Zoe Sugg, an English internet celebrity known for her makeup tutorials and funfetti cupcake recipes, published her debut novel, Girl Online, in 2014. The YA romance discussing cyber-bullying and mental health sold 78,109 copies in its first week on shelves, more than any debut novel since 1998. Sugg’s name appeared on both the New York Times and Amazon Best Seller Lists. The only problem?
Sugg didn’t write the book, and the whole world knows it.
Sugg hired a ghost writer named Siobhan Curham to write Girl Online, and hid this information until after publication. Her novel’s success was practically guaranteed by Sugg’s platform of 5,000,000 (now 9,000,000) subscribers to her Youtube channel.
Sugg is not the first and certainly not the only celebrity who knows their name will sell products and capitalizes on the loyalty of their fan base. But as a writer, I take issue with the practice of purchasing a spot on the Best Seller List, a goal that some people spend their lives trying to achieve.
When the internet first caught wind of the fact that Sugg didn’t write her novel independently, she tweeted: “Everyone needs help when they try something new. The story and the characters of Girl Online are mine.”
And there lies the fatal flaw in the logic of every celebrity who needs some “help” writing their book: the ideas are mine, so it doesn’t matter if I have some help with the writing part.
On the left is a note on my phone of the many story ideas I have throughout the day. Some of these have panned out into great stories, some were fleeting ideas that I haven’t touched since.
I have 23 of these notes saved on my phone.
In short, I have a lot of ideas.
And I’m not afraid to post them on the internet because I know that these ideas by themselves are worthless. Coming up with ideas is the easy part. I’d even say it’s the fun part of writing. Seeing a story play out like a movie in your head, dreaming of who plays the main character in the film adaptation, fantasizing about the gray rain and flickering streetlights in the dramatic fight scene at the climax of the story…
None of those things make you a writer.
What makes you a writer is the painstaking process of translating those cinematic ideas onto paper in a way that makes your readers see the same look of despair in your main character’s eyes when his brother dies, and feel the wet pavement scrape his knees when he falls to the ground. It’s the task of describing the indescribable, trying to put words to things that you know transcend all words.
What makes you a writer is spending all summer on a draft, staying up until 2am and typing while your roommate sleeps, then burning the draft and starting from scratch the next day.
What makes you a writer is the influx of rejection letters from publishers and the will to keep sending out your stories to be spit on and tossed back to you in crumpled paper balls. It’s the waiting game that gnaws at your stomach until you can’t eat anymore because you’re always waiting for a letter in the mail, an email, constantly refreshing to see if your submission status has changed from “Received” to “In-Progress” to “Rejected.”
Whether Sugg’s ghostwriter wanted acknowledgment for her work or not is irrelevant. Curham’s distaste for fame doesn’t make Sugg any more deserving of the money she made or her spot on the Best Seller List. It only means that two people were complacent in an inherently deceptive money-making scheme.
I’m not arguing that Sugg is a bad person. In fact, using her fame to teach young people about bullying and mental health is admirable. She deserves every single one of her near-9-million Youtube subscribers because her videos are fun, entertaining, and uplifting. Even I subscribe to her and watch her videos. I appreciate all that she’s done to break down the stigma surrounding panic attacks and anxiety, and how her bright disposition never fails to make me smile.
But I know that her fame doesn’t make her flawless, and even though I like her, I will not blindly defend her.
Being famous for one skill does not entitle you to fame in all other areas of life, and does not make it moral for you to bypass all the hard work that someone without your fame would have to put in to get the same results.
Fame is self-perpetuating, after all. Take J.K. Rowling for example. Rowling’s novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in 2013, selling only 1,500 copies in the U.K. and 1,800 in the U.S.
Then an anonymous twitter user outed Rowling, and The Cuckoo’s Calling shot to #1 on Amazon Kindle, the Apple Bookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Nook Best Seller Lists once people realized the Galbraith was actually Rowling.
My point is that once you’re famous, that fame is inescapable. Any product with Sugg’s name on it will sell. That doesn’t make it immoral for her to benefit from her fame by pursuing new projects, but it becomes immoral when she thinks that her fame is an excuse to skip the hard work that comes with writing a novel because she can afford to pay someone to do it for her.
Though her intentions may have been good, by taking credit for a novel which is not hers, Sugg teaches her young audience that if you’re not good at something, paying someone else to do it for you and pretending that you did it yourself is the next best thing. She teaches them that skills such as writing, which people spend lifetimes trying to master, can be outsourced without consequence, and that having good ideas is enough to succeed, never mind having the drive to actually execute them.
The sequel to Girl Online will be released in October this year, supposedly without the help of a ghost writer. Rather, Sugg says that her editor, Amy Alward, has been coming to her house “every week for the past four months… we essentially spend the day bashing heads and writing the book together.”
It’s a step in the right direction, though I can’t help but think of all the aspiring writers who don’t have the luxury of an in-house editor and guaranteed book deal. Any other writer would be forced to write their novel independently, and if a publisher didn’t like it, they’d receive a terse rejection email and that would be the end of it. No editor holding their hand, correcting their grammar, offering chapter-by-chapter critiques. The same process that every other writer in the world has to suffer through. Minus, of course, the built-in platform of devoted readers waiting for a sequel to a beloved book that their favorite “author” didn’t actually write.
Now Zoe Sugg’s younger brother and fellow Youtube celebrity Joe Sugg is releasing a graphic novel in September titled Username: Evie.
Unlike his sister, Sugg readily admits that he did not work independently on the novel, crediting a team of 4 other people who worked on writing, lettering, colors, and drawing. So what did Sugg himself do? The “story/characters,” he says.
“As you may have guessed,” Sugg continues on Twitter, “Graphic novels aren’t a one man job. If I did it all on my own it wouldn’t be out until 2070 and would be rubbish.”
If that’s the case, Joe, then why is your name the only one on the cover? And for the love of God, stop referring to it as “my book.”
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