A Conversation with Sanne Vliegenthart
Using YouTube to bring the world of publishing and books to the masses.
February 28, 2014 | Fog | March 2014
Sanne Vliegenthart, better known by her YouTube channel’s name, “booksandquills,” is a London-based video maker who focuses her channel on subjects related to books, language, and travel. She first started vlogging while still a student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and has progressively found and cultivated her cogent voice within the online community. After winning YouTube NextUp in 2011, Vliegenthart gained access to resources and training that refined her vlogging to a professional level. With just under 65,000 subscribers, she is one of the most successful BookTubers out there, and continues to create content that is accessibly compelling and informatively pithy.
But that’s not all she does. Vliegenthart’s day job consists of developing video and online content as Digital Coordinator of Hot Key Books, a British publishing company that specializes in Middle-Grade and Young Adult literature. Since taking on the company’s online presence, she has had a lot of freedom to develop Hot Key’s name across social media platforms, to build relationships between the publishing house and vloggers, and to maintain their kick-ass tumblr. It seems as though her time moonlighting as a YouTube Partner has definitely bled into her professional career, and she’s the first to acknowledge it.
Paradoxically enough, her move into the London fog has managed to get her out of the nebulous haze that is post-graduate life. Now, at only 25 years old, Vliegenthart seems to have the book world at her tech-savvy fingertips.
What prompted you to move to London?
I graduated in July of 2012. At that point, my [American] flatmate, Marion, had already studied in the UK, and she decided to go to university here permanently. At some point she just said, “Do you wanna come to London and find an apartment with me?” and I had some savings from a competition I had won previously, and I didn’t have anything lined up. I wasn’t really looking for jobs yet. It was a summer holiday, and I was like, “Why not? This is the only time I’m ever going to be able to do this.” I was still living with my parents and didn’t have a job. I had money saved up to go, and I could always go back. But I didn’t.
And from there, did you decide that publishing was the path for you?
Yeah. I moved to London not knowing anything about publishing, to be honest. I had no idea about all the different roles you could have within a publishing company, and it wasn’t until I started applying for jobs and I did my first internship that it all kind of clicked.
Did your internships help you cultivate what sort of a path you wanted to go into?
Yeah, doing the two internships that I did made me realize how valuable my social media knowledge was. I always thought of it as a thing that I did on the side, and all the people I know are good at it, so I didn’t always see it as a valuable skill. But when you go into a company, and you see that some of their social media might be lacking, you can just step in and do it. That just helped me realize that it was a valuable skill that I could use, and that I should go after those jobs instead of applying other jobs that I had no experience with.
Now that you are Digital Coordinator of Hot Key Books, what does that entail? Is it mostly a social media job?
I would say it’s about 50% social media. I run the blog and we post everyday, so that takes up quite a lot of time. I run the YouTube, so I make all the videos and come up with the ideas, and started the tumblr which I absolutely love—I spend a lot of time on that. I also upload and manage e-books and put in the metadata. And then sometimes we work on apps for websites.
How do you like it at Hot Key Books?
I really like it. [laughs] We’ve been working on really exciting projects and I have two amazing bosses who are super open to any suggestions that I have. Especially when I first started, they asked what platforms I would like to focus on, what I thought was working for them, what isn’t working. We’ve been working lots with vloggers and we started to invite vloggers to our bloggers brunch. We feature their videos on our channel, and it’s really easy because I already know most of those people.
You’ve really been able to play a larger role within this publishing house. And it’s a young adult imprint, right?
Yeah, and children’s fiction. And I’m slowly getting everyone on the team to be on-camera. We’re setting up our own vlogs, and it takes a bit of effort to convince people to be on-camera when they’ve never done that before. Slowly, but surely, I feel like I’m winning the team over, and they’re seeing how much fun it is.
What projects are you currently working on that you’re really excited about?
Every month for the YouTube channel we’re filming a video called “Coming Soon,” where we talk about the books that are coming out for the next month. It’s a really personal way for people to stay in touch with what we’re publishing. And it’s technically in the style of the “YouTube Book Haul.”
I really like that so many of the books that we publish at Hot Key are about really hard topics and they’re really, just, heart-breaking. They’re about death and abuse and all these things that you don’t…You know, it’s not like “light” YA reading. They’re really serious stories for a teenage audience.
With your YouTube channel it seems like you had the intention of going into publishing for a while now. Was that always the case for you?
I started my YouTube channel at the end of my first year of university. And I’ve always asked myself, “Oh, what kind of job did I want to have?” I had the vaguest, vaguest idea…something with English, something with books, that’s as far as I got. I never really thought about my career options, really, until my final year of my Masters. So, going into my YouTube channel, I never had any intentions of using that to get into publishing. It wasn’t until this year that I realized that it was useful.
Yeah, it was never, never the original intention of it.
So what was your intention of starting it?
I had been watching YouTube for about two years before starting a channel myself. I was watching vlogbrothers and fiveawesomegirls. Those two channels made me think, “Oh, you know, I can talk about topics like this, and people will watch it.” Especially with fiveawesomegirls—they were my age—they were talking about things that I like. So part of it was wanting to join that group of people, and part of it was just wanting new people to talk to about the topics that I was interested in that my friends back home weren’t.
Would you say that you’ve found that community within YouTube?
Yes. All the people I live with now, all my friends in London, they’re all YouTubers.
Why did you pick YouTube as a medium? Was it based on the vlogbrothers?
I didn’t start with book reviews when I started with YouTube. I started on the Twilight Collaboration channel. That was my very, very first beginning. It’s how I met my flatmate; we both auditioned for the channel. So on that channel we did talk about books, very specifically about Twilight. A couple of months later, I started my own channel, and that was the place where I didn’t talk about books. I don’t even know what my first videos are about—they’re kind of just like the vlog-y style. And then I think at some point I started the “50 Books Challenge” because Kristina from fiveawesomegirls was doing it. I thought, “Maybe I can do a little round up so I can keep track of what I’m reading.” When I started doing that, I noticed that a lot of people were commenting on it, and I was like, “Oh, hmm, interesting. People are enjoying it, I’m enjoying it.” And it just kept going. And it kind of got out of hand. [laughs]
I started taking [vlogging] more seriously when I won YouTube Next Up in 2011. They spent an entire week drilling us about using the right search terms, tags, and tent-pole events…those buzz words. And that’s sort of when I started taking it more seriously and then that kind of got everything rolling, and that’s when I started doing a lot more book stuff as well and then it wasn’t until two years ago that I actually got in touch with a publisher for the first time. Before, I was reviewing purely my own books for a good two and a half years before I took any review copies.
Now your channel is expanding to include movies and book swaps, etc. Where do you see your channel going in the future? Do you want it to take on different aspects of your life besides books and publishing?
I’ve started reorganizing my channel with the new layout and I’ve started to notice a pattern of the videos that I was making. I’ve been doing a lot more about language and translation, which I find really interesting, and I find that a lot of people subscribe to me because I speak Dutch. And they want to hear me speak Dutch. [laughs] I really love doing travel guides and travel montages. I have 100 gigabytes worth of footage of past trips to New York and I want to get plenty of videos out there.
I saw the NYC Bookstore video up on your channel. That was so fun to watch.
Yeah, that’s been stored in my hard drive for years. And I felt so bad. [laughs]
What’s your favorite type of book that you enjoy vlogging about? Is there a specific book that you got overwhelmingly excited to review?
I absolutely love The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. I read it in an apocalyptic fiction class during my Masters. Didn’t expect to like it, but I read a couple pages and I thought, “Oh my god. This is amazing.” There weren’t any reviews of his books on YouTube, so I did a review. I noticed that a couple of people started reading it as well, and did a review, and it started this branch of reviews from this author. And that’s something that I really love. If I can get people who don’t usually read classics to pick up something that they wouldn’t have read otherwise—that’s my favorite thing to do.
You also started derpinaMODE with Marion. Can you tell me a bit about that?
[We started it] because I watch a lot of beauty gurus on YouTube. Like, a lot. Essiebutton is my absolute favorite. And I love Miss Glamorazzi as well.
I never really used to wear make-up. Especially in my earlier videos, I don’t wear any makeup at all. And then as I watched a lot of beauty gurus, I got a lot more interested in it and I started using it more. And so did Marion kind of.
I was always a bit upset by the beauty guru channels where they make you think you have to wear everything. It’s either nothing or everything. So we wanted to do an in-between channel that wasn’t so terrifying and wasn’t like, “Oh if you want to do makeup you need to have three different shades of foundation and this and this and this.” So that’s how we started.
I also want to say, “No, anyone can wear makeup and you don’t have to be a specific girly-girl to enjoy makeup.” It’s not like, “Oh, I’m geeky so I can’t wear makeup.”
What are your tips for aspiring YouTubers?
A lot of people are always self-conscious about filming themselves, which is weird in the beginning. I didn’t feel as weird doing it, but it’s weird when you edit yourself for the first time. It’s horrible. You don’t want to hear your own voice.
I always think, make ten videos. Watch your first video, watch your tenth video, and you’ll probably want to keep going. Because even if you just make three or four videos, there’s such a massive difference. You get comfortable talking to the camera and you get comfortable editing. I feel like there are people that make one video and feel like it’s crap and then they stop. And everyone’s first video is absolutely terrible and really awkward and hopefully you can “private” it later. [laughs]
My other main thing is find people to talk to, and find people to talk to who are also just starting out. I feel like people always think, “Oh, everyone has famous friends. How does that happen?” It happens because they all started at the same time. They all started with 300 subscribers, and that’s when they met each other and they all kind of kept doing it for years and years.
If there was no YouTube, what social media platform could you not live without?
This is so hard because I love tumblr, but I don’t know what I would do without Twitter. I feel like I could survive without tumblr—I’d miss a lot of joy in my life—but I’m sure I could find stuff like that somewhere else. Twitter is so useful to keep in touch with my friends and with what’s happening in publishing. I talk to a lot of people that work in publishing who I’ve met through twitter.
You can watch Sanne’s videos here.
Illustration by Allie Torem
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