Beauty and fashion blogger Zoella has become one of the UK’s biggest YouTube stars. With six million YouTube subscribers, nearly 2million Facebook Likes, and 2.6million Twitter followers, Zoella has amassed a legion of fans, and is a demonstration of the powers of social media when used correctly. She’s even released her first novel, although perhaps a writer she is not.
Girl Online has become the fastest selling debut novel of all time, recording 78,000 copies in its first week. The writer part of me wants to be mad about that, but the business part of me understands how branding works, and thinks that’s fair enough. Maybe. Except that it’s now emerging that Zoella collaborated with a ghostwriter to craft her record-breaking debut. Depending upon which sources you trust (from Zoella to the broadsheets), she either had help, a co-author, or someone who wrote the whole book for her.
Penguin, the publishers of Girl Online, have said in a statement, that “to be factually accurate you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own”.
Zoella herself has said that she of course had help – this is her first novel, after all. In her acknowledgments she thanks two known Penguin ghostwriters: Amy Alward and Siobhan Curham. Alward was Zoella’s editor for the book, but the extent of Curham’s contribution is what is causing speculation. A deleted blog post from Curham’s blog suggests that a publisher asked her to write an 80,000 word novel in six weeks, which coincides with the timings and lengths of Zoella’s announcements regarding the book, and the book itself. Hardly conclusive, but worth an ‘hmmmm’.
If it turns out that, in fact, Zoella’s only contribution to the book was to have her name put on the front and sign lots of copies, we shouldn’t be surprised. In the same way we shouldn’t be shocked that Katie Price didn’t write any of her books. Or that not every footballer who releases an autobiography has suddenly become articulate and literary enough to tell their own story. It’s not unexpected. But it is wrong.
Here’s why. Zoella is a very talented and hardworking person. She’s done a great thing to become so well known and build her brand. Kudos to her. Vlogging, blogging, social media marketing – that’s her thing. She’s good at that. But if she used a ghostwriter to write her book, she’s pretending to be good at something she isn’t.
The charts are full of books that are being bought because of the name on the cover and not the content of the pages behind it.
We see it a lot with pop stars who suddenly decide they want to be actors. They’re too famous and successful for anyone to tell them the truth – that acting requires a lot of talent and hardwork, and is very, very different from writing and selling a few million albums – so they go for it, and everyone encourages them. It usually turns out to be bad.
Celebrities who use ghostwriters are making it all about branding. The charts are full of books that are being bought because of the name on the cover and not the content of the pages behind it. Sometimes it’s fine – many celebrities and other people have great stories that deserve to be told, but don’t have the skills to express it themselves in a compelling and accurate way. But Zoella’s book isn’t her autobiography, it’s a work of fiction.
If Siobhan Curham wrote Girl Online on her own, she should be getting the credit. She is the writer with the skillset and drive to create the book.
There’s plenty of great fiction out there struggling to get noticed. Fantastic works that deserve much more credit than they are getting, but are ignored because their writers haven’t yet built up a huge platform from which to market themselves. Zoella is a brand, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t use that brand to promote products and make money. But why is she going into fiction when there are a lot of relevant industries she could be working with. As far as I’m aware, Iain M Banks never released his own nail varnish. Robin Hobb doesn’t have her own set of curling tongs on the market. Yet those are products, not works of art. It’s OK to endorse something like that, because no one expects you to do 10 hour shifts in the factory that makes them.
What is worst about this, assuming it is all true, is that it once again reinforces the idea that celebrity is an adequate replacement for talent. If Siobhan Curham wrote Girl Online on her own, she should be getting the credit. She is the writer with the skillset and drive to create the book. Zoella says the characters and story are her own, but a lot of people I have talked to have tried writing a book at some point in their lives. Coming up with a story and characters is only a small part of the process. The part she may have missed out is the hard work and drudgery – the bit where mediocre ideas can be realised as fantastic concepts and situations.
People who can’t really sing have albums in the charts, pop stars are in major Hollywood films (and often doing a terrible job), and people who can’t write books have bestselling novels sitting at the top of the book charts. Why is this happening? Why have we entered an age where having people know who you are is more important than actually being good at something?
But Zoella is talented. It just might be that she doesn’t have the ability to write books (or that she doesn’t know that she has because she has never actually tried it). Why is she diversifying into a format she isn’t familiar with when there are so many natural avenues open to her?
Now, if you’ll excuse me – I’ve got to get busy making my name as a writer so I can finally achieve my dream of having my own brand of cupcake moulds.