Zoe Sugg, best known to her millions of YouTube viewers as Zoella, is a 24 year old vlogger with a speciality in beauty advice. She’s arguably one of the most successful people to emerge from the increasingly influential and profitable world of online content, having built up a sizeable and extremely dedicated fanbase of young women who hang onto her every word. On top of a line of beauty products and appearing as the face on YouTube on British TV ads, her debut novel Girl Online just smashed publishing records. Having sold more than 78,000 copies in one week, it has quickly become the fastest selling book of the year in the UK as well as the most successful debut novel.
It may also have been ghost-written.
Rumours of the authenticity of Sugg’s writing emerged quickly upon its release, with readers noting the acknowledgement of Siobhan Curham in the back of the novel, but no other details given as to who she was.
“I want to thank everyone at Penguin for helping me put together my first novel, especially Amy Alward [editor] and Siobhan Curham, who were with me every step of the way.”
It’s a commonly known industry tidbit that a ghost-writer is always acknowledged as such – worded in a way that those in the know will easily get it yet not too obvious for others. Curham’s website lists has as a novelist and freelance writer, and a Wayback Machine post to her blog reveals an entry where she discusses being asked to write a novel in 6 weeks that’s roughly equal in length to Girl Online.
Of course, right now this is speculation. If the novel is indeed ghost-written it’s highly unlikely Sugg or anyone else at the publisher will admit as such. It’s rare for credited authors to be open about not writing their own work (Katie Price is one of the few people who seems proud of having never put pen to paper when it comes to the novels released as her work). There’s nothing wrong with ghost-written novels either. It’s an age old industry tool and will continue to be used for quick cash-ins and celebrity ‘autobiographies’. The issue here is the nature of Sugg’s work and the perceived lie to her target audience.
One of the great appeals of the rise of the YouTube celebrity is the supposed normalness of the figures who have emerged from obscurity thanks to their webcams. These aren’t ready for primetime players, primped and polished to industry standards. They’re young women with make-up know-how or goofy guys who love to play music or a group of friends just having fun. At least, that’s the perception. Regardless of the origins, it’s tough to deny that this democratisation of content and game has changed the business in some way. With young teens aged 13-18 acting as the most profitable demographic and using their enviable spending power on the people they passionately love, it’s no wonder publishers are scrambling to people like Sugg, regardless of the substance of the product. It doesn’t matter to a publisher if Sugg doesn’t write her own book because money doesn’t care. However, they’re not her fan-base, and they may be less pleased with this possible development.
Authenticity is a key element of Sugg’s persona. To her fans, she is relatable, a breath of fresh air, the ideal best friend who can dispense good advice and positive vibes. She’s perfectly pleasant, although I must admit her appeal escapes me, but I’m not her demographic. It’s easy to see why young girls flock to her – she’s pretty but shows enough vulnerability to be more human than, say, your regular Disney Channel star. In many ways, she’s incredibly business savvy. She knows her core base and knows exactly how to appeal to them. The basic plot of her book – Notting Hill for teens with a semi-autobiographical element – is the kind of story popular right now in YA, where contemporary fiction is a favourite with readers. Her supposed organic spontaneity may be her strength but it takes hard work and planning to make that profitable.
Regardless of whether or not Sugg wrote the book credited solely to her name (and if it was Curham’s work, I hope her agent negotiated a good deal instead of the typical flat fee offered to ghost-writers), it remains to be seen as to whether or not this will cause loss of trust between her and her audience. Even then, it may not make much of a difference. 80,000 sales in one week speaks a hell of a lot louder than this kind of discussion, and many of Sugg’s fans will remain dedicated to their idol. Zoella may remain the real thing to them.