more on this phenomenon, click here.)
Still, editors continue to look for digital stars whose wattage will translate to the printed page. Next year, Flatiron Books is publishing the memoir And We Were Like by Caroline Calloway, an American student who has been chronicling her time at Cambridge University for 586,000 Instagram followers. “People only tell their friends to buy a book if they like the book,” says executive editor Whitney Frick. “You can follow anyone online without shelling out 20 bucks.”
Quantity and Quality
The size of a social media celeb’s following is just one attribute a publisher assesses when considering an acquisition.
“Decisions are made based on the quality of the work, whether the book fits the catalogue, the author’s credentials, the potential for a smooth working relationship with clear expectations—and then the social media profile of the author,” says Thierry Bogliolo, publisher at Findhorn, which is releasing Courtney A. Walsh’s Dear Human in March. The book is based on Walsh’s poem of the same name, which she posted on Facebook at the end of 2014. It went viral, drawing the attention of everyday Facebook users as well as public figures such as Elizabeth Gilbert and Khloé Kardashian (Kardashian shared it with her 40-million-plus Instagram followers).
Libby Burton, an editor at Grand Central, agrees that developing a successful book from a social media star requires looking for the same things one would seek in a book by any other author: “great stories well told.” She is editing the upcoming Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter (May), based on the story of the porcine Instagram celeb of the same name. Esther’s owner thought he was adopting a mini-pig, only to have her grow into a 600-pound commercial porker.
Photogenic pigs are something of a mini-trend, with HarperCollins scheduled to release the Instagram-to–picture books Libby and Pearl: The Best of Friends by Lindsey Bonnice (Sept., ages 4–8), about a girl and her piglet, and Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out by Melissa Nicholson, about a pair of mini-pigs (July, ages 4–8; see sidebar).
The books that succeed, editors and publishers say, are those that are approached as something more complex than a typical online post or promotional tool.
“The book isn’t just a piece of merchandise to the authors,” says Jennifer Bergstrom, publisher at Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint, which has cultivated a stable of digital stars, including Tyler Oakley, author of Binge (2015; 155,000 print copies sold) and Miranda Sings, author of Selp-Helf (2015; 190,000 print copies sold). “It’s a meaningful endeavor and they take it seriously.”
Forthcoming social media–centric Gallery titles include books by four Viners, among them Lele Pons (10.3 million followers), whose novel Surviving High School (June) was written with powerhouse YA author Melissa de la Cruz.
Also in June, Plume is publishing How to Ruin Everything, a book of essays by slam poet George Watsky, whose YouTube channel has 767,000 subscribers. “He was invested in making sure that this book wouldn’t be viewed as ‘content from someone who achieved Internet fame,’ ” says senior editor Kate Napolitano. For the collection, she and Watsky worked closely to select the right anecdotes, fleshing out some pieces and going through several drafts before reaching the final manuscript—much more effort than a typical YouTube entry would involve.
Given the often-ephemeral quality of Internet fame, publishers must strike a balance between getting a book out while there’s still interest and publishing a title that’s up to fans’ expectations. “Speed and quality are a challenging pair, but you can’t really sacrifice either if you want a book that will sell now and have some kind of sticking power,” says Mallory Loehr, v-p and publisher at Random House Books for Young Readers, which published The Amazing Book Is Not on Fire. In January, Random House BYR released Stampy’s Lovely Book (ages 7–10) by Joseph Garrett, whose family-friendly character Stampy Cat plays games in the Minecraft universe for a following of almost seven million YouTube subscribers. It’s sold almost 20,000 print units, per BookScan.
Gallery’s Bergstrom says that fans see books as a more intimate means of connecting with their favorite online stars than watching and commenting on a video. Retailers have found success by offering signed copies of the books online, and by referring to author appearances not as “signings” but as “meet and greets.”
The inherent connectedness of the social media world can also present challenges. When a retailer broke an embargo and sent out preorder copies of vlogger Rosanna Pansino’s The Nerdy Nummies Cookbook (Atria, 2015) ahead of the holiday season last year, all of her fans knew about it. “When a 16-year-old girl gets her copy a week before the rest of the world, she instantly puts it on YouTube, saying, ‘Look what I got,’ so the author and the whole world knew there was an issue before even we did,” Curr says.
Despite the hiccup, the book has sold more than 71,000 copies in hardcover. That puts it among the 15 highest-selling cookbooks of 2015 and in the company of Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman, who had the #1 cookbook last year and who also got her start on social media—in the comparatively quaint-seeming sphere of blogging.
Alex Palmer is a freelance writer and the author of The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York (Globe Pequot/Lyons, 2015).
Below, more on the subject of social media stars.Up Next: Social Media Stars 2016A Completely Unscientific Ranking of Books with Social Media Roots