In March of this year, YouTube aired an original special called BookTube: A Discussion With Michelle Obama to promote her autobiography, “Becoming.” I was super excited to watch because #ForeverFlotus, but also because it seemed that the niche YouTube community for book lovers that I have long adored was finally getting some mainstream attention.
The former First Lady was amazing as usual, and the discussion about her autobiography was engaging. But none of the BookTubers in the special were Black. Yes, there were Black women in the room but they weren’t BookTubers, or YouTubers who make content specifically about books and reading. Everyone else in the room was white.
“The Michelle Obama thing, my mouth just dropped. It was such a missed opportunity. Why wouldn’t you get a Black female BookTuber for Michelle Obama’s book?” India Hill Brown, who’s been making BookTube videos on her channel “Books and Big Hair” for five years, told me.
It does seem strange that the many Black BookTubers who’ve been making content for years wouldn’t get to participate in a BookTube special with the first Black First Lady of the United States. Perhaps the powers that be ran into the same problem that I and other BookTube fans and content creators have run into far too often over the years: They can’t find any popular Black BookTubers.
“For the person being introduced to BookTube for the first time, especially if you’re a Black viewer, the thing that I always say is just be prepared to have to look for yourself,” said Christina Marie, a Black BookTuber who’s been making videos since 2006. “You have to really look. It’s not going to be the first [video] you see, not first five or the first ten, it might not even be on the first friggin’ page. You always have to do more in order to find, honestly, less!”
Marie isn’t the first person to bring up this issue. Multiple Black content creators across genres have noted they lack the same exposure and promotion as their white peers on YouTube. YouTube responded to criticism from Akilah Hughes of the Youtube channel “Akilah Obviously” in 2016 by hosting their inaugural YouTube Black event, a conference specifically for and about Black content creators. Google declined a HuffPost request for comment on its current plans to promote diverse content on YouTube.
“Reading is the Blackest thing I can do. My ancestors fought for the right for me to know how to read. If my channel isn’t growing because of my diversity, I don’t think that’s right.”
It’s no surprise that it’s difficult to find and elevate Black BookTubers when Black authors, editors and book characters are hardly over-saturating the literary world. Only 4 percent of employees across major publishing houses identified as Black, according to a 2015 diversity survey conducted by Lee & Low Books. The same study showed that only 1 percent of book reviewers utilized by these publishing houses identified as Black.
“The Black female community is the biggest consumer of books yet the industry still doesn’t give us the range,” explained Jennifer Baker, a writer, editor and host of the podcast, Minorities In Publishing. “Book bloggers aren’t getting access to [review] materials because to publishers, they’re not seen as a viable marketing tool. The industry is not even reaching out to the alternate communities that are available and [is instead] focusing on the large, white dominant ones. So if you’re a Black blogger or BookTuber, that’s even more work. And that’s segregation and that’s racism and that’s all these things whether people want to say it or not.”
The BookTube community of all races is vocal about the lack of diversity in publishing and especially on the platform. Still, the racial disparity persists. Some of the most watched non-Black BookTubers like Jesse The Reader, Katytastic and Ariel Bissett (all of whom were invited to interview Michelle Obama) boast an average of over 100,000 subscribers each. The most popular African American-identifying BookTuber, Naya Reads And Smiles, has just over 56,000 subscribers, not even a fourth of the most popular BookTuber, Christine Riccio of PolandbananasBOOKS, who has over 400,000 subscribers.
So how can a Black BookTuber and book lover find success when the publishing industry, the Youtube platform and societal inequities seem to be working against them and keeping them in the margins?
HuffPost reached out to four Black BookTubers to find out how and why they keep making videos about their love of books and reading despite their ongoing lack of exposure. Below, they share in their own words what it’s like to be a Black reader and reviewer, and what they’d like to see change not only on YouTube, but in the literary world and society as a whole.
India Hill Brown, BooksAndBigHair
On Youtube since 2014, 6.7K subscribers
I would say BookTube has a diversity problem. When I started my channel, I did feel like people were very welcoming and friendly but I noticed immediately I could not find any other Black person. I felt like I was the only Black person on BookTube. It still feels like there’s just not as many Black BookTubers or their channels are just harder to find.
I watched one BookTuber’s video discussing the lack of diversity. When I was reading the comments, a lot of people were saying that they don’t want to subscribe to someone just because they’re “diverse.” The way they were phrasing it, it was making it seem like the diverse BookTubers aren’t getting enough love and sponsorships and opportunities because they just aren’t as good. What makes someone’s channel better than the other when we’re all doing the same thing? A lot of Black BookTubers don’t have as many subscribers [as white ones] but if they had more opportunities, maybe they would get more subscribers.
Reading is the Blackest thing I can do. My ancestors fought for the right for me to know how to read. To go into a library and pick up a book, to write my own book for other Black women to read. This is something I was meant to do. If my channel isn’t growing because of my diversity, I don’t think that’s right. I feel like people don’t want to face the hard truth about things. For there to be real change, everything has to be put on the table. We have a lot of work to do.
Christina Marie, Christina Marie
On Youtube since 2006, 8.8K subscribers
The way I see it, if you have a platform whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, whatever it is, you have a social responsibility to speak against injustice. My real life and online life kind of collided when Black people started dying. The shooting of Philando Castile ... it almost kind of woke me up to a level where I felt like I have to speak on this.
I was so angry and so sad watching people who look like me and sound like me being gunned down for no reason, and it just got to the point where I was so tired of people not being angry with me. So I made a video pretty much being angry at BookTube. I challenged other BookTubers to be more vocal. I challenged people to recognize that what’s going on in our world online and offline.
If somebody off the street was to just ask me, “Hey, do you think your subscriber count is low because you’re Black?” My automatic answer would be, “Yeah.” It is a struggle for Black BookTubers and Black content creators to attain the kind of viewership and subscribership that anybody else is attaining in the community. It’s still an issue, it’s always been an issue.
“I don’t care about the BookTube formula. My goal is to be a representation for somebody else.”
The typical BookTuber has always been a white young woman or girl talking about the latest young adult book she read or a book haul or a TBR (To Be Read) pile. I don’t care about the BookTube formula, I don’t care about having tons and tons of books behind me [in videos], I don’t care about my camera quality, I don’t care if I’ve read the latest book. My goal is to be a representation for somebody else. Knowing that if my face or my video scrolls across somebody’s page, and a young Black girl who loves books just happens to click on it, my job is done! I’m doing this because I love books, I love reading, I love representation. I want people to be able to connect and see themselves because I didn’t have the opportunity to when I was their age.
People always think, “I’m just one person, I can’t do much.” Well if everybody thinks like that then nothing gets done. You have an opportunity to utilize your channel, utilize your love of books to bring that same love to other people that may not know how great reading is, or they know how great reading is but can’t access the books or don’t know where to go or how to start or they can’t find characters that look like them.
I love that we are even able to have these kinds of conversations and able to just lift each other up and encourage each other, especially right now. Whether it’s on BookTube or just in life in general, we just need to remember that it takes a village. The power is in our hands.
KaShawn Archer, TheBookArcher
On Youtube since 2014, 4.2K subscribers.
When I first started thinking about seriously starting my channel, I was trying to find Black BookTubers. I was looking for anybody who looked like me. My family reads, my friends read and the majority of them are Black so I wasn’t understanding why I wasn’t finding that connection and representation online. I thought maybe somebody else is missing that representation, too.
Some people will subscribe to my channel and leave a comment like “Wow! There’s so little diversity on BookTube. It’s so nice to see a person of color!” So I feel like people notice [the lack of diversity]. It’s hard not to. When I go to a festival or a convention or something, there’s me and maybe two other Black people at the place. When you look at TV or just the media in general, you don’t really get to see a lot of images of [Black] people reading or talking about books or anything like that. Outside of my home, there was really nothing that I saw that showed we’re readers.
“If you’re a diverse creator, you have to do Beyoncé-level work to get the same subscribers or viewership.”
There are more diverse BookTubers than there were in the past, but there’s still that same issue of visibility. You have to work hard if you’re searching for diverse BookTubers. I feel in the Youtube community, in general, it’s hard for anybody of color to grow at the same speed or capacity as our white counterparts. If you’re a diverse creator, you have to do Beyoncé-level work to get the same subscribers or viewership [as white people].
I feel like we’re in the very, very beginning stages of BookTube diversifying. Certain people get uncomfortable if you start talking about diversity or diverse books too much. But we’ve been having these conversations our whole lives. It’s normal and natural for us. If I mention anything [about race] on my channel, that video will automatically have more dislikes than any other video. If something makes you that uncomfortable, you really need to take a look in the mirror. If you don’t feel like you’re part of the problem then why are you so uncomfortable?
There’s just something different about watching Black BookTubers. It’s something about seeing yourself. It brings a better understanding to people, especially people who are so confused about the Black community. I feel like that is a platform that I can use for so much good. I want to be a part of the conversation.
Nai’a Perkins, NayaReadsAndSmiles
On Youtube since 2014, 56K subscribers.
When I was younger, I kind of lived in the library. I would try to join in book clubs and it’d be a bunch of older white women and I’d be the little teenager over here with my afro. They’d be reading older, classic books like Jane Austen, a lot of these books where there weren’t any Black characters. So I found it really hard when I was younger to connect with the characters in books.
I always felt like the most successful characters in books, the character that ends up finding the thing that they need to find or saving the world, they were always white! There was never a woman of color with an afro going out and saving everyone. They were always the best friend that you meet for a few seconds in a chapter and then they just disappear.
“Black BookTubers, Black authors, stories with a woman of color as the main character, they’re out there. They exist.”
Angie Thomas has recently become one of my favorite authors because before, all the authors I knew were primarily white. And I don’t mean that is a bad thing in any way, but it’s nice to see women from our community that are successful. It makes me think “If she can do this, I can do this, too.”
And the same thing with BookTube and bloggers. When I joined BookTube, I knew who all the top bloggers were: all white, middle-class teens. I’m happy that I can help diversify BookTube in a way and review books from the perspective of a woman of color.
Black BookTubers, Black authors, stories with a woman of color as the main character, they’re out there. They exist. I like to call them Hidden Gems for the way that we’re not as a community promoting these books enough, promoting Black BookTubers enough, promoting these other authors enough or speaking about these books and these creators as much as we should.
I think that right now BookTube is in a really good position. It’s grown even more than I expected. There weren’t really many other BookTubers [of color] and even if there were, their channels were really small even though they’ve been on BookTube for three plus years. I didn’t expect much going into it. [My channel is] just continuing to grow and it surprises me every day, and I’m just extremely blessed and thankful that I can be a voice in this community and share my perspective on things.
I hope we continue to get diversity. I hope the next time I type “BookTube” on the internet, I hope there’s an equal amount of every ethnicity and not just primarily one ethnicity. I hope I can go to an author event and see more than just one author of color. I don’t want there to be a gap anymore. I want more of everything.
These quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.