Zoella and the ghost
9 December 2014 | 0
The most enjoyable thing about the first three seasons of adult comedy-drama Californication was an arc in which wayward novelist Hank Moody is blackmailed into handing over his latest novel to an underage sexual conquest. After becoming the toast of the literary world, said blackmailer is exposed when her genuine attempt at a follow-up reveals a total lack of talent.
I’m reminded of this after a report in the Telegraph outed beauty vlogger Zoe Sugg (aka Zoella) as not exactly being straight about the level of her publisher’s involvement in her debut novel, Girl Online.
Last June the video blogger announced on her other YouTube channel with 2.25 million subscribers (her main channel has over 6.6 million) that she was writing a novel for release on 25 November. Zoella has vlogged on choosing the cover, getting the book printed and announcing a follow-up.
Girl Online is now the fastest selling debut novel ever, shifting 78,000 copies in its first week. The critic-proof juggernaut has amply succeeded in its mission: to shift as many copies to Zoella’s subscribers before the end of the Christmas rush before becoming bargain basement fodder on the other side of the holidays.
And why not? Sugg has a massive fan base and has already monetised her vlog with product endorsements and a line of cosmetics. So why not write a book and make more of her ‘shy girl next door becomes Interweb star’ shtick by writing some inoffensive teen chick lit? So she did. Or, as it turns out, didn’t.
The first cracks in the Girl Online facade appear on its acknowledgements page, where Penguin’s editorial team is thanked and editorial director Amy Alward and author Siobhan Curham are namechecked – a strange dedication, to say the least.
Attention quickly shifted to Curham and a since-deleted blog post in which she writes about the challenge of writing an 80,000-word novel in six weeks. Based on claims by several writers approached for the project, Curham may have been paid as little as £7,000 for her work.
Dots were joined and Penguin admitted in a statement that “to be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own”. Sugg has temporarily vacated the Internet along with boyfriend and fellow vlogger/author Alfie Deyes, saying the controversy was “clouding up my brain”. Expect a contrite vlog followed by a tweetstorm within the week – because that’s how the kids deal with things now.
This is already far more than a reasonable person needs to know about this mess but how is plays out in the longer term will say a lot about vloggers – the Internet’s outsider artists – and their relationships with their audiences. Unlike singers and actors who depend on media management, mystique and (usually) some pretence at talent, the stars of user generated content trade on being genuine people just like the people who watch their videos.
But so what if Sugg didn’t write her book. The publishing industry is full ghost writers and outright frauds. It’s a given that biographies might be written in the first person but are rarely their subjects’ own work. In fiction you can assume that titles of the form ‘famous writer with x’ usually means ‘famous writer met x who then wrote the book’. In the absence of their creators, franchises like James Bond even make a virtue of attracting ghost writers like Sebastian Faulks and even Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was successfully resuscitated by John Banville in The Black-Eyed Blonde. In such cases, the recreation of a masterful narrative voice can be as entertaining as the story itself.
In Sugg’s case using the ‘famous vlogger with x’ form would have been fine, claiming to have written an original work for the Christmas market will put a dent in her credibility and surely she would have been found out by her second outing, anyway.
There is a way out for Sugg and it’s a model already used in the literary world: use authorship as a brand. Goosebumps creator RL Stine has a team of writers publishing under his name; the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries were the brainchild of publisher Edward Stratemeyer who used the pseudonyms Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene for his panel of hacks. So why not ‘Books by Zoella’? Let her come up with the characters and stories (Sugg tweeted that the story and characters are hers) and have a staff openly put in the work and be credited accordingly. This way Sugg’s readers get their dose of unsophisticated romance with a familiar voice and Penguin doesn’t get slated for it.
It would also take pressure off Sugg to produce something readable, not that quality control seems to matter to the reviewers on Amazon, where Girl Online is getting plenty of five-star reviews, mostly written in borderline text-speak and few longer than a few sentences.
As for reclaiming Sugg’s record-breaking sales figures for more worthy titles, good luck. The previous holder in the UK was EL James’ Fifty Shades of Gray. Think about that.
I’ll leave the final word on this to vlogger Philip DeFranco, whose analysis is so much better than mine. Watch it here.