Girl Online Spooked: What The Zoella Ghostwriting Issue Tells Us


Ghosts Creep Us Out For A Reason

This graphic landed in my Twitter stream today, supposedly from the UK-based “Campaign For Real Authors,” hashing themselves as #CFRA. I suspect this is from the Authors Electric collective, which in 2012 had some blog commentary focused on the priority some publishers seem to have for celebrity books over the earnest work of “real authors.”

Mercifully without mentioning the UK YouTuber Zoe Sugg, her book Girl Online, or author Siobhan Curham who “helped” Sugg write it — the #CFRA’s humor helps us look into a deeper, more pervasive issue for publishers to consider: ghostwriting.

Contemporary communications, especially in the entertainment world, just aren’t down with the old guard’s séances anymore. Ghostwriting, at least for young people, may have at last been busted.

In case you’re not following the story, the 24-year-old vlogger’s debut novel from Penguin lists the highly regarded Sugg as its author. But it has come to light that YA novelist Curham was on what the publisher calls Sugg’s “editorial team.” The book, we’re given to understand, was — to an unknown degree — ghosted by Curham.

Let’s be clear: Trying to hold Sugg, Curham, or Penguin UK somehow direly accountable for the controversy around this incident isn’t nearly as important as looking at how the digital dynamic has unhinged another longtime staple of traditional publishing fare: the ghostwritten celebrity book.

Curham, in her strident disclaimer of several days ago, made it clear that she’s felt a lot of heat “from complete strangers accusing me of things that are a million miles from the truth.” And Sugg announced she was getting off the Net for a bit — not stopping her YouTubing, she stressed — because the controversy was “clouding up my brain.” (She’s back on Twitter, by the way, apparently having quickly cleared the well-coiffed noggin.)

We need not cry for Curham, Sugg, and their publisher. My colleague Tom Tivnan at The Bookseller in London reports that Girl Online has stayed atop the list of UK Official Top 50-selling books for two weeks. Tivnan writes:

Girl Online shifted 55,971 copies through Nielsen BookScan last week, which is a 28.4% drop off from her record-setting first week total of 78,109 units. Yet her combined sales of 134,080 copies beats 2014’s previous two-week record, the 120,160 copies Jeff Kinney’s The Long Haul (Puffin) sold in its first fortnight of release.

It’s selling like cupcakes.

On the other hand, look at the consumer reviews — on Amazon, for example — and you’ll see  some damning comments both about the work and about the ghostwriting. It’s easy to guess that some fans are rethinking their ideas about Sugg.

Which brings us to a pivotal question: If Penguin had published the book as being “by Zoe Sugg with Siobhan Curham,” would it have sold any fewer copies? Of course not. You’re going to tell me that Sugg’s beauty-tips YouTube audience would stand in a store or peer online at the book cover and balk at the “with” credit of a respected YA author like Curham? #Cmonson

No, Penguin, instead, took the riskier route: it credited only Sugg. And — sorry, folks — that does, technically and actually, signal that Sugg wrote the book.

What’s more, this is not nonfiction. If the “girl online” were Sugg, herself, and the book told readers all about how she does what she does with “autumnal colors,” the presence of a ghost — while something that should still be made clear — wouldn’t be so jarring. Memoir “as told to so-and-so” is a more palatable product. This, however, is fiction, a debut novel. As one of more than 60 reader-reviewers at frames it in a review title: “I Sincerely Believe This Book Would Not Have Been Published If It Weren’t For The Author’s Fame.” Just for balance, mind you, let me direct you to a positive Amazon review, as well — there are many: “Surprised. Very Good Surprise.”

One of the reasons the Zoella event merits attention is that YouTube has quite actively courted publishers’ attenton recently. I chaired a panel in London at The FutureBook Conference in which YouTube’s David Ripert very ably discussed the attractions of YouTubers and booktubers with their ready, loyal followings. How many of those talents may be prepared to write a book — and how to present them if they’re given collaborators — is likely to be a topic we’ll revisit.

‘Like A Good Ghost’

A real author in London, the longtime ghostwriter Roz Morris — who also publishes in her own name — has reposted an essay about some of her own experiences.

It wasn’t easy, as she explains, the time she was at a publisher’s event in which the “author” she had ghosted entertained the sales staff, taking all the credit for “the book I’d built on my hard drive.”

She writes of that scenario:

We were faking, both of us. He was faking being a writer. I had faked being the soul who lived the stuff of novels. I watched for a while, then like a good ghost, slipped out, unseen.

No one, surely, would claim that this has been publishing’s best tradition. You have to wonder if now — especially for young audiences — these ghostly charades don’t finally need to come to an end.

Curham has loudly hinted that the Girl Online project may not have been handled as she wanted. She cites contractual limitations on what she can say. Penguin has conceded that Sugg wasn’t writing the book alone. Things look unnecessarily tawdry.

But do you know what I keep hearing from publishing people?

I keep hearing the shrug-line that you might expect publishing’s good folks — after years of being digitally disrupted — to have figured out is the last thing they should try to hide behind today:

Well, You Know, It’s Always Been Done This Way

What they mean, of course, is that having book covers announce that their celebrity “authors” did the writing has been the norm. And in a great many cases, it has.

What they don’t seem to get — or maybe what they’d rather not confess that they get — is that the norm hasn’t held still, not in a world that knows its celebs personally through social media.

The public has a new, digitally closer relationship with its glam girls and boys. Community and networking mean interaction with one’s pop-video icons. That interaction is expected to be authentic.

Not for nothing do we call these media social.

And this isn’t limited to the YA set. Look at @MargaretAtwood: the great lady tweets. @NeilHimself Gaiman tweeted me two days ago. Never mind the fault in our stars, the stars are in our streams, and it was a special moment for me when the composer @Meredith_Monk pinged me for the first time.

When a potential readership like Sugg’s knows her, day in and day out, for her “Drugstore Beauty Spree” and her “Christmas Song Challenge With Tanya” videos — when that readership has been cultivated carefully and consistently with “the real Zoella” online — that readership expects authenticity in all media.

Penguin, it must be said, appears to have misread this.

And yet industry people around the situation keep slapping on that fig leaf: Well, you know, it’s always been done this way.

Zoe Sugg is followed by young people who believe they’re talking with the real @Zozeebo on Twitter. They expect the real Zoella to write her books — or to tell them that she didn’t.

And Whoever Wrote It…

The Guardian’s Observer columnist Catherine Bennett has published a disturbing piece in which she goes beyond the ghostwriting controversy to what’s in the book. Bennett writes:

Girl Online seems designed to reassure modern girlhood that, whatever it may have recently heard to the contrary, fulfillment still depends on bewitching a handsome prince. In short, its message is the exact opposite of Zoella’s career, the latter having relied on neither abnormal loveliness nor male supervision…In a notable departure from the vogue for darker teen fiction, its most obvious debts are to the vintage, Cartlandesque genre in which a shy wallflower overtakes all rivals to bag an alpha male…What’s objectionable about Girl Online is not that it’s ghostwritten, but, in a reversal of the usual process, that the result is distinctly less impressive than the non-ghosted Zoella.

Bennett’s concerns about the project’s positioning of “modern girlhood” render the book doubly problematic, whatever its sales figures may be.

And it’s important to realize in these situations that no one got up one morning saying, “Hey, let’s put together a project with Zoe Sugg that sends some potentially unfortunate messages to young people and let’s obfuscate how the thing was written.”

It’s much more important that we learn from such events as this, and not rush too quickly past them without examining what they mean.

In any genre and style — and era — a part of literature’s currency lies in its efficacy, and some mistakes are avoidable. Some comfy old rationalizations can be retired.

If publishing is to survive the competitive fury of the electronic gaming and entertainment media, it’s incumbent on its professionals to see that when it comes time to launch a book for a readership fluent in authenticity, such a flabby excuse no longer has the ghost of a chance.

Well, you know, it’s always been done this way. 

Well, you know, maybe it needs to stop.