Skip to Content

Is it ghostwritten? Does it matter?

15 December 2014

There's been quite a lot of talk about ghostwriting this last week. It's been sparked off by the revelation that Zoella Sugg, Britain's biggest female vlogger, had a ghostwriter working on her first novel, Girl Online. What adds urgency and focus to this story is that Zoella's book shot to prominence, selling 78,109 copies in the first week, and thus outselling the first week record of any other author, including bestselling writers such as Dan Brown, J K Rowling and others.

Penguin knew they were on to a sure thing when they signed up Zoella's book. She currently has 1.9m Facebook fans, 2.55 Twitter followers, and no less than 3.49m Instagram disciples for her blog, which is devoured by teenage girls. So it must have seemed no more than good business practice for her manager and Penguin to ‘insure' their investment by bringing in a ghostwriter. We'll probably never know who contributed what, as confidentiality clauses will ensure that this remains secret, but it's fair to say that Siobhan Curham probably contributed a lot.

So why did Penguin feel it was so important to keep the ghostwriting a secret? Plenty of celebrities have had their books ghostwritten, although admittedly some have been more open about this being the case. Katie Price is an obvious example. But Zoella's blog is based on the idea that it's real life, so having it ghostwritten to ensure a smooth saleable product went against what had made Zoella so successful as a vlogger in the past.

Looking at ghostwriting more closely, it seems that people can accept that celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten. What they can't forgive is that Zoella has effectively claimed that she is a fiction writer by putting her book out under her name, with no direct acknowledgement to the ghostwriter. This would have been Penguin's doing but they have served their author ill, as more frankness would have deflated this as an issue.

Many writers will feel that it's not right to claim you have written a novel when you haven't. The practice is widespread in showbiz circles and in big publishing houses which are looking to maximise their investment, as to some extent it takes the risk out of it. But perhaps in this more transparent online world it's more of a risk to try to deceive the public, as, confidentiality clauses notwithstanding, you will surely be found out.

But perhaps it doesn't matter. As Will Self put it: ‘I really don't regard ... Zoella as a ‘writer' in the sense that I'd regard Marcel Proust or Franz Kafka to be one.'