Ghost Story.

A few days ago, I read this article. It caught my eye because I’m always interested in hearing about new writers, and I’d never heard of this one. It turns out that the author, Zoe Sugg, is a popular YouTube vlogger, with several million followers. She recently released her first novel, Girl Online, with unprecedented success, and the picture in the article shows her pictured with her book, visibly delighted at achieving her dream of publishing a novel.

And then it all began to fall apart.

In the acknowledgements, Sugg thanked her editor at Penguin, Amy Alward, and an author, Siobhan Curham, for being with her ‘every step of the way.’ Enough people found it odd that she might credit an author rather than just the publishers and editor, that they spent some time investigating Curham’s background. It turns out that Curham is an established author with several books to her name, and that she was the ghostwriter behind Girl Online.

Some argue that the anger directed at Sugg for having a ghostwriter is due to the fact that she is an attractive, young, successful woman, and that the internet loves to hate on people who do well, especially when it is for something so ‘simple’ as putting up videos of yourself applying makeup, or answering questions from fans. It’s certainly true that there’s always those who are happy to see someone successful fail, but I think that in this case, it’s not so simple.

I have a couple of friends who have ghostwritten novels – one of them produces them regularly – and I appreciate that for many writers, it is a way of getting writing jobs which pay. When you’re trying to break into the industry, trying to earn actual money from writing, ghostwriting can be a way of breaking even. However, there is an aspect of this which makes people uneasy. Not about the ghostwriter, most of the time (although Curham has stated that she is getting abuse due to her role in Girl Online), but about the name of the person on the cover.

We’re disappointed when we find out that a book has been ghostwritten when we thought it wasn’t. We feel cheated. Maybe in this case, that’s exacerbated by the fact that Girl Online is a novel, and most celebrity books by ghostwriters are autobiographical in nature. But ghostwriting has been a part of the publishing industry for a long, long time, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. It could be that we’re naive, thinking that it’s only a rare occurrence.

Perhaps another underlying problem here is that we build celebrities up to such an extent that producing a book or a film appears to be the logical next step for them. The public is insatiable: we want more – we want to see our celebrities succeed, we want to know more about them, we want to see the branch out into other areas. It is almost taken for granted that every famous sportsperson or politician or actor will release a book at some point.

However, not everyone can write. And for those who can, it’s still hard to write a book! We expect that with all the other things these famous people do, that of course they will be able to also sit down and write their autobiography or a children’s book or a novel. And that expectation sets the scene for ghostwriters. After all, there are few celebrities who would stand up and say, ‘I know that people like me put out books all the time. But I can’t write, and I’m much better at playing football/being a senator/acting. So I won’t be releasing a book.’ Of course they’re going to hire ghostwriters, if they want their brand to grow.

And let’s face it, Sugg is a brand. She is only 24 and is putting on the internet elements of her life to paint a picture of a personality – but it’s only a picture. I’m not saying Sugg is shallow… granted, she doesn’t appear to be the deepest person in the world, but she’s young – and her manner and delivery is what her fans are after. However, whenever we get in front of the camera, or behind the keyboard, or even when we go out in public, and present ourselves to the world, we are putting out the edited version. There are things we don’t say and things we do, because of how we want to appear.

And Sugg appears to be so down-to-earth, so it’s not the fact that she didn’t write the book, it’s that she’s not come out and admitted as much. Her fans may be sticking by her, but it would have been more authentic and honest, as many have suggested, to just acknowledge up front that she was working with a writer to complete her novel. Many celebrities do this, so it’s not as if it would have affected her sales. And it would have at the very least taken away some ammunition from her critics.

Sugg wanted to be an author, and by having a ghostwriter, she has achieved the goal of publishing a book with her name on it. But given the controversy, and the negative reaction in many circles, I wonder if it was worth it. Was it really worth paying someone else to write her story? Or should she, perhaps, have continued to do what she was doing well, and if she really did want to write her own novel, then taken the time to do it on her own? The resulting achievement would have been all the more exciting, and the sense of accomplishment would have lasted long after the fame had vanished, which it is, at some point, inevitably going to do.


4 thoughts on “Ghost Story.

  1. If she’s not a skilled or talented author, writing her own book would have only given her critics ammunition for her grammar, style and word choice. I think you are right, Zoe Sugg should probably have been a bit more forthright from the beginning, letting fans know she was collaborating with an experienced author to help guarantee a good, well-written story. In the end, though, she obviously had some story ideas and a desire to share them with her fans in a way she hoped they would enjoy: her name on the cover at the very least ensures that she (Sugg) endorses what’s on the pages that follow. How she achieved this was, from what I can tell, never part of her promise to her fans: the promise was to give them something they wanted; and she achieved this. She may have suffered some confusion, as do many, when it comes to the difference between authoring a book, and publishing / releasing a book. Nurturing her ‘brand’ may or may not have figured into this. If she had simply contented herself with doing what she’s been doing all along, it would have been a matter of time until someone else came out with something newer and better, making her YouTube vlogging sensation largely irrelevant … celebrity status is, after all, a rather fluid (sometimes fickle) sort of thing. She may just as well have suffered from the same thing so many of us suffer from: ideas and dreams that yearn for suitable expression and presentation to others.

    I’ve never visited Sugg’s vlog, and I likely never will: I have no need to learn fashion and make-up from a 24 year-old, unless I wish to eventually provide some ‘old-school’ tips to my 4 year-old son’s future girlfriends. I’ll pass on the book, too. But I think Sugg’s critics in this situation aren’t standing on solid ground; and it seems to me their arguments are a form of attention-seeking in their own right. If they really have problems with an author’s use of ghostwriting, they should probably not buy the book and spend the money (as well as time spent picking 24 year-old vloggers apart for engaging in a relatively common practice) in works written by original authors who clearly shun the practice of ghostwriting. For such critics, I might recommend some work from Tom Clancy, Hillary Clinton, William Shatner’s Sci-Fi novels, or a few Star Wars movie novels from George Lucas, to get started with. Political speeches are also must-reads on this list! While on the topic, I’d love to explore the concept of ghostwriting as it applies to the Bible.

    In a way, my heart goes out to Sugg: she started something several years ago, it became a tremendous success and all of a sudden, she had masses lining up to soak up whatever she had to offer; now all of a sudden, while trying to do something she was obviously convinced her fans would welcome, she’s learning in a very public way just how fickle some members of an audience can be. I hope the respite from the Internet will do her some good and, just because I think it would be poetic justice, I hope she will announce upcoming plans on a new book about how to cope with public criticism … and if her critics don’t like that, either, it’s okay because the second book should be entirely ghostwritten 🙂

    • I admit I’m perhaps a little more cynical and think that Sugg was well-aware that she was saying something that wasn’t true, but allowed herself to be convinced that ghostwriting happens all the time in the publishing industry, which makes it completely fine. What’s interesting is that she mentioned Curham’s name at all (isn’t the point of having a ghostwriter that you don’t tell anyone?!)

      I did visit her page – I figured I owed it to her, if I was going to write about her, and she is… 24 years old. And she’s on Youtube. As you say, we’re not her target audience! However, I suppose I feel as though she should perhaps have been honest with those who were, and that’s where I feel sad about the whole thing. I do also think it’s a shame that both Sugg and Curham have ended up with all that hate. The internet can be so brutal, and while I empathise with the disappointment of the fans and the critics, getting nasty just doesn’t help matters.

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