Meet the YouTube stars turning viewers into readers

From left: Emma Green, Jesse George, Christine Riccio and Maureen Graham outside VidCon in Anaheim, California, in July. George and Riccio, known as “BookTubers,” have popular book channels on YouTube.

When Christine Riccio was a teenager growing up in New Jersey, she and her sister would upload videos to YouTube of the two of them being silly, dancing to Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me” or attempting a back flip.

It wasn’t until Riccio was in college in 2010 that she “actually talked to the camera” for the first time and decided to upload a video book review of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.”

“I was reading a lot of books, and I had no one to discuss them with,” she said, explaining why she turned to the internet. “I was like, ‘I’ll be lucky if I ever get 500 subscribers over here.’”

Initially, Riccio split her content onto two channels, one for comedy, and another for books. But after college, while interning at Will Ferrell’s production company in California in 2012, she — like many interns — had a lot of free time on her hands. 

She read and came up with video ideas for her book channel, PolandBananasBooks, and began uploading skits, reactions to book-to-movie adaptations and book hauls (in internet parlance, a haul is when someone shares the items they’ve bought during a shopping spree). Her book channel grew from less than 1,000 to 5,000 subscribers that summer.

Now at the age of 27, with close to 400,000 subscribers, she is YouTube’s most popular “BookTuber,” chronicling books for a largely millennial and teenage audience.

That Riccio and other BookTubers’ audience skews younger is significant, given that it allows publishers to tap into a market that may not necessarily look to traditional publications for recommendations. Erica Barmash, marketing director for the children’s imprint at Bloomsbury, has worked with Riccio on several campaigns and said her channel helps them target teens by “going after them where they already are,” on YouTube.

I met up with Riccio in June, at VidCon, a yearly conference in Anaheim, California, that brings together creators and subscribers of online videos. We sat with a handful of BookTubers in the lobby of a Marriott hotel near where the conference was being held.

Outside, there were people wearing purple “creator” badges, taking videos they would post to their YouTube channels later. One guy had wrapped his entire body in crepe paper for an interview; many did the hype or flossed, dances inspired by the popular video game, Fortnite, as they walked from panel to panel or spent time at the sponsored booths.

Riccio and Jesse George, another prominent BookTuber, were chatting with Maureen Graham and Emma Green, who both operate smaller channels, about why they loved VidCon. George (Jesse The Reader, online) and Riccio met at the conference five years ago, and became “instant friends,” she said.

They joined forces with Ariel Bissett and other BookTubers to organize meetups and live events for their subscribers. They launched the Booksplosion book club with Kat O’Keeffe of the Katytastic channel, where every month, they choose a new book and livestream a video discussion for their subscribers, who can engage with them and each other via chat. Last year, they even participated on a VidCon panel discussing their work.

BookTubers are small fish at VidCon, where the most popular creators, whose content ranges from beauty to comedy, can have millions of subscribers (Liza Koshy, for instance, who makes comedic videos, has 15 million), but in the book world, they are celebrities. At conferences like BookCon or YALLFest, a young adult literary festival, “everyone we see is a subscriber,” Riccio said. “We get stopped all the time.” A panel at BookCon in May was attended by almost 700 people.

While the biggest BookTubers like Riccio and George tend to focus on young adult literature, there is also a smaller subsection of creators whose content centers on adult literature, both classic and contemporary. One, Dominique Taylor, said that her aspiration for her channel, The Storyscape, is for it to become “a literary teaching hub.” BookTubers discuss character development, themes and motifs, she said, and “that’s English class, essentially.”

Bissett, one of the BookTubers Riccio met at VidCon in 2013 and with whom she has collaborated, echoed Taylor’s sentiments in a recent video in which she discussed BookTube’s role in relation to the classroom. She calls BookTube “a haven for people who never felt cool or popular with their reading” and said it teaches “passion and love” for books.

Riccio and George agree. “That’s the thing about BookTube,” said George. “If you’re not a big reader, it inspires you to become one.”