Live from the U.K.
Sure we have a passion for writing, and finishing a project is the best feeling in the world, but it would be nice to make a little money for the effort. Still, it seems haphazard at best, how some authors achieve fame and fortune over others.
Talent and skill are surely a qualifier, but it still seems a bit of a crapshoot, that is, except when it comes to works by celebrities. Because they are famous, publishers seem to swoon, and stuff gets printed that maybe should have been left in a journal and shoved to the back of a closet.
In the case of hugely popular British vlogger, Zoe Sugg, publishers hit a jackpot when her debut novel was released in 2014. The problem is she may not have written the book.
CJ Daugherty, our U.K. foreign correspondent and expat author living in England, discusses the publishing scandal and why writers end up getting the shaft. Again.
By CJ Daugherty
The great British publishing scandal of 2014 happened at the very end of the year. In December, a vlogger (video + blogger = vlogger) named Zoe Sugg released her first novel. And all hell broke loose.
If you’re over twenty you’re unlikely to have heard of Sugg. She’s an online ‘lifestyle blogger’ known to teen girls everywhere as ‘Zoella’. And when I say ‘everywhere’, I mean everywhere. She has 7.4 million subscribers to her YouTube channel. Her videos have a collective 369 million views.
She blogs about makeup, girl problems, her boyfriend, and her dog. A video she put up 18 hours before I wrote this column already has 780,000 views. Here, you watch it, I can’t bear it.
When her novel Girl Online* was published by Penguin UK, it broke first-week publishing records set by Dan Brown and EL James, selling more than 78,000 copies in its first seven days. In a country where selling a few thousand copies can get you on the bestseller list, that number was mind-blowing.
Despite its fluffy cover, the novel tackled serious issues affecting teens today, including bullying and online harassment. The press couldn’t get enough of it; Sugg was everywhere – TV, newspapers, radio.
The only problem, it seemed, was that almost as soon as the book came out, rumours began swirling that Sugg didn’t write it.
On Twitter, authors muttered under their breath about it. People began putting the word ‘author’ and ‘wrote’ in quotation marks when Sugg was mentioned.
Full disclosure: I was one of those people. Several of my author friends had been approached about ghost writing this book. By the time Penguin found a writer, half the professional writers in the UK knew what was going on.
With so much publicity and gossip, the outcome was inevitable. At the end of December, the Sunday Times newspaper broke the story wide open with a two-page spread on Zoella and her alleged ghost-writer, an experienced, award-winning author of books for young adults named Siobhan Curham.
According to the newspaper, Curham was paid £7,000 (around $10,700 US) and given no royalties on the record-breaking sales. Rumours abounded that she was given only six weeks to pen the 80,000-word novel.
Curham, who allegedly signed a secrecy agreement with Penguin, has never admitted writing the book. Sugg has never admitted not writing the book. Everybody involved uses the word ‘help’ a lot.
In a statement, Penguin said, ‘As with many new writers she (Sugg) got help in bringing that story to life.’
In a separate statement, Sugg said, ‘Everyone needs help when they try something new.’
The only help I got writing my first novel came from coffee – and lots of it. But that’s neither here nor there.
The scandal made national news. The Internet was full of it for days. Teens on Twitter and Facebook claimed either not to believe it, or to be heartbroken, depending on which one you talked to. Either way, they kept buying the book, which has now sold nearly 300,000 copies.
Curham’s name never went on the cover. Sugg is now ‘writing’ her second novel.
Welcome to British publishing, where celebrity is king.
In the midst of the Zoella scandal, few noticed an industry announcement that Scholastic had signed fifteen-year-old Scottish pop singer Tallia Storm to a 5-book deal (FIVE). She’s said to be writing her first novel now.
And all of this was followed by a few months of the startling successful, and most aptly named book of 2014 – The Pointless Book*.
‘Written’ by Zoe’s YouTube boyfriend, Alfie Deyes (3.6 million YouTube subscribers), The Pointless Book is not a novel, but a notebook that buyers fill in themselves. ‘Write five places you want to go,’ it suggests on one page. ‘Draw genitals on the pictures below,’ another page demands. It sells for £7.99 and has an average 4.2 stars on Goodreads.
When Deyes held a book signing at a large book store in central London last fall, police were called to handle the chaos after thousands of screaming teenage girls crowded Piccadilly Street. Doors to the bookstore were locked. Teens left outside wept in despair.
‘I stood in line for three hours,’ one girl on Twitter wrote accusingly later that day, ‘and Alfie didn’t even hug me.’
Britain loves a book written by a celebrity. One of the bestselling UK children’s writers for those over the age of 8 is David Walliams, the erstwhile star of the hit adult comedy TV series, Little Britain, which took a dark look at life in the UK in the early 2000s.
On December 26, 2014, in the Bookseller Magazine list of the Top 20 books of the week, 15 were either books by or about celebrities including Walliams, or computer game tie-ins (Minecraft), or anthologies (the Guinness Book of World Records).
That means, two of every three books in the top 20 were not necessarily written by the authors credited, if an author was credited at all.
This was not an unusual week. The British publishing industry has long been fascinated by the famous and the easy money celebrity books bring in. But with the Zoella scandal, some writers, who had long tolerated the pretence that celebrities really write those autobiographies and cook books, grew restive.
Within the publishing industry – agents, editors, executives – the Zoella scandal was greeted with baffled dismay. ‘There have always been ghost writers,’ editors and agents wrote in the days after the Times broke the story. ‘What’s the big deal?’
It’s a good question. Maybe it was because the one person who got shafted on that deal, aside from the book buyers, was the writer. And that looks bad.
Perhaps, watching Sugg give interviews about a writing process she had not necessarily gone through was too much to stomach for writers struggling with falling advances.
I suppose in the end, though, the fantasy just went too far. Her readers are so young – most are aged 12-14 – and they believed she wrote the book. Really believed it. They love Zoe Sugg. They weren’t buying a novel, they were buying a piece of her. Something she had created. Or so they thought.
It was unpleasant to watch. Like an industry was lying to children for cash. And they paid and paid.
Like taking candy, you might say, from a baby.
I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the next celebrity teen novel. I wonder who’s writing it?
A former crime reporter, political writer, and investigative journalist, CJ Daugherty has also worked, at times, for the British government. She is originally from Texas and attended Texas A&M University. She now lives with her husband in the south of England. Night School is the first in a five-part Young Adult series with an accompanying web series. Her books have been translated into 21 languages.