When I was 16, I wanted to be Victoria Adams (as she was then). I wore only black and spent a lot of time pounting (that’s pouting and pointing obviously). I had a Posh Spice doll; the limited edition Victoria "Spiceworld: The Movie" VHS tin and a Spice Girls fabric strap watch.
My poor mother looked on in dismay, but as we had photographic evidence placing her at Bay City Rollers concerts, in full fangirl tartan, there wasn’t a lot she could say on the matter.
Those of us born in the last century may well look upon the rise of the YouTuber from the wrong side of generational crevasse with similar bafflement. Uniformly baby-faced, smiley, often white, PG-13 attractive, and with no traditional background in performing arts, it’s perhaps surprising the viral stars amass the sort of adoration we may have reserved for Kurt Cobain or Kate Bush.
Except it’s not surprising. Not in the slightest. Even I look back at the Spice Girls and objectively recognise they weren’t as talented as All Saints or Girls Aloud, but there’s no quantifying a phenomenon, and nor should we try to. There was something about Posh, Sporty, Scary, Ginger and Baby and, while it’s not for me – and nor is it meant to be – I assume the same devotion exists between millenials and YouTube stars like Zoella and Tyler Oakley.
Youth culture has always been exploited by the money men. I have no less than four Spice Girls book tie-ins on my shelf to this day. Reading Spiceworld: The Movie: The Book made me no less likely to read other books. It’s not just books, of course: Britney Spears’s fragrance "Fantasy" was the bestselling perfume of 2006. Yes, Zoella’s Girl Online may well have sold almost 80,000 copies in a week, but the Spice Girls sold 11m dolls between 1997 and 1998.
The only question really, is do publishers have any responsibility to manufacture quality books to tie-in with a celebrity? YouTuber books are undoubtedly celebrity tie-ins, even if your mum wouldn’t know their names.
To say "All YouTube tie-ins are cheap cash-ins" is both inaccurate and does a huge disservice to children’s and YA publishing. Let’s not forget "literary" journals and newspapers already overlook most of children’s and teen fiction as trash, unworthy of column inches. As with all lists, some titles are going to be rush-jobs and some will be quality. Girl Online (Zoe Sugg and Siobhan Curham) was an accomplished, heartfelt novel. Joe Sugg’s collaboration with Matt Whyman and Amrit Birdi, Username: Evie, is a gorgeous graphic novel. In a scramble to sign YouTube stars, there will inevitably be some crap, but that’s not the fault of the YouTuber if they’re being offered a quick buck.
The challenge, as ever, is how do we tear young readers away from tried-and-tested authors (and yes, that includes Harry Potter and The Hunger Games) and get them to explore and uncover debut or non-celeb authors? John Green (Author YouTuber or YouTuber Author?) is generous with his platform, casting a spotlight on his peers. Hopefully, some of his young mentees will follow suit, boosting YA and teen fiction across the board. The industry needs not to fight the power of YouTube, but rather seek to harness it.
James Dawson is the author of All of the Above (Hot Key Books).