After figures revealing a 56% increase in BookTube viewership, Julie Vuong speaks to influential vlogger Booksandquills, aka Sanne Vliegenthart, to discuss its influence on the book buying public
f you're familiar with BookTube, or book content on YouTube, you will understand the lingo used by the community: from book hauls, tags, and TBRs (to be read) to monthly wrap-ups. For the uninitiated, it may seem a foreign language, but these are common hooks that keep viewers clicking and coming back. Book vloggers are a new type of bookseller some might say, used and loved mainly by millennials for reliable recommendations. Recent statistics released by Nelson Bostock Unlimited, gathered in conjunction with YouTube owner Google, showed the extent of BookTube's popularity in the UK: a jump of 56% in viewership over the past year confirms it as an established platform for encouraging interest in books - and driving sales.
Nelson named Booksandquills as the most-watched BookTuber in the UK. With more than 174,000 subscribers, it has carved out a loyal audience who connect with the content as well as the person behind the camera: Sanne Vliegenthart. After becoming immersed in channels including the "VlogBrothers" by author John Green and his brother Hank, Vliegenthart launched Booksandquills in 2008, at a time when the online bookish community in the UK was still in its infancy. Since then she has been part of a fast-growing community, alongside authors, hobbyists (and the odd publisher), that has established a dynamic digital space for book lovers.
Like many BookTubers, Vliegenthart is young, female, films most videos in her bedroom, and is her own content producer, presenter and editor; and her channel draws the kind of audience and impressive direct sales figures that some trusted media outlets can only dream of.
The publisher-YouTuber relationship
Vliegenthart is transparent about Booksandquills' figures: so far, her channel has resulted in 5,316 books sold and 40,000 clicks to retail. And while the BookTube community grows, so does her clout to spotlight and sell books. "I'm not surprised by it," she admits. "Those numbers are there that back up what I thought was happening. I have been running my channel for nine years and I feel like I have something to show for it."
According to Vliegenthart, there are many opportunities for publishers to get in on the act, given the right approach. "Sometimes YouTubers are lumped in with other journalists," she says. "When it comes to unsolicited copies for instance, they might be used to receiving proofs, but when you're operating from your bedroom and it's not your job, it can get out of hand."
To get on board with BookTubers, Vliegenthart points out the fundamentals. "Communication is so important," she begins. "To understand how we work, publishers should invest some time: find out about the channel, what the person is interested in; find out their name even! Simple, top line stuff. What's important is to build relationships, and not view it as one-off projects. I think the most successful collaborations I have done are when we've had time and get to know each other and to discuss what we both want. The best results come when there's an open dialogue."
How influential are the book ‘influencers'?
For publishers looking to establish if views equals sales, YouTube is not an exact science, even with all the figures at hand. Vliegenthart explains: "Affiliate links (a unique URL that rewards the channel if viewers visit or buy) are a good way to track sales. But often when it comes to social media, publishers want the exact clicks, but it's not all about clicks - and that's important to keep in mind. I meet viewers who will say they have bought a book on my recommendation a year or so later after I have posted that particular video. With a younger demographic too, they might not have a credit card to click on a link and buy, they're more likely to save up or request it for their birthday. That's why it can't be precisely measured. Many will complain that therefore videos can't prove their effectiveness, but that's the case with so many other areas, like billboards, that companies will spend thousands of pounds on."
Publishers getting in on the act
Vliegenthart's knowledge of the books industry is bolstered by a professional career in publishing. She started at Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, and now serves as social media producer at Penguin Random House, running its digital platform Penguin Platform with a brief to expand the company's YouTube offering. "Both jobs in publishing are directly related to what I've learned from my channel," she reveals.
Alongside Penguin Platform, Vintage and Pan Mac's BookBreak have also carved out a space on YouTube - and while the uptake from the industry is slow, Vliegenthart believes it's an investment worth making. "For a lot of publishers, social media isn't a main priority," she says. "To start a YouTube channel it takes time but it's a good way to reach young people on a platform on which they already spend a significant amount of time. So instead of trying to encourage them to go to other online spaces, why not go to where they are?"
BookTube: the future
Predicting the future of Book Tube and its impact on the book-buying public isn't easy. According to Vliegenthart, what's clear is that there's plenty of room to grow. "I think it was around 2011/2012 that the book side of YouTube in the UK took off, and it takes time for communities to build," she says. "As BookTube gets bigger, space will start to open up for more niches. At the start, it may seem like there's a certain mould you need to fit into, and that it's all about YA or picture books for example. I would really like to see how publishers will work with YouTubers in the future; for many in the industry it's still a mystery! It does seem like they want to work with us but uncertain how."
For solid case studies, Vliegenthart points to other industries who are exploiting BookTube effectively. "I don't think there are any BookTubers in the UK who do it as a fulltime job, because there aren't enough opportunities. In America, there are channels that have 300,000 subs! To be honest, most of my collaborations are with companies outside of publishing, like the film industry; they tend to reach out more and have more budget. Like the beauty side of YouTube, which is incredibly popular now, it will take time to mature. Many people and publishers are doing an amazing job already, but there's certainly more growth there."