Girl Online Spooked: What The Zoella Ghostwriting Issue Tells Us

Image - Shutterstock: MISHA
Image – Shutterstock: MISHA

Ghosts Creep Us Out For A Reason

Campaign for Real Authors #CFRAThis 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 reportsthat 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.

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son | @Porter_Anderson

Writing on the Ether: Girl Online Spooked: What The Zoella Ghostwriting Issue Tells Us

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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