The Ghost and the Machine

As someone who has worked as a ghostwriter for a number of years, I have followed the media storm about the ‘help’ Zoella received in penning her bestselling debut novel with a mixture of interest, world-weariness and just a hint of ‘There but for the Grace of God…’

When you think about it, it can’t be a huge surprise that Girl Online was in fact written by a ghostwriter. Zoella, who rose to fame through a series of vlogs on YouTube, has never pretended to be a writer or gained celebrity through her writing. So for her to knock out a debut novel from a standing start at such a tender age would have been, to put it mildly, a remarkable achievement.

So why the opprobrium heaped on Zoella’s virtual doorstep? If the book had been a memoir or a book of beauty tips instead, then no-one would have batted an eyelid at the fact that a ghostwriter had been used. Indeed, it would almost have been a surprise for a non-fiction book by a celebrity not to be ghosted. Back in the day, it even used to be the case that ghostwriters got a sort of ‘best supporting actor’ billing. So for example, George Michael’s 1990 autobiography Bare — also published by Penguin — had the fact that Tony Parsons wrote it clearly written on the front. Somewhere along the line, both publishers and the public decided that they preferred the charade that the celebrity had written the book themselves. So these days, unless the ghost is a well-known name (such as Roddy Doyle writing Roy Keane’s recent autobiography), then the book is commonly credited to the celeb alone.

The criticisms about Zoella’s book differ because it’s a novel she has purported to have penned. The complaint seems to be that because she hasn’t written it herself, it therefore isn’t ‘real’ and she has hoodwinked her fans. Yet Zoella is far from the first celebrity to have ‘written’ a ghosted novel: Katie Price, Kerry Katona and Naomi Campbell are just three examples of ‘authors’ who came up with the ideas for their novels and then let someone else do the writing. The same is also true of many of those SAS-type thrillers ‘written’ by ex-military types. In these cases, the ghosted novel works because the reader reads it assuming that the plot draws on the subject’s insight and experiences. That’s what gives these books the authenticity their readership craves.

The suggestion, then, that Zoella has somehow ‘tricked’ the public into thinking she has written a book feels a bit mean-spirited to me. She’s not doing anything different to a number of other ‘writers’ out there. I suspect Zoella’s main crime is to have sold a lot of copies of her book, at which point the press start circling for a reason to do her down. In many ways, the vitriol feels little different to that aimed towards E L James when she had similarly spectacular levels of overnight success.

Publishers aren’t charities. They’re there to make money and turning a vlogger into a bestselling author is good business. There have been suggestions that the ghostwriter has been hard done by, receiving a flat fee and no share of the royalties. As a ghostwriter myself, I can only say that such a deal is not unusual. A publisher comes to you with an offer and you decide whether to accept it or not. Sometimes there are royalties involved, sometimes there aren’t: thems the breaks and it depends how good your agent is at negotiating. In this instance, the ghost had to weigh up whether it was worth her while to accept (supposedly) eight grand for (reportedly) six weeks’ work. Certainly, I’ve known publishers to offer smaller sums for projects involving much more work. In this case, given the publicity the ghost has got from the book, I don’t suppose she’ll do too badly out of it in the long run.

What I think is a shame is that, in all this media hullabaloo, the fact that 80,000 people went out and bought a novel in its debut week has been overlooked. In an age when we’re told that books are in decline and nobody is reading any more, a novel that bucks the trend so marvellously should be something to be celebrated. If Zoella is reaching out to people who don’t normally buy books, and some of them get into the habit as a result of reading Girl Online, then we should be thanking her — not hanging her out to dry.

Tom Bromley is an author, editor and ghostwriter, as well as the tutor of our Writing a Novel online course. You can find him here, or say hello on Twitter.


Originally published at www.faberacademy.co.uk.

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