BookTubers: How YouTube Influencers Are Shaping Reading Habits

YouTube has taken the video world by storm and the lit industry is no exception. Explore how YouTube influencers are shaping the way we read.

Book Culture Bookish Trends
An open book with a puppy and tree sprouting from it's pages

In 2024, which has been dubbed the year of elections (UK, France, India, the US), you’re likely going to hear a lot about how social media shapes our political views, for good and for ill. But when it comes to cultural influence, there is arguably no more important platform than YouTube. The platform has around 2.7 billion visitors per month – about a third of the world’s population – with viewers watching around one billion hours of content per day.

Success on the platform is found in different areas. Personalities like Mr. Beast becoming household names have been well documented. YouTube gaming is a massive draw, too, and the most popular YouTube gamers can draw in audiences that exceed that of primetime network television channels. But there is also plenty of room for traditional arts and culture, including, of course, books.

BookTubers provide a world of literary insight.

Book influencers, or BookTubers as they are fondly known, form arguably one of the most underrated niches of all social media. Thousands of major accounts weave a rich tapestry of varied content, serving all kinds of tastes for bibliophiles or those looking to get into reading. If you want a ten-minute explainer on the difference between Sartre and Camus’ take on existentialism, or you want an explainer of George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros, or you have an essay to do on Shakespeare’s Histories, YouTube has you covered.

Of course, some areas are covered more frequently than others, and much of that will be down to YouTube’s younger demographic. High fantasy and other genres that tend to fall into the young adult bracket tend to have much more coverage than, say, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf-style early 20th-century modernism. But that’s not to say you can’t find wonderful content on the latter.

Yet, what is probably less appreciated is the fact that YouTube often acts as a discovery tool for new writers and even new styles of writing. Indeed, some authors will run their own channels, talking about their likes and influences while nudging viewers to explore their books. Neil Gaiman and Brandon Sanderson are among many well-known authors who use the platform to keep their readership engaged and updated, helping their book sales. However, many less well-known authors are able to do similar.

Illustration of an ipad with YouTube app and cup of coffee

Unknown authors can leverage the platform.

While it’s known that YouTube can drive up sales for individual authors, it has not really been quantified as to what it has done for overall book sales. In the early 21st century, annual book sales in the United States were around 680,000,000 units per year, but that has risen steadily, reaching over 1 billion units by 2023. YouTube or other social media that promotes books, like TikTok, is not solely responsible for that; of course, it isn’t. Yet, the fact it can act as a gateway for some into reading is undeniable.

For balance, we should offer some criticism. For a start, many of us, particularly younger people, can spend too much time on YouTube. Secondly, and perhaps importantly, YouTube can be a gateway to learning about books without actually reading them. You can find overly-facile summaries of complex books on the platform, allowing the viewer to be able to parrot stuff about the work without having read it. This phenomenon is not limited to YouTube: consider the rise of ChatGPT as a cheat code to learn about topics without studying them fully.

Overall, though, we would argue that YouTube and its army of BookTubers are a net positive for literature. At its best, it is a discovery tool, allowing viewers to unearth literary knowledge, find context to books they already love, and provide a gateway into new books and authors. Social media may, broadly, be criticized for changing our relationship with books, but BookTubers remind us that the love of literature will always find a home on any medium.