Showing the kind of ethics you would expect from the owners of Author Solutions, Penguin Random House has apparently been caught out in a lie over the launch of the bestseller Girl Online from social media celebrity Zoella (a.k.a. Zoe Sugg) previously covered in Teleread. Because, as reported in The Bookseller, Zoella was a.k.a. not-the-author, and the ghostwriter who actually penned most of the words, Siobhan Curham, received no credit. And the resulting shitstorm has been enough to drive Zoella herself off the medium that made her – the internet – at least temporarily. And now, The Guardian and many other sources are simply and directly asking: “How much of Girl Online did she really write?”

Sadly, Girl Online hasn’t got an Amazon Look Inside view, so I’m admittedly going by hearsay – an awful lot of it, though – in stating that there is no author credit in the book to Siobhan Curham. But the book’s strapline still reads “The incredible debut novel from YouTube phenomenon Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella.” Not: “The incredible debut novel partly from YouTube phenomenon Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, (with a little help from Siobhan Curham).”

Ghostwriter-driven author brand factories like James Patterson Inc. do at least, if they’re sensible, usually give their ghosts some credit, mostly on the front cover. When that doesn’t happen, as with V.C. Andrews, the consequences tend to be embarrassing. Looks like Penguin forgot that simple lesson, though – or chose to ignore it.

I’ve seen some skeptics on Teleread and elsewhere claim that it doesn’t really matter if a book gets ghostwritten, and that readers are as cynical about this as publishers. Well, a holiday gift-seasonal monsoon of spilt ink – and tweeted insults – has blown up to testify that it really does matter to readers, and to the public at large. A lot. So much, maybe, that it might have permanently damaged the career of a budding young celeb before she’s halfway out of the box. After all, if it matters enough to Zoella to shut her up at a critical time for riding the success of her admitted blockbuster, and cost her God knows how many promo gigs and spinoff money-spinning opportunities, then it matters, doesn’t it? And if it does that, Penguin, then it’s hardly a forgivable little part of everyday publishing business practice, is it?

Whether Zoella herself deserves to suffer from the backlash is still an open question. After all, it surely was Penguin’s decision, not hers, to give no credit to the ghostwriter and to continue the … ahem … fiction that Zoella wrote the whole of Girl Online herself. And what outed Penguin on this? Rumors on social media – exactly the same force that floated their latest cash cow (sorry, Zoella, no disrespect intended) in the first place. Seems like those who get inflated by social media will eventually be exploded by it.

Meanwhile, Penguin, brainchild of Allen Lane, historic force for social education and culture in the UK, once again it seems that under your new ownership you will lie and scam as much as it takes in order to make a quick buck. And you’ll play fast and loose with the fortunes of your bestselling authors just as readily as you will with your Author Solutions dupes. And now your ghost(writers) are rising up to haunt you this Christmas.


  1. Anyone who believes a vast majority of celebrities write their own books really doesn’t understand how hard writing is.

    As someone who has written professionally in both fiction and nonfiction, I can tell you that they are very different skill sets so not being able to write fiction doesn’t mean you can’t write decent nonfiction or vice versa.

    And you really need to understand the difference between being a ghost writer and a co-writer. In most cases a ghost writer isn’t acknowledged in any way, that’s written into the contract, and the ghost writer is usually given a fee, not a percentage of the royalties. The ghost writer is okay with this, and in no way feels screwed. The reading public tends not to care if they find out a ghost writer did most of the work. I’ve never heard of a book’s sales dropping after a ghost writer was revealed, and I’ve read of numerous incidents.

    For example, romance novels by “authors” like Fabio, the male romance cover model who barely speaks English, did very well although many readers realized his only addition to the books was to suggest a vague idea for the plot

    A co-writer is given a byline or name on the cover of the book, they usually get royalties, and, since shared authorship is obvious and books like Patterson’s are doing very well indeed, readers don’t care about this either.

    In other words, this is another manufactured outrage for sites like this, but most readers don’t care.

  2. Most readers didn’t care when most readers didn’t know. There’s a reason we refer to our times as “the information age.” People in the publishing industry have historically been pretty savvy about the realities of ghostwriting, but never underestimate the lack of knowledge of the general public. The fact that many of Ms Suggs’ readers are unhappy about having the wool pulled over their eyes means this isn’t a “manufactured outrage.” Her fans wanted to believe she wrote a book–that was part of their enjoyment in buying and reading it. They feel ripped off, and Penguin could have avoided it by putting “with Siobhan Curham” on the cover.

  3. When ever I see a book written by a “star” I immediately assume it was ghost written. Par of the course. I remember, long ago in the 80s when I worked in a books, an autobiography by Chuck Berry, that began something like this “I wrote this book myself with my own hands.” I didn’t read the book, but I suppose he wanted to make the point that a “star” could (albeit rarely) write a book. Or maybe it was a clever snow job.

    But here is the bigger question? Why would anyone really care if the “star” wrote the words or just signed the contract naming a ghost writer picked by the agent? Ok, I have a super low opinion of “star” books and it’s difficult for me to believe that “star” fans care about the book.

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