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”.
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?