Zoe Sugg’s bestselling debut novel was revealed to be ghostwritten. Christy shares her anger about the case
Zoe Sugg (aka YouTube sensation Zoella) receives a book deal and aspiring writers like me bit our tongues. With six million subscribers, no wonder publishers are attracted. It’s a logical business decision – we can understand.
More details are released – it’s a young adult novel called Girl Online. Writing herself into the story made us cringe a little more – a girl with anxiety attacks who’s become an Internet superstar. However, in doing so, she addresses mental health and cyber-bullying, both serious issues.
Girl Online was released in November and broke the record for the highest first-week sales for a debut author in the UK, selling 78,109 copies! The story is loved by her fans and it’s a victory over the literary snobs who declared YouTubers shouldn’t be allowed to write.
…And then it turns out the book was ghostwritten. I was angry, without question, but with what? Ghostwriting itself? The dishonesty behind it? Or, was it with the publishing industry as a whole? The more I thought about it, I realised I do not resent Zoe Sugg personally. I was disappointed in her, but I realised it was more the whole situation.
Suspicions arose when, in the acknowledgments of Girl Online, Siobhan Curham was thanked for being with Sugg “every step of the way”. Curham is an author, and people wondered why she was involved with Sugg’s work. Sugg’s immensely busy schedule (releasing a beauty line with Superdrug) also raised eyebrows.
On 7 December 2014, a spokesperson from her publisher, Penguin, told The Sunday Times that “to be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own” and confirmed that a ghostwriter was used, but failed to tell us how much they contributed.
Sugg subsequently released a statement on her Twitter, writing that “everyone needs help when they try something new” and that “the story and the characters of Girl Online are mine”.
After receiving a torrent of online abuse, Curham spoke out on Wednesday, via her blog. In defending herself, she writes; “Firstly, I did not agree to work on Girl Online to ‘get rich’. Neither did I do it to ‘get famous’”. She also admitted that she did “have some issues with how the project was managed”.
Despite the statements released, defenses raised and shoulders shrugged at the whole issue, I am still unhappy. Below are my challenges to some of the main arguments proposed.
Why is everyone so surprised about ghostwriting? Celebrities have been using it for years. It’s an established practice.
In ghostwriting, a person is hired to write the work and receive payment, but remains uncredited – a common practice for celebrities’ books. Katie Price’s books were written by Rebecca Farnworth, who passed away earlier this month. Remember the Animal Ark series by Lucy Daniels? She doesn’t exist – a collection of writers created the stories.
In my eyes, ghostwriting is inherently wrong. Being rich enough to hire more talented people to be your writing puppets? And then get all the credit for it, and the book? That’s not right. Even if it’s your life they’re writing about (or in Sugg’s case, her ideas, plot and characters), a book is about the craft behind it. You structure and arrange every sentence to tell your story, using the written word. Having a ghostwriter is not the same as using a dictaphone. Editors, who are probably the figures most involved in creating the novel (other than the writer, of course), will edit, correct and advise – but it’s still the work of the writer.
Sugg writes that “everyone needs help”. That is true – I run the Creative Writing Society; we read each other’s work, offer feedback and encourage each other. But we do not write someone else’s work for them.
Zoella is a brand – were you really expecting absolute honesty?
Yes – she is a brand. And that’s a frightening process of dehumanisation; she is now a face and a name for big brands to use. The book is just another extension, and we know by now that many celebrity products such as perfume usually are not authentic and lack any real input from the celebrities themselves. But Sugg made her career from YouTube, and that is the difference. Something traditional media repeatedly fails to understand is that YouTube enables a very personal connection between creator and audience. It is one person talking to you through a screen, thus forming a relationship far stronger than watching any interview with a favourite celebrity. This connection was the founding of Sugg’s career. Publishers are capitalising on this, but her audience still deserves respect.
Important topics were covered, such as cyber-bullying and mental illness. Surely that’s a good thing?
It’s a silver lining to this case – these issues need more coverage and discussion. But what much of her audience took from Girl Online was the assurance that it was written by someone who had lived it, and not a mere researcher. Instead, we have someone else – they may have talked to Sugg extensively, even been told by Sugg what to write – but she did not write it.
Publishers need to make money.
Curham wrote on her blog that “whether you like it or not, this is the financial reality of today’s publishing industry”. There is truth to this. Money needs to be made; best-sellers must exist so publishers can invest in good, but perhaps less successful books. But why can’t best-sellers, especially ones written by celebrities, be good?
Look at Amanda Palmer’s debut book, The Art of Asking. She has a huge and loyal fan base (over 1 million Twitter followers) and her book reached the New York Times Bestseller’s list. It is brilliantly written, touching and loved so much that a huge number of readers offered to buy complete strangers copies of her book.
Good writing sells.
So yes, I am angry.
I am angry because it seems like you don’t have to lift a finger to get books published, as long as you have a big name.
I am angry that her fans don’t want to discuss it, insisting opposition exists because “haters are just jealous”. Her books will continue to sell (probably even more now) – her fans will carry on supporting the practice of ghostwriting.
I am angry because ghostwriting will continue, regardless of this case or whatever discussion we might have about it.
I am angry because it is yet another kick in the stomach for aspiring writers, when it is already a somewhat pipedream profession.
I am angry because what chance do we have?
I suppose we could just become ghostwriters.
Christy Ku, Online Books Editor