Zoella: Yes, using a ghostwriter matters when your whole brand is built on being authentic

If you want to be published, either amass millions of followers, or let someone who has done so take the credit for your work

“My dream has been to write a book, and I can't believe it's come true. Girl Online is my first novel and I'm so excited for you to read it.” It’s possible Zoella (as 24 year-old vlogger Zoe Suggs is known to her 6m YouTube followers) may live to regret having those words plastered on the back of the book that bears her name. Because while it may well be her dream to write a book, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that this particular dream has now come true.

Girl Online sold 78,109 copies in its first week – which would appear to make Zoella the fastest-selling debut author of all time, beating even the likes of JK Rowling and Dan Brown. But amid the ringing of cash registers, speculation was rife that Zoella may not have had as much to do with her ‘debut novel’ as she made out. There was a slightly strange acknowledgment on the opening pages of the book, which thanked her editor Amy Alward, but also “Siobhan Curham”, for being with her “every step of the way.” A cursory search revealed Siobhan to be a freelance writer with several young adult novels to her name. Then there was a blog post, allegedly uploaded and then deleted on Siobhan’s website earlier this summer, in which she spoke about having six weeks to write 80,000 words, the numbers and dates of which fitted with the publication of Girl Online.

Finally, the publishers came clean yesterday: “To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own,” a Penguin spokesperson told the Sunday Times. And a million teenage hearts broke.

There is, of course, an argument to be made that none of this really matters. A heap of books are ghost-written, and no one really cares either way. Hadley Freeman brilliantly co-authored Victoria Beckham’s The Extra Half an Inch, for example, and each Christmas sees the release of a slew of celebrity autobiographies, which no one really believes the actor/dancer/tennis player actually sat down at a keyboard to produce. Of course Zoella would use a ghost-writer; did anyone really think that she was able to bash out a best-selling novel while also running a ludicrously successful YouTube channel?

But herein lies the problem: yes, some people really did, namely the ones who bought the book in their thousands, Zoella’s loyal army of fans.

Girl Online is different to your standard ghost-written book, and that’s because of the implicit promise that Zoella makes to her followers. Their relationship is based on a fundamental understanding that she will be honest with them. These are teenage girls who worship their idol, and really believe her capable of doing anything. To them, she isn’t a celebrity whose name will be used to shift a product; she’s their best friend. If Zoella tells them she is “writing a book”, as she did several times, they believe that she is doing just that. This is why they bought it, and why they are so proud of her. If this is not the full story then they have misled.

And for what purpose? At present, the extent of the collaboration is unclear, but it seems wrong not to acknowledge Siobhan’s contribution. A co-writing credit (as is the norm in the music industry, for example) would hardly have dented sales, and would have painted a far more honest picture of the realities involved in becoming a published author. Failing to credit Siobhan as an author reduces the actual writing of the book to the lowest denominator in the creative process; the words inside matter less than those on the cover, a gloomy indication of the state of the publishing industry. It’s disheartening news for any hopeful young novelist: if you want to be published, either amass millions of followers, or let someone who has done so take the credit for your work.

There is also a sense that the whole saga heralds a depressing new chapter in the YouTube story. The vlogging community was refreshing because it felt like an entirely new way of "doing" celebrity. There was something rather innocent about the whole thing, it wasn't just about making money. These stars had authenticity; their talent was being themselves. Their videos came with no PR spin, nor promotional collaborations. These were young people simply connecting to other young people online.

But now, perhaps inevitably, that integrity appears to have been sacrificed in favour of financial gain, as new companies like Gleam Futures have emerged to sign up these young stars, and offer them deals in which their name is sold to the highest bidder. Of course a book ‘by’ Zoella would make them a fortune, but it doesn’t mean it should.

There may be some good news here: Siobhan Curham’s other novels will now be read by a wider audience, and the money made from the sales of Girl Online may well be funnelled back into signing up talented new writers. Because Zoella hasn’t really written a book, she’s written a cheque.

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