Meet the YouTube Stars Turning Viewers Into Readers

By Concepción de León

Books News

“That’s the thing about BookTube,” said Jesse George. “If you’re not a big reader, it inspires you to become one.” Mr. George (bottom row, third from right) and other BookTubers at BookCon in May.CreditJenna Clare Photography

When Christine Riccio was a teenager growing up in New Jersey, she and her sister would upload videos to YouTube of the two of them being silly, dancing to Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me” or attempting a back flip. It wasn’t until Ms. Riccio was in college in 2010 that she “actually talked to the camera” for the first time and decided to upload a video book review of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games.”

“I was reading a lot of books, and I had no one to discuss them with,” she said, explaining why she turned to the internet. “I was like, ‘I’ll be lucky if I ever get 500 subscribers over here.’”

Initially, Ms. Riccio split her content onto two channels, one for comedy, and another for books. But after college, while interning at Will Ferrell’s production company in California in 2012, she — like many interns — had a lot of free time on her hands. She read and came up with video ideas for her book channel, PolandBananasBooks, and began uploading skits, reactions to book-to-movie adaptations and book hauls (in internet parlance, a haul is when someone shares the items they’ve bought during a shopping spree). Her book channel grew from less than 1,000 to 5,000 subscribers that summer. Now at the age of 27, with close to 400,000 subscribers, she is YouTube’s most popular “BookTuber,” chronicling books for a largely millennial and teenage audience.

That Ms. Riccio and other BookTubers’ audience skews younger is significant, given that it allows publishers to tap into a market that may not necessarily look to traditional publications for recommendations. Erica Barmash, marketing director for the children’s imprint at Bloomsbury, has worked with Ms. Riccio on several campaigns and said her channel helps them target teens by “going after them where they already are,” on YouTube.

“I was like, ‘I’ll be lucky if I ever get 500 subscribers over here,’” said Ms. Riccio. At 400,000, she is now the most popular BookTuber.CreditGraham Walzer for The New York Times

Ms. Riccio’s videos are still wacky and humorous; in a recent one, in which she updates viewers on her book-writing process, she’s draped in white Christmas tree lights and crowns herself with a tiara as a reward for meeting a deadline. In another, she acts as multiple characters and uses props like dolls, toy cars and yellow dishwashing gloves in a video that condenses the Darkest Minds trilogy by Alexandra Bracken into eight minutes. That one got over 15,000 views and almost 350 overwhelmingly positive comments, full of crying-laughing emojis, effusive praise (“brilliant,” “pure greatness”) and calls for more.

I met up with Ms. Riccio in June, at VidCon, a yearly conference in Anaheim, Calif., that brings together creators and subscribers of online videos. We sat with a handful of BookTubers in the lobby of a Marriot hotel near where the conference was being held. Outside, there were people wearing purple “creator” badges, taking videos they would post to their YouTube channels later. One guy had wrapped his entire body in crepe paper for an interview; many did the hype or flossed, dances inspired by the popular video game, Fortnite, as they walked from panel to panel or spent time at the sponsored booths.

[Here’s how YouTube’s youngest viewers are becoming its creators.]

Ms. Riccio and Jesse George, another prominent BookTuber, were chatting with Maureen Graham and Emma Green, who both operate smaller channels, about why they loved VidCon. Mr. George (Jesse The Reader, online) and Ms. Riccio met at the conference five years ago, and became “instant friends,” she said. They joined forces with Ariel Bissett and other BookTubers to organize meet-ups and live events for their subscribers. They launched the Booksplosion book club with Kat O’Keeffe of the Katytastic channel, where every month, they choose a new book and live stream a video discussion for their subscribers, who can engage with them and each other via chat. Last year, they even participated on a VidCon panel discussing their work.

BookTubers are small fish at VidCon, where the most popular creators, whose content ranges from beauty to comedy, can have millions of subscribers (Liza Koshy, for instance, who makes comedic videos, has 15 million), but in the book world, they are celebrities. At conferences like BookCon or YALLFest, a young adult literary festival, “everyone we see is a subscriber,” Ms. Riccio said. “We get stopped all the time.” A panel at BookCon in May was attended by almost 700 people.

Ms. Riccio, Mr. George and Ms. O’Keeffe during a Booksplosion panel at BookCon in 2017.CreditJenna Clare Photography

Brittany Kaback, who works for a boutique marketing agency called Big Honcho Media, which connects publishing companies with “influencers,” called the BookTubers “hugely influential.” “I think for a lot of the people who are into watching BookTube videos, it feels like taking a recommendation from a friend,” Ms. Kaback said.

As a result, BookTubers are sent advance copies of upcoming books to feature, and publishing houses often sponsor their videos to promote new releases. Though their influence is hard to quantify, Ms. Kaback said viewer engagement is substantial; many subscribers comment that they were convinced to buy the book being promoted. According to YouTube, the community as a whole has gotten over 200 million views and, compared to this time last year, engagement with them is up 40 percent.

While the biggest BookTubers like Ms. Riccio and Mr. George tend to focus on young adult literature, there is also a smaller subsection of creators whose content centers on adult literature, both classic and contemporary. One, Dominique Taylor, said that her aspiration for her channel, The Storyscape, is for it to become “a literary teaching hub.” BookTubers discuss character development, themes and motifs, she said, and “that’s English class, essentially.”

Ms. Bissett, one of the BookTubers Ms. Riccio met at VidCon in 2013 and with whom she has collaborated, echoed Ms. Taylor’s sentiments in a recent video in which she discussed BookTube’s role in relation to the classroom. She calls BookTube “a haven for people who never felt cool or popular with their reading” and said it teaches “passion and love” for books.

Ms. Riccio and Mr. George agree. “That’s the thing about BookTube,” said Mr. George. “If you’re not a big reader, it inspires you to become one.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, of the BookTubers I spoke to, all but one had writerly aspirations; Ms. Riccio is working on a young adult novel titled “Again, But Better,” which will be published by Wednesday Books next spring. Some of her content now overlaps with another niche video community, AuthorTube, made up of writers who document their work process.

Over lunch in June, both Ms. Riccio and Mr. George said they started their channels as a way to find friends and community. For Ms. Riccio, a reading binge reignited her love of books and encouraged her to seek out like-minded peers, while in Mr. George’s case, YouTube was a refuge from bullying and social isolation.

Mr. George said he immediately felt welcomed by the community of readers. “The second I started, I started getting comments on my first video,” he said. “I found what I’ve been looking for this whole time.”

Their content extends a similar sense of inclusion to their viewers. This week, from July 30 to Aug. 5, Ms. Bissett is hosting BookTube-A-Thon, a reading marathon that engages subscribers across social platforms with daily giveaways, photo competitions and other challenges. Events like these create momentum around books that’s hard to replicate in real life. Reading and writing are solitary activities; BookTube is changing that.