I first got myself a Facebook account in 2008 only because my friend was hugely crushing on a girl he was super excited to tell me all about and have me meet, and I guess the way to do this in the 21st century is through social media. But by then Facebook had far exceeded the threshold of usership past which everyone would switch to and stick with it just because all their friends were using it, so I stuck around, and a couple of my friends there managed to accidentally expose me to the Vlogbrothers through their constant fangirl wall posts.
So I got to know John and Hank Green, two brothers in their late 20s at the time, as they did a collaborative Youtube vlog in which each would record himself talking to the other for four minutes about whatever he had on his mind. They were charming, quirky, and thoughtful. And they were both coming from pretty interesting places. Hank, the younger brother, had an MS in chemistry and ran the website Ecogeek.org, while John was a somewhat successful young adult fiction writer.
That was in 2008, a year after they got the whole project started. Now it’s 2013, in which Hank creates and produces several other Youtube channels, including the Emmy winning “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” he helps run and makes original music with his own small recording/merchandising business, DFTBA Records, and he directs Youtube’s annual VidCon convention. John also does some cool stuff with co-creating his and Hank’s educational Youtube channel “Crash Course” and hosting a Youtube show for MentalFloss magazine, but mostly what he has been doing is dominating the New York Times bestseller list as probably today’s most successful young adult author after Rowling, Meyer, and Collins.
Now I love John Green, but his skill as a writer is not commensurate with his fantastic success (granted, neither is Collins’, and definitely not Meyer’s). He has sort of acknowledged this himself on his Tumblr, and I agree with most of the things he says in criticizing himself. But no one can criticize how he has managed to create a large and loyal fan base via means that no other author has used before.
If you compare Green to his contemporaries Rowling, Collins, and Meyer, he’s the odd one out when it comes to what has made his books sell. For the other three, being either entirely or mostly unknown before their big breaks, their books made it to the top by somehow perfectly striking a chord with a set of demographics. Harry Potter drew in an audience of middle-grade (primary/grade school) and junior high school children at the very beginning with the wonderful fantasy of going to a magical school of witchcraft and wizardry, and then the series slowly grew up with its readership over a decade. The Hunger Games attracted the angsty older teen crowd with a darker, grittier story that both provided a straightforward power fantasy for that angst and filled the vacuum of strong, multi-dimensioned female protagonists that had been sitting in the popular young adult fiction genre. And Twilight created that vacuum by perfectly capitalizing on angsty teens with a cardboard cut-out, self-insert Mary Sue main character pursued by two over-idealized studmuffins. But Green doesn’t have anything like this. I’d say his books are just about as good or maybe a little better than Collins’, but there’s nothing about them that’s prepared to hook an irrationally dedicated fan following from target demographics. They’re just interesting stories about more-or-less regular teens.
The majority of his success is thanks to the Vlogbrother’s ascent to being one of the most popular channels and powerful communities on Youtube. As he said in one of his videos, the release day of his second book An Abundance of Katherines in 2006 saw him and his wife drop by a bookstore to see if it was there, which it wasn’t, and then they went home to watch TV. But the release of his third book, Paper Towns, in 2008 was a day of internet fanfare, and it didn’t take long for it to be number five on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s books. Paper Towns was definitely better than Katherines, but it was still the same John Green type writing with his obvious focus on telling you some important point with the story rather than focusing on what would really make the story gripping, like other successful young adult novels do. Again, I’m not saying he’s a bad writer, but if he and his brother hadn’t become internet celebrities, he would probably still just be a somewhat noteworthy afterthought in the young adult fiction world.
It might be reasonable to be annoyed by this. There are better authors than Green who aren’t getting the recognition or success they deserve partly because they don’t have the skill, personality, or luck to become a Youtube star, and it all goes to reinforce the terribly unfair fact that an author’s success has far more to do with marketing than writing skill. But I’m actually pretty okay with it given Green’s case–happy, even.
It makes me happy because of an idea that John and Hank have themselves discussed. Generally, the point of marketing is to manipulate audiences. It counts on the consumers’ passive lack of serious engagement or lack of critical thinking that allows marketing tactics to play on consumers’ more base, unconscious desires; or, in worse scenarios, marketing might even try to manipulate consumers into having specific desires or values that serve the seller’s interest rather than help the consumer grow as a person or anything like that. But this model of marketing is an anathema to the Green brothers and everything they’ve made. In the beginning, neither of them dreamed that their vlogging project and the community around it would become as powerful a force as it is–starting Youtube conferences, raising at least hundreds of thousands for charity, creating a whole collection of educational Youtube channels like “Crash Course,” “SciShow,” “The Brain Scoop,” and “Sexplanations,” and starting businesses that employ dozens of people–so, from the beginning, they were entirely sincere about creating fun, engaging content that helped people learn and grow without worrying about how marketable it was in the usual sense, and that’s exactly what’s made it so big.
Of course, the Vlogbrothers channel and everything around it is nowhere near as big as something like NBC/Universal, but it still shows how potentially powerful this kind of sincere, user-created content is now that the internet is starting to grow up. After all, the most subscribed channels on Youtube have multiple millions of subscribers, which is more than the viewership of many network and cable television shows, but they’re made at an insignificant fraction of the cost of crap on TV. In comparison, the profit margins of most trashy network and cable shows are probably insignificant in comparison to someone like PewDiePie and his webcam quality videos watched by millions. To further drive home this paradigm shift, crowdfunding has finally become a viable funding method for multi-million dollar projects, and the Vlogbrothers themselves have added to the new model by starting Subbable.com, a service for donating to independent content creators on places like Youtube. Things like Kickstarter and Subbable work through marketing that assumes a totally different modus operandi than the manipulation of passive audiences like before. Instead, they rely on an engaged audience that genuinely believes in the content and its creators so much that they’re willing to give money to see it continue. Traditional ad-based revenue media marketing values a large number of subdued, unthinking viewers/readers; internet community-based media marketing values quality and engagement of viewership/readership over quantity.
I understand this doesn’t have much to do with changing the way book marketing works. I think the publishing world has understood the value of an engaged audience and invested author fan base for a long time–books make a profit from selling copies, after all, not selling ad space. But the Greens give the industry a new example of how that can happen and how the community can expand by generally becoming a more and more amazing force for good in the world. Not all authors will be able or inclined to do this, but Green has already used his community to hugely help a number of other authors rise out of relative obscurity and even become directly involved with him in the Vlogbrothers community.
It’s probably optimistic to the point of foolishness to think this is the beginning of a magnificent, world changing network of authors and other content creators fixing all the world’s problems through the internet while making tons of books and shows and things that are genuinely loved by audiences, even if they’re just loved because of a love for the creator rather than the content itself being lovable, but it’s a pretty amazing start.