At one point during his rise to internet fame, Hank Green tallied up every minute that every viewer had spent watching all the videos he’d ever made with his brother, and came up with a sum roughly equal to the average human lifespan. Now, he said, that collective viewing total amounts to at least 50 lifetimes.
“It makes you think, ‘Am I doing a human lifetime’s worth of good here?’” he said.
Existential questions born of online stardom figure prominently in Mr. Green’s debut novel, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” The sci-fi thriller due out Tuesday tells the story of a 23-year-old woman who becomes instantly famous after being the first to video-blog her contact with a giant alien robot.
With the book, Mr. Green enters a territory already familiar to his older brother and longtime video collaborator John Green, the author of blockbuster young-adult novels led by “The Fault in Our Stars.”
Expectations are high for Hank’s novel, which publisher Dutton acquired at auction in a two-book deal. “The reception by booksellers and reviewers has been rapturous,” said editor Maya Ziv.
The book targets a wide audience. It is being promoted as an adult novel but could double as young-adult fiction, with its absence of sex scenes and a trigger warning before its one violent passage.
“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” opens with graphic designer April May discovering what first appears to be a large, armor-clad statue on a Manhattan sidewalk. She names it Carl. Soon, April learns that many Carls have popped up without explanation around the world, with the public divided over whether the enigmatic figures pose a threat. Internet sleuths, working together to solve the mystery, realize that clues to interpreting the Carls are hidden in a dream people share when they sleep. April, who uses the Carls to build her own social-media brand, becomes an instant celebrity whose powers to influence escalate with each post.
The perils of online stardom are personal for the Greens. For online content creators, Hank said, “growing an audience for the sake of growing an audience is almost inherently destructive for you.”
Hank is known independently as a host for the science channel SciShow and its spinoffs, along with the educational channel Crash Course. Yet even with Hank in the spotlight, it is hard to mention one Green without the other. In a video Hank posted earlier this year touting the book, he cheerfully thanks John for the agents and publishers who read it “because I’m John Green’s brother.”
“I could say the same thing about ‘The Fault in Our Stars’—it wouldn’t have reached nearly as many readers without Hank,” said John, who will appear with Hank at half the venues on a 12-city U.S. book tour to promote “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” “It’s hard for us to disentangle our work from each other. It’s one of the great joys of my life.”
Hank, who is 38 years old and lives with his wife, 2-year-old son and their ancient cat Cameo in Missoula, Mont., said it was “really scary” sharing the completed manuscript with John one night not long ago. His brother was also scared, though he stopped worrying after the first 10 pages. John, a 41-year-old Indianapolis author whose fiction, like Hank’s, is published by an imprint of Penguin Random House, soon lost himself in the book. Between the two of them, John said, Hank was better at writing plot.
With the book, Dutton capitalizes on the built-in audiences between the two brothers, much as the publisher did in releasing John’s best-selling “The Fault in Our Stars” in 2012, the film adaptation of which went on to rake in more than $307 million world-wide, according to Box Office Mojo. John has championed Hank’s debut novel to his 5.1 million followers on Twitter, an audience more than five times the size of Hank’s on that platform.
The online empire the Greens have built began with Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel they started in 2007 for exchanging rapid-fire updates with one another about life in general and their lives in particular. Since then, videos the brothers have produced and posted on their many internet channels have been viewed some 2 billion times. And of those videos, the ones featuring appearances by the Greens themselves have notched more than 1 billion views.
Over the four years Hank spent working on “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing,” he didn’t display the angst that marks the writing process of many other novelists. He worked on the book on planes, during free half-hours at night and on occasional mornings wherever he happened to be sitting.
“Hank is one of the least tortured people I know,” said John. “He is exceptionally sane.”
Still, John said he and his brother talk about how becoming public figures on the internet has the potential for “distorting ourselves or distorting our values, and how we can try to tack against that wind.”
In the novel, Hank compares fame to looking like a leathery old cowboy to one person and an 11-year-old girl to another: “You have no idea what each person sees when they look at you.”
Now the Greens run multiple ventures, including the educational video-production company Complexly, and they are co-founders of the VidCon conferences for the online video community. John said they haven’t gotten into a single fight since they started working together more than a decade ago. They came close once, over “some stupid work thing,” he said, before mutually backing down. “I think we were both tired.”
John said he doesn’t recall having many disagreements as children, either, because they didn’t know each other that well. For John, who left for boarding school when Hank was 11, working with Hank was a way to become closer as adults.
Hank said he doesn’t feel competitive with John about their careers. Their contests are more about one-upping each other while they try to “win the conversation” by making the funniest joke, he said.
In a recent video, John described buying ads for Hank’s book on multiple billboards in Orlando, Fla., where the brothers grew up. He bought sponsorships for small robotics, debate and sports teams. Hank’s novel, for instance, is the left-sleeve sponsor of the Dutch national Quidditch team.
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