Fractured Fairy Tale

Meet Zoella—The Newbie Author Whose Book Sales Topped J.K. Rowling

Teen girls in the U.K. are crazy about the vlogger Zoella, so as soon as she published her debut novel, she demolished existing sales records. Then things got sticky.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Three weeks ago 24-year-old Zoe Sugg published her first novel, Girl Online, a YA romance. In the first seven days, it sold more than 78,000 copies, beating the first week sales figures of any author on record, including J. K. Rowling and E. L. James.

How was this possible? Well, it can’t have hurt that Sugg is already a celebrity brand in the U.K. (where she lives in the coastal town of Brighton). She began her vlog “Zoella”—hints and tips about beauty, fashion, and lifestyle—in 2009, and has been steadily racking up fans ever since. She is probably the best known of the new “Brit crew” vloggers (she took home the Best British Vlogger Award at the 2013 BBC Radio 1’s Teen Awards, and the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Award earlier this year), and each video she posts attracts 12 million hits a month. She has more than 6 million YouTube followers, and 2.62 million on Twitter. Her target audience is teenage girls; thus, as with so much teenage culture that seems to exist on something of a parallel plane to the rest of us, if you’re not a teenage girl yourself (or don’t have a teenage daughter/sister), you’ve most likely never heard of her. Well, until now, that is.

Girl Online’s record-breaking sales immediately caused waves, but then Sugg hit the news again this past weekend when it was confirmed by her publishers, Penguin, that the rumors about the possibility that all was not what it seemed with the book were true. The truth was out: Sugg had worked with a ghost writer.

One could argue that this was never exactly hidden from her readers. The ghost writer in question is assumed to be one Siobhan Curham—an established author of both YA and adult fiction. Neither she nor Penguin have confirmed her involvement, or detailed exactly how much ghost writing was involved, but she initially came under suspicion due to Sugg’s mention of her in the acknowledgements of the book: “I want to thank everyone at Penguin for helping me put together my first novel,” she writes, in an admittedly slightly odd turn of phrase—note the use of “put together,” there’s no actual mention of “writing”—“especially Amy Alward [her editor] and Siobhan Curham who were with me every step of the way.” Apparently Curham also posted a blog post back in the summer claiming she had just accepted a job ghost writing a YA novel, a rush job due to be completed in a matter of weeks (now assumed to be Girl Online). The post was later removed.

After a few days of speculation, Penguin confessed: “Zoe worked with an expert editorial team to help her bring to life her characters and experiences in a heart-warming and compelling story,” they explained in a statement that was then swiftly followed up by one from Sugg’s own Twitter account suggesting that this wasn’t something she’d ever kept secret from her readers: “of course I was going to have help from Penguin’s editorial team in telling my story, which I talked about from the beginning. Everyone needs help when they try something new.” She then concluded with the assertion that, “The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine.”

Quite why anyone is as shocked and surprised by this “revelation” as some are claiming, is beyond me. Even having watched only a handful of the Zoella vlogs, the minute I began reading Girl Online I noticed the vast difference between the friendly, gregarious but ultimately rambling tone of the videos (although I’m well aware the style of a vlog is supposed to be chatty, and thus inherently different to that of the written word), and the sleek, polished style of the novel. But there’s also the seemingly hugely overlooked fact that this is what celebrities do. They hire other people to write their books for them, whether memoir or fiction. Sugg is certainly not the first person to do this, and she won’t be the last either.

Interestingly, everyone I’ve spoken to about this story (admittedly, all of them well above the target age of her audience, thus not one “fan” among them, and many of whom actually work in the publishing industry) seems more shocked by the fuss being made than anything else. Perhaps this is because we’re cynical enough to recognise Sugg’s success as a brand (for a run down of her value and worth, see Jonathan Ford’s account of lunch with Sugg published in London’s Financial Times in July), and we’re also well aware that celebrity brands don’t write their own books. Similar opinions have since been voiced more publically by those in the know such as Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman and the Telegraph’s books editor and author Gaby Wood, to name but two.

The most recent development in the story is that as of December 8, Sugg has taken a break from vlogging for an as yet undisclosed amount of time. “Bare [sic] with me on vlogmas,” she told her fans in a Tweet. “I’m taking a few days out and off the internet because it’s clouding my brain. Thanks for understanding.” And at the same time, her boyfriend Alfie Deyes—also a vlogger of renown—posted a Tweet expressing a similar sentiment: “Just to let you know J Zoë and I are going to take a few days out of daily vlogging to have some time to our selves x.”

The irony here, of course, is that of life imitating art. Girl Online tells the story of 15-year-old Penny Porter. Not exactly an unpopular girl at school, but not one of the cool kids either, Penny lives in Brighton with her mum, dad, and brother Tom (when he’s home for the holidays from university). After being involved in a car crash a couple of years back, Penny suffers from panic attacks, something she tries to keep hidden from everyone around her, including her family. But after her best friend Elliot suggests she might feel better talking about her problems, she tells all on her so-far anonymous blog, “Girl Online.” Her followers love her honesty and the popularity of the blog grows.

Cue a series of entertaining but embarrassing events that see Penny, Elliot, and Penny’s parents visiting New York for Christmas. Staying at the Waldorf Astoria, Penny meets the boy of her dreams—“Brooklyn Boy” as she refers to him in her blog—and they fall in love. Unbeknown to her, however, Brooklyn Boy is actually a famous teen musician who, according to his publicity team and the world’s media, is dating an even more famous female singer. Confusion ensues—Penny is named and shamed as “Girl Online” and branded the notorious “other woman,” her followers desert her in droves, and she’s trolled from all angles; hence she’s forced to delete her blog posts and Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Sugg presumably drew on the panic attacks she herself suffers from as inspiration for Penny’s. And likewise, her protagonist’s blogging success is taken directly from Sugg’s own life: “It’s not something I could have prepared myself for. Every day I am still coming to terms with this,” she told British Vogue in an interview last month when asked about her incredible success. That she would soon be forced to take time off from the Internet and away from the public eye Penny-style is probably not something she was anticipating, though. When I asked Penguin whether she was available for interview, the answer was a polite but firm no, citing a current “well-deserved break”—something confirmed by the last Tweet she posted on her timeline (after the one quoted above but again on December 8): “The stuff press write about it literally ridiculous! I AM NOT QUITTING YOUTUBE. Yet again, twisting stuff to gain views. Sad.”

In the novel, Penny sets the record straight by writing a blog post in which she explains to her readers that she had no idea who Brooklyn Boy really was, let alone the fact that he supposedly had a girlfriend; a tactic that, in the most recent development in the real life story unfolding, Curham herself has resorted to – taking to her own blog to give as much of her side of the story as is legally allowed. She begins by explaining that she can’t detail the specifics of her work on Girl Online, but since “I’m receiving messages from complete strangers accusing me of things that are a million miles from the truth, and now that my family are becoming furious and distraught at some of the comments about me on twitter - I feel I need to set the record straight as far as I am able to.” She didn’t, she claims, work on the book in order to “get famous” or make money; she worked on it because she wanted to help get across the important messages the book has to teach young people about “self belief, anxiety, sexuality and – oh the irony – online hate.” So, if this post is anything to go by, this particular imitation actually casts Sugg in something of a role akin to Brooklyn Boy – a YouTube sensation, manipulated by his/her publicity team – and Curham is left in Penny’s shoes – caught up in a furor not of her making, but one in which she’s nevertheless cast as the bad guy.

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Those keen to find fault with Sugg’s employment of a ghost writer—or, given that neither she nor Penguin have used this term, perhaps more accurately the “help” she was given with the novel—seem to be basing their complaints around the idea of authenticity. The argument seems to be that Sugg is so popular with her followers precisely because of her down-to-earth, approachable attitude—this “extraordinary ordinariness that Zoe projects as Zoella, the sensible older sister (albeit a very pretty, media-savvy older sister),” Vogue reminds us, “that has been the core to her success”—thus any breach of this honesty implicit in the Zoella brand undermines everything she/it stands for.

I understand where this argument is coming from, even if I don’t agree with it, and it’s particularly interesting in light of the on-going issues of integrity involved in vlogging when it comes to product placement—be they the beauty products Sugg herself waxes lyrical about, book bloggers blogging about the free titles they’ve been sent by their favorite publishers, or bloggers testing out new video games for free—a topic that’s briefly touched on in the Vogue piece: “Integrity, [Sugg] insists, is vital—fashion bloggers have been dogged with controversy, accused of providing favorable reviews in return for free product. ‘I probably turn down 90 percent of what is offered. Most of the time I have either bought the products or been sent a press release, but there is no money involved.’ Where there are brand collaborations they are clearly tagged and deals are brokered by her management agency, Gleam Futures (such is the success of their British clients they have just opened an office in Los Angeles to better represent them). Fees can range from £5,000 to £20,000, the attraction being the relatability she holds with her subscribers. ‘For me, it’s not about the money,’ she says. ‘It’s not worth ruining the trust of my viewers because they’re the people who got me here today.’”

It’s precisely this “trust” that haters are claiming she’s violated. That said, I’ve seen so many more people come out in her defense than to vilify her. There was the librarian who argued that it’s of no consequence whether Sugg herself penned Girl Online or not, the important fact being that by putting her name to it, she’s encouraged thousands of teenagers to read, and that’s a hugely important thing. Then there was the teenage fan’s opinion that all in all, “so what? She has tried something new, and this is her first go. She does not write books for a living so I think she should be very proud to have produced a book as good as this even if she did need some help along the way. Don’t we all?”

As Penguin themselves put it, “As publishers our role is, and always has been, to find the very best talent and help them tell their story and connect them with readers.” In this day and age, this “help” comes in a variety of forms, from creative writing courses to ghost writers. That Sugg used her profile—a profile, let’s not forget, that’s been built entirely off her own back—to fulfill one of her childhood dreams, and entertain and educate her fans along the way, is about as enterprising as it gets. She’s a savvy businesswoman who’s a better role model for teenage girls than many of the alternatives out there.