Foreign Rights: Do YouTube Celebrity Books Travel?

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm

Publishers, we learn, are becoming ‘increasingly selective’ as some rights directors say offshore interest in YouTubers’ books may be waning–although the fangirls and ‘boys are still hitting Play.

Laughing all the way to the rights bank: YouTube star Alfie Deyes’ books are in some 20 territories. But all video icons–and rights markets–are not created equal. Image: Bonnier Kings Road

While Sweden’s PewDiePie has been named one of Time’s ‘most influential people,’ the question of how faithful a readership his ‘Bro Army’ might make in the long run leads us to ask how well these YouTube celebrities’ books translate? Are the teens of Peru and Poland happy to read books by Zoella?—Porter Anderson

By Roger Tagholm | @RogerTagholm

‘Most Markets Have Their Own YouTubers’
The market for books by YouTube icons has become saturated, according to some British publishers, with rights directors describing a softening in international rights markets for the small-screen stars’ titles.

Foreign rights deals can still be racked up by some of the biggest names, among them Alfie Deyes of Pointless Book 1, 2, and 3 (Bonnier/Blink Publishing, 2014-2017) and PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) of This Book Loves You (Penguin, 2015). But publishers are becoming increasingly selective about the titles they back, knowing that large numbers of followers don’t automatically translate into book sales.

Publishers say their enthusiasm is tempered by the knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past two years, particularly with regard to foreign rights.

At Pan Macmillan’s summer party this month for booksellers at the Magic Circle in London, authors talking about their forthcoming titles to encourage pre-orders included British YouTube star Jim Chapman. His book 147 Things: My User’s Guide to the Universe, From Black Holes to Belly Buttons (coming October 5) is already creating interest in parts of Europe, according to Pan Macmillan’s rights director Sarah Harvey. “We haven’t sold Jim’s book yet,” she says, “but we’ve had strong interest from Spain and a few Eastern European territories.

“But I know anecdotally,” Harvey says, “and from working at other publishers, that interest in YouTubers in foreign markets has waned.  I think Penguin’s Zoella novels sold really widely, as did the PewDiePie one, but they didn’t sell through at all, despite some high advances, so I think there’s a malaise about YouTubers, especially in the big markets.

“As well as this, most markets have their own YouTubers competing for attention, or they’re watching the British YouTubers in English so they’re happy to buy English copies of the book rather than wait for the translation.”

Sugg International: 38 Territories

As Harvey says, Zoella (Zoe Sugg) is an example of a YouTuber whose sales have succeeded internationally. Fenella Bates, publisher at PRH imprint Michael Joseph, confirms that rights to Zoella’s novels have sold in 38 territories, with her books “standing out as quality fiction in the relevant age category.  They’re endearing and warm-hearted stories in their own right.

“PewDiePie is the most successful YouTube star in the world,” Bates says, “and so a lot of territories wanted to explore this new market.

“We partnered with [the imprint] Razorbill at PRH to publish in the US and it sold around 130,000 copies in the US and was a New York Times bestseller. We sold PewDiePie in 15 languages, and for many publishers, PewDie’s book was often the first YouTuber they’d ever published.”

But Bates says it’s not like that for all the YouTubers.

“The market for books by online talent has become increasingly saturated,” she says, “both here in the UK and internationally.  However, the right books still sell, and can sell in big numbers.’ Publishers have just needed to become increasingly selective about the books they back.”

Bates says he fact that Zoella’s books are text-only helps. “We’ve found that full-color, heavily illustrated books are a slightly tougher sell for our international colleagues,” she tells Publishing Perspectives, “because the fans abroad tend to watch the channels in English and are happy to buy the English editions of the books so they can read them right away, rather than waiting for the translated edition where the text is minimal.

“We’re also seeing territories publish more of their own home-grown YouTubers now,” she says, “and fewer international publishers are buying rights to UK-based YouTubers.”

Deyes & Colleagues: Not So Pointless

British vlogger and author Deyes—who is Zoella’s partner—is another example of a YouTube star who keeps publishers hopeful.  With the third installment of his Pointless Book trilogy just published on July 13, Deyes has sold into some 20 markets including Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Bulgaria, Russia, Poland, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

“Louise Pentland’s Wilde Like Me already has had a number of pre-empts in foreign language deals, which is evidence that the appetite for these writers stems beyond English-language editions.”Abigail Bergstrom

Carrie-Ann Pitt, who heads up export for Deyes’ publisher, Bonnier’s Kings Road, says, “Alfie has also sold well in export in English.

“The big international vlogging stars do travel, although local stars are also starting to get traction. In the Middle East, vlogging titles tend to do well and, due to the nature of his content, Alfie still sells in more conservative markets such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait as well as the UAE and Lebanon.  He sells in Asia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines too, while in Europe—in Scandinavia, Germany and Southern Europe—teenagers will read in both English and their local language.”

Judith Curr, president and publisher at Simon & Schuster’s US imprint Atria, says there isn’t one specific type of YouTube book title that works.  She’s looking for books into which the author has “put a piece of themselves into the text of the book.

“Our authors are all storytellers,” Curr says, “and they succeed because they take the reader behind the screen and into the more personal realm.  We do sell translation. Fiction works best.”

Curr adds that VidCon is expanding overseas into the Netherlands this year and to Australia in September. “That’s a sign that all this is not going away,” she says.

In the United Kingdom, Simon & Schuster has been successful with big YouTube names coming in from the US, according to adult division managing director Suzanne Baboneau.  “US YouTubers Shane Dawson, Connor Franta and Joey Graceffa, to name a few,” she says, “have become international bestsellers.

“Franta’s latest, Note to Self, went to number one on the Sunday Times bestsellers when we published in April this year.

“Our only UK indigenous name was Louise Pentland with Life With a Sprinkle of Glitter, which was a long-running UK Top 10 bestseller but didn’t fare as well in the US and now she’s writing fiction.  All in all, we’ve had real success with our US YouTubers and several have become repeating authors.”

Bonnier Zaffre publishes Pentland’s debut novel Wilde Like Me, which has generated considerable rights interest, says Baboneau.  Fiction by YouTubers may work best unless it’s a property like the Pointless books which cleverly reflect the personality of the creator–a sense for random fun, in Deyes’ case.

Many British YouTubers are handled by Gleam Futures, the “digital first” talent agency that has launched a literary division this month, Gleam Titles, run by Abigail Bergstrom, formerly with Simon & Schuster.

Bergstrom tells Publishing Perspectives, “Our talents are global and captivate audiences around the world, but the market can’t be looked at as one homogenous ‘YouTuber’ book market.

“The potential for foreign rights deals,” she says, “is often dependent on multiple factors such as genre or subject matter.  Louise Pentland’s No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling novel Wilde Like Me already has had a number of pre-empts in foreign language deals, which is evidence that the appetite for these writers stems beyond English-language editions.”

At this month’s Pan Macmillan summer party in London: YouTube star author Jim Chapman with Pan Macmillan digital and communications director Sara Lloyd, left, and fiction publicity director Jessica Duffy. Image: Roger Tagholm

Chapman: ‘Trying To Diversify’

One point everyone is agreed on is this: while YouTube talent has emerged digitally, it’s print that their fans are after when it comes to their books.

Fenella Bates at PRH’s Michael Joseph says, “Generally speaking, the ebook share of sales for our YouTube books in the UK has been relatively low.  At Tanya signings”–of fashion and beauty vlogger, Tanya Burr, married to Jim Chapman–”fans often told me that they kept her books on their bedside table and referred back to them again and again.

“I was really excited to see her young fans so passionate about the physical book.  It was great to see young people often visiting book shops for the first time and waxing lyrical about a book.

“Zoella’s novels have had a higher ebook share of sales, but on the whole for nonfiction, fans seem to want the physical book.”

And this is still a relatively new phenomenon. YouTube is only 12 years old and the YouTube celebrities world younger than that.

Chapman, who has 8 million followers on social media, says, “I’m trying to diversify–to do some journalism, modeling, I’m writing a film. You don’t know how long all this will last.”

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).