VidCon: How YouTube Star Grace Helbig Crowdsourced a Novel

Screengrab/Grace Helbig
'Writing With Grace'

The comedian will perform the final version of 'Freak Week' with some of her friends during VidCon.

Grace Helbig has a built-in audience for her newest novel: her co-writers.

Over the last two months, the YouTube star has enlisted her millions of YouTube subscribers to co-write a novella, and the project has demonstrated how social media stars can persuade their fans to do a lot more than "like" and "retweet."

Helbig launched Writing With Grace in April with a call to action on her YouTube page, encouraging fans to read the first chapter of Freak Week, which Helbig penned, on self-publishing platform Wattpad. She then asked them to send in submissions for chapters two through seven. Each week she posted a new video announcing which chapter she had selected and offering the would-be writers prompts on how to continue the story, which follows teenage diarist Lace as she experiences a week of supernatural weather.

"It was a way of getting to know my audience better and working together toward this fun common goal," says Helbig, who in each weekly video would award prizes to writers whose chapters she liked before announcing which chapter was selected to become an official part of Freak Week. "I already knew from past interactions that there were a lot of other creatives that watched my videos, and I got to see them showcase their talents firsthand."

Seven chapters later, Helbig is prepping to end the novella with a live reading on Friday, June 24, at online video conference VidCon. There, she will reveal the eighth and final chapter, which she wrote.

While the completed novella hasn't been revealed just yet, Fullscreen, the company behind the project, is already hailing it as a success. Conceived as part of the 12-month AT&T Hello Lab program, a marketing campaign designed to connect online stars with their fans in new, interactive ways, Freak Week garnered 317,000 reads (Wattpad's equivalent to a view), blowing past the 10,000 reads that they were anticipating. The project also received more than 620 user-submitted entries and had participants on all continents but Antarctica, making it the second-largest contest of any previously conducted on Wattpad.

"It's one thing for a creator to reply to a tweet or favorite a tweet so fans know you're involved, but when you provide the audience with the opportunity to participate and show that they are part of the community, it excites them," says Billy Parks, senior vp strategic content group for Fullscreen. "It feels like a workshop and gives them a role to play in the content."

Helbig, who has written two novels in addition to Freak Week, has built her fanbase primarily on YouTube and social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, but the comedian says she had no challenges engaging them on Wattpad. "Everyone who participated was so positive and enthusiastic about this cool, experimental workshop," she says. "And even if they felt like they couldn't participate as writers, they were still able to join in as readers or even visual artists."

Helbig is rewarding her fans by flying those who submitted winning chapters out to Anaheim for VidCon, where on Friday night she will bring friends and fellow YouTubers — including Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart, Hank Green and Chester See — to perform a live stage reading of Freak Week. Audio of the performance will be recorded and made available later as a podcast.

Additional Hello Lab projects will roll out throughout the year. Parks says all the projects are designed with the aim of helping creators reach their fans in new and different ways. He adds: "We sat down with the influencers and asked, 'What do you want to do next? How can we get you closer to your audience?'"