Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: Is Ghostwriting Unethical?

Earlier this week, it was announced that ‘Girl Online’ by Zoe Sugg also known as YouTube vlogger Zoella, was the fastest selling debut novel of all time having shifted 78,109 copies in its first week of sales in the UK. However, in an article published in The Telegraph today, Penguin Random House confirmed to 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”.

Zoella's first book: YouTube blogger Zoe Sugg poses with Girl Online

Sugg’s video blogs (or vlogs) offering beauty advice attract 12 million hits every month on YouTube. She has an online following most bloggers can only dream of and seems to know exactly what her core audience of teenage girls want. In a statement released this afternoon (on Twitter, obviously), Sugg says “of course I was going to have help from Penguin’s editorial team in telling my story, which I talked about from the beginning. Everyone needs help when they try something new. The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine.”

If this is the case, then perhaps ghostwriting is more akin to an act of collaboration, or an interpretation of existing material based on the named author’s ideas, rather than simply passing off someone else’s work under a different name. Some might argue that if the main ideas and characters behind ‘Girl Online’ are Sugg’s own, then she deserves credit for it. However, the curious phrasing of Penguin’s statement when acknowledging that ‘Girl Online’ isn’t entirely Sugg’s own work and the deliberate avoidance of the word “ghostwriter” is very telling. It could imply concerns about accusations of false advertising, plummeting sales following such a successful first week in the run-up to Christmas, or even a possible backlash given that much of the Zoella brand is built around authenticity.

Yet judging by the hundreds of messages of support from Sugg’s followers, I suspect the majority of those who have already bought copies of ‘Girl Online’ are not particularly bothered or even surprised that she hasn’t written the novel without help. Ghostwriting is neither new nor uncommon. Some celebrities like Katie Price and Keith Richards are very transparent about using ghostwriters. Others only discreetly thank the alleged ghostwriter as Sugg appears to have done in the acknowledgements page of ‘Girl Online’ which reads “I want to thank everyone at Penguin for helping me put together my first novel, especially Amy Alward and Siobhan Curham, who were with me every step of the way.” Curham has yet to comment.

Ghostwriting isn’t just a role which helps D-list celebrities “cash in” and further their brand. As well as the sort of misery memoirs usually found in the Tragic Life Stories section of WHSmith, there are also numerous examples of politicians including Hillary Clinton requiring extra help or research with their own autobiographies, further demonstrating that names are brands in their own right. “‘Living History’ by Hillary Clinton” is more or less guaranteed to sell more copies than “‘Living History’ by Hillary Clinton with Maryanne Vollers” written on the cover.

This raises the question of whether or not these books have actually been ghostwritten or just very heavily edited and researched by somebody other than the named author. Moreover, is it possible to quantify exactly how much individuals contribute to collaborative writing efforts?

Ghostwriters may not necessarily receive public credit or six-figure advances but if this is out of choice, then I wouldn’t consider the practice to be unethical in the way that deliberately pinching someone’s work without their knowledge and using it under a different name would be unethical. On the other hand, it could be considered to be a deceptive or manipulative marketing ploy with the sole aim of boosting sales.

What do you think? Does it matter if books are ghostwritten? Is it an unethical practice?

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: Is Ghostwriting Unethical?

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    It’s unethical to market something under a single person’s name if they haven’t written it – period. Yes, we all know it happens with celeb books, but that doesn’t make it right. But I don’t know that there’s a lot of honesty in mainstream commercial publishing, is there? The only thing that matters is sales…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting because ghostwriting itself isn’t a secret but some are more open and positive about it than others. It seems like the publishers etc are now expecting a negative reaction because of it. And yes, ultimately it’s business and they only do it for sales, otherwise it wouldn’t have the celebrity’s name on it.

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  2. It’s a really interesting conversation to have re ghostwriting, as it sort of encapsulates most people’s cynicisms about 21st century literature, since the whole basis of ghostwriting is (usually) just to gain the publisher more money, since they know from the person fronting the title of ‘Author’, in this case Zoella, they’ll sell books thanks to their guaranteed audience. I’m not really sure how I feel about ghostwriting, but being honest about it definitely helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hollycooksthebooks

    I used to work in publishing so I am very familiar with the concept of the ghostwriter. I don’t think it’s unethical…it’s business. But also, people want to read about Katie price and zoella and other celebs – they love these brands and buy into them, so if you look at it that way, ghostwriters just facilitate that.

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  4. I think this is a very interesting question. In the case of Zoe Sugg I’m not entirely sure what to think. I actually follow her on YouTube, and saw the video in which she announced she was going to write a book. She did acknowledge she was “getting help” from her publisher, but I don’t think it was entirely clear for everyone what this meant. YouTubers have a very close relationship with their viewers (the viewers especially feel this way, I think — I don’t really consider myself a dedicated viewer, I just occasionally watch her videos, without any personal investment in her life, if that makes sense), and I feel many might feel slightly deceived by this. I think perhaps Zoe Sugg herself has been a bit naive in this, although I might completely misinterpret that. In any case, I think ghostwriting is a very difficult topic, when it comes to it being ethical or not. I also feel it is different for fiction than for non-fiction. Somehow, it feels more unethical for fiction, to me.

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  5. A very interesting post. And a tricky one. I’m not sure about unethical exactly, but as a reader I would certainly feel ripped off if I bought a book that the writer didn’t actually write!
    But as hollycooksthebooks says the people who read the book may not be too bothered – or surprised – either way!

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  6. G

    I do not think it matters in the slightest. It seems like an excuse to bash someone who has become very very successful very very quickly.

    It just smacks of literary snobbery. I wouldn’t dream of reading her book, but then again, I’m twenty years too old and the wrong sex. But surely the fact it has sold truckloads, got a load of people reading and allows a publisher to take more gambles on riskier material is a good thing?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alison's Wonderland Recipes

    This is a great question! I don’t think I consider ghost-writing as such to be unethical (as other commenters pointed out, a ghost-writer can make it possible to meet demand for books by/about celebrities and brands). However, I don’t think it’s right that the ghost-writer isn’t somehow credited on the cover of the book. I don’t think there should necessarily be a law about it, but I think writers should refuse to write without that kind of credit.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting!! I think it’s a tough question. It should probably be pretty clear who did the real work!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Marie

    I’m not keen on the use of ghostwriters for fiction – it’s different for non-fiction, where somebody might be an expert in their subject but needs a writer or an editor to put a structure around their knowledge.

    I understand that publishers don’t like taking risks, but I do think the increasing focus on celebrity books is hurting the industry.

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  10. Yes, a tricky question. The thread homes in on the problem – ghostwriting fiction. It is fine for a golfer or a politician to ask for and get help to write about their life or work, they didn’t set out to be writers. Fiction feels different, it should surely be written by the true author. I can see that this Zoe Sugg thing is really a brand – a composite item, woman-plus-reputation – being sold to a captive audience, rather than real fiction. It’s OK if you just think of it as a new shade of nail-varnish.

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  11. I’m more than happy for ghostwriters to help with non-fiction, memoirs etc – as long as they are fully acknowledged.

    Fiction – No! Remember Naomi Campbell’s Black Swan?

    The problem is the majority of teen Zoella fans won’t care and brand Zoella will carry on regardless – I don’t see her as a person anymore.

    (This has long happened in the music biz with people who sing songs by other people and don’t play instruments starting to contribute a word or two to song lyrics and getting a writing credit in a pop song so they can be singer-songwriters)

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  12. I believe that if you are not a writer, and instead relay your story either by mouth or by notes – then it’s ghostwritten, and it should include a “with” attribution. If you are someone who strung together sentence after sentence, day after day – then used editing services from a publisher – it’s yours…those people who are not writers may not understand or appreciate the difference.

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  13. This whole situation is such a mess! It’s one thing when celebrities (and I have a narrower definition for “celebrity” that doesn’t necessarily include YouTubers) utilize ghostwriters to help write their (auto)biographies. It’s another matter entirely when people “of the moment” utilize ghostwriters to help them create fictional book, then take credit for all of the content inside. At the very least, I agree with Iamvickiroberts above — ghostwriters should be credited on the front cover,

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  14. I’m not really okay with it, but each to their own. For me it’s like buying a certain brand of clothing only to find out it’s a knock off. But to be honest the book was a massive let down for all the hype anyway!

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