Julie Vuong meets the pioneering force behind a new literary model championing the world’s biggest ‘digital-first’ voices
The journey from blogger to bestselling author is not an unfamiliar one nowadays. Since the record-breaking success of Zoe Sugg’s Girl Online (Penguin), which posted the highest first-week sales for a debut author, shifting almost 80,000 copies, other YouTube stars have gone from hauls and home tours to pen page-turners.
Sugg, like many of her social media star counterparts, is part of an agency called Gleam Futures. If the name is unfamiliar, Gleam might just be the most successful business you have never heard of. Said to be the first and largest management company in the world for digital talent, it scooped up and nurtured bloggers and vloggers in the early years, before they became ‘influencers’ with their names emblazoned on beauty products, food and book clubs.
Back when digital’s potential had yet been realised, Gleam went out of a limb and lent its support to fledging social media figures – then watched their follower counts stack up. Years later, these same individuals remain true to Gleam; a testament to the company’s care and direction. These include Tanya Burr (3.2m YouTube subscribers), Jim Chapman (2.5m), Marcus Butler (4.6m) and Pixiwoo (2.1m) – all of whom have subsequently kick-started their publishing careers with a potential ready-made readership of millions.
It’s mining this audience – turning followers into book buyers – that’s part of Abigail Bergstrom’s goal. When we meet, it’s 16 months since she moved to Gleam as head of publishing; a newly-created role – and an usual one for a talent agency. "I’m in a really unique position," she confirms. "I represent Gleam’s roster, who have an amazing reach and fully engaged audience."
Proof of this is Bergstrom’s latest release, Louise Pentland’s debut novel, Wilde Like Me (Zaffe), which has become a Sunday Times Bestseller. "Gleam’s publishing division is on the cusp of something new and fresh," she continues, "and importantly it understands how the next generation is consuming content. For myself, I get to keep my foot in books, which is my heartland. I loved my job at Simon & Schuster as senior commissioning editor but I took a risk and moved to Gleam to learn something new. Because, let’s face it, the publishing landscape is changing."
Content, not personalities, first
The hiring of Bergstrom is an unconventional move for a management agency, and a shrewd one. It means the UK company, which was started in 2010 by Dominic Smales, secures an in-house figure with solid publishing know-how. Bergstrom is well placed to rep their talent to publishers and is not unlike the young, stylish and ambitious names she represents. "My role at Gleam came about after I lost out on Caspar Lee’s book to Penguin while I was at S&S," she begins (a YouTuber with 7.2m subscribers). "It highlighted how I wasn’t getting the books I wanted from Gleam." This scenario led Bergstrom to meet with Smales. "I told him that publishing was about content first, not personalities. That publishers wanted to work with agencies but in this industry you must speak the language. That’s when he offered me a job."
The internet of ideas
Socially switched on, Bergstrom admits she’s always scoured the internet for standout voices and projects. Her fierce belief in championing online influencers helped to win her first notable commission. Coming within just six months as an editorial assistant at S&S, she sought out Laura Bates after noticing the impact of her feminism campaigns online. From there she commissioned Everyday Sexism, a book that cemented Bates as a key figure in today’s feminism movement, and gained a Waterstones Book of the Year nomination in 2014.
Since then, she’s been steadfast in backing bloggers and internet personalities who pursue book deals, believing wholeheartedly that publishers needed to get agile in order to capitalise on the growth in digital content creators. "Some traditional publishers thought vloggers-turned-authors were a fad," she says. "That the market would get saturated and readers would soon be fed up. But the internet is the future of entertainment. The younger generation are not watching TV, they’re on YouTube, and the most exciting forms of entertainment are bubbling up from the internet."
Breaking traditional forms
Conventionality is not part of Bergstrom’s make-up, and gunning to break staid structures in publishing excites her. "I had to find my own process of working here at Gleam," she explains. "On my first day, it was a blank slate. It wasn’t quite editing, which I had known all my career, and I wasn’t at a traditional literary agency either. My job is summed up by a new book I’m working on with writer and podcaster Emma Gannon based on having multiple career streams. Work shouldn’t have to be a linear path."
Likewise, publishers should also be ready to adapt to a fast-changing social media scene. "There’s no set advance, there’s no set audience or way of publishing books," she insists. "The priority is to get the right team and editor. It’s not all about money."
Galvanised by her working-class background, it’s important to Bergstrom to break preconceived ideas of who is a legitimate writer. "It wasn’t that long ago that you had to have an Oxbridge degree or a privileged background to write a book," she says. "Social media flipped that notion on its head. Some publishers were slow on the uptake, while others got it straight away. Our industry can sometimes be sceptical of what’s new and resistant to what distorts the traditional view of a writer."
Launching Gleam Titles
Not content with grooming its own talent for publishing deals, Bergstrom is also leading a new literary arm called Gleam Titles. Launched earlier this month, Bergstrom is on the lookout for the publishing stars of the future beyond Gleam’s books. "It’s effectively a literary agency," she says, "with an ambition to publish digital-first voices. First up is Emma Gannon and I’m signing up some amazing authors, from ‘instapoets’ to those using the internet for game-changing projects and social issues."
Now this doubles Bergstrom’s duties, her priority is to build up her team. "The next step is to get some help! I’d love someone from a publishing background." Not just for millennials, Gleam Titles is working across a range of genres and age groups, from graphic novels and quiz books to parenting guides. "We’re hungry for different types of people and to diversify." Her last word to publishers? "I’d like to stress that a social following doesn’t always equal success. It’s about the quality of the idea and how, in the end, content is key."