Authors on YouTube: I'm a celebrity, and I'm shameless

Big names are using YouTube videos to promote their books. Do their unsubtle tactics really work? By Arifa Akbar

Would a YouTube clip of Russell Brand speaking directly to camera and urging you to buy his Booky Wook (2), telling you that "it's better than the other one" inspire you to rush out to the shops?

How about a more earnest sales-pitch by the TV chef Jamie Oliver, delivered within clear view of his hob, which promises, no, PROMISES, to transform you from a microwave slave to a mini-me with the help of his latest book? Or Nigella Lawson's beguiling two-minute address extolling the virtues of her latest recipe book, Kitchen, with mentions of her home and hearth, her children and her siblings, and all that cosy, Aga-ish stuff that might appeal to your unconscious desire to be part of her domestic set-up?

These videos, made by Waterstones.com, are so commercially brazen and awkward that they are a wonder to behold. Waterstone's has long been making YouTube videos that tie in to book releases, but many feature the likes of Ian McEwan and Jacqueline Wilson giving mini book readings or discussing the themes of their latest works, rather than blatantly employing their charms to get you to buy the book. This clutch of "celebrity" addresses, however, appear much more geared up to a personality-driven hard sell, for book-chart purposes, rather than focusing on a genuine discussion of the book in question.

Waterstone's has clearly sharpened its advertising campaign in recent times, and some may view such strategies as movie-style trailers (complete with deep throated voice-overs) as the book industry catching up with the rest of the world. And who knows, Oliver's YouTube pledge might have helped Jamie's 30-Minute Meals to top the book charts last month.

Lawson, Stephen Fry, Alan Sugar, Michael McIntyre, all of whom made Waterstones.com videos, also made it into the top 10 of the Christmas charts. So there is every reason to think their online appearances might have helped to shift books off shelves. Yet there is something undignified, at best, and cheaply manipulative, at worst, about them.

A number of these "personalities" appear on their clips like slippery-tongued salesmen with pleading eyes. Some go for a hard sell, others don't even bother with the sales pitch and just implore us to "buy my book" as if that alone could turn our heads.

Justin Bieber, the Canadian singer, cajoles future readers as if they were friends. "Hey, guys. Justin Bieber here. Just wanted to say 'whats up'. I'm coming out with a book... It's got a lot of cool stuff about me and how I got discovered. I wanted to say go buy it". Alan Sugar, the businessman and television host of The Apprentice, goes for a sharper spiel: "Whether you are a youngster that wants to be inspired, a business person who wants to pick up a few tips, a football fan or an Apprentice fan, you need to go out and buy this book because you are going to get a bit of everything in it."

Harry Hill laughs ironically as he reads from his autobiography; Michael McIntyre puts on a similar performance of being enamoured of his memoir, Life & Laughing; and Dawn French ends up answering questions from readers that range from "What is your hair-care routine?" to "What is your perfect day?" while promoting her first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous. She gives wonderfully inventive answers to them all, although seems slightly stumped by a mother's request for advice for her aspiring-novelist daughter: "Obviously I'm a new fiction author so I probably haven't got many tips for a 10-year-old yet..."

French's natural charisma aside, the idea behind the videos appears to be built around the cult of personality. On-screen charisma does not, of course, necessarily translate into good writing, or reading, as anyone watching these videos will know, but there is the irritating implication behind this advertising concept that we will be seduced by these starry little YouTube turns into forgetting this fact.

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