Monday, 8 December 2014

Zoella and the Zeitgeist. By Keren David.

So, Zoella. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know all about the guinea-pig owning ,
Zoella the record-breaker
mascara-wielding vlogger from Brighton, otherwise known as Zoe Sugg. Zoella’s novel, Girl Online was published last week and has hardly been out of the news since. First,  it broke all records by selling 78,000 copies on its first day. Then, yesterday, there was a backlash as papers revealed that Zoella had needed the help of a ghostwriter to produce Girl Online, a ghostwriter who was unlikely to be sharing in any of the royalties from the book’s enormous sales.

Now, one might say, that is fair enough. After all the ghost agreed to the deal. And the sales are nothing to do with the prose, and everything to do with the platform that Zoella has worked hard to create  in her years of blogging, vlogging and  other activities which skilfully inflated her profile and turned her from an ordinary girl into a brand. Zoella’s story is a fairytale for our times, and those who quibble that she missed out the hard graft of actually writing a novel, should consider whether they would want to put in the considerable effort of producing a vlog that so chimes with the interests of teenage girls. And please don’t knock those interests. Teenage girls face so much hostility about their actual likes (Twilight? Pah! Make up? Piffle! The Hunger Games? Narcissism!)  that there is something quite wonderful about someone breaking all records by being exceptionally good at reflecting the taste and concern of actual girls.

 I also like Zoella a lot for talking about her own struggles with anxiety, a problem which is a raging epidemic among teenagers today, particularly those unfortunate enough to be educated in the Age of Gove.   

There are a few things though that do bother me about Zoella’s story. First, that a clearly talented ghostwriter could accept a deal paying her  a modest fee (reportedly in the region of £7k) without the tiniest percentage of royalties for writing 80,000 words in six weeks.  What does that say about the income of writers nowadays?

 Secondly, that no one from Zoella’s management team or publishers -  let alone Zoella herself -  wanted to give the ghostwriter a co-writing credit, or admit up front that Zoella needed a hand to get her ideas down in print. As Zoella herself admitted yesterday: ‘Everyone needs help when they try something new.’  Bring honest wouldn’t have dented her sales one little bit. Today's embarrassment was completely avoidable, and  carries an unpleasant whiff of big business trying to mislead young consumers. I’d like to see more openness about the use of ‘helpers’ in celebrity publishing, more light shed on the process, so that young writers don’t feel hopelessly inadequate when they try and emulate their idols. Also, when celebrities scoop up sales and awards, this would ensure that we’re all clear about who is actually being honoured. Not all celebrities need as much help as Zoella, after all, and a few do all the work themselves. 

And last, I'm concerned that brand, not quality is increasingly valued in children’s and young adult literature. Do all debut authors need millions of vlog followers nowadays? (John Green, after all, gathered fame as a vlogger  -  except I'm pretty sure he writes his books unaided) Or a career as an actor or comedian? Are publishers willing to take a chance on an unknown author - particularly one who isn’t especially glamorous?  How many authors have a chance to build their careers nowadays? It sometimes can feel that people have only a few months to prove their worth.

This was also the week that the shortlist was announced for a new prize for YA from the UK and Ireland. I have a particular interest because my book, Salvage is on the shortlist (short break here, while I dance for joy), but even if it were not I would be applauding the way that this prize celebrates the quality and diversity of books for teenagers being produced in this country. It’s not all about big American bestsellers, it’s not all about the YouTubers, we have a lot of wonderful authors writing excellent books,  that deserve a lot more attention than they get. A big thank you to The Bookseller for spotting this gap and doing something about it.

In a perfect world, Zoella’s triumphant entrance into the world of YA books will spark her interest in the work of other YA authors. She’ll start to read and review books on her vlog. She’ll champion books by people like Anne Cassidy, Sally Nicholls, Lydia Syson, Cat Clarke, Tom Easton, Patrick Ness, Bali Rai  and Zoe Marriott. Rachel Ward, Clare Furniss, Sheena Wilkinson, Meg Rosoff, Joanna Nadin, Emma Pass, Emma Haughton, Marcus Sedgwick, Ruth Warburton, CJ Daugherty, Sarra Manning, Malorie Blackman, Gillian Philip, CJ Skuse, CJ Harper, Helen Grant, Keris Stainton, Tanya Landman, Tanya Byrne, Susie Day  and Sara Grant. Not forgetting Candy Gourlay, Dave Cousins, Bryony Pearce, Kim Curran, Sharon Jones, Rae Earl, Catherine Johnson, Caroline Green, James Dawson, Non Pratt, Katy Moran, Moira Young, Hilary Freeman, Miriam Halahmy, Lee Weatherly, Sophia Bennett, Phil Earle, Luisa Plaja, Gina Blaxill, Liz de Jager, Holly Smale  and Holly Bourne. And more. So many more.

 In 2015 she’ll seek out debut books from the likes of  Eve Ainsworth, Lisa Williamson and Nicole Burstein.  She'll read Liz Kessler's first YA book. She’ll use the hashtag #UKYA, she’ll take part in the regular UKYA chats on twitter, she'll campaign against library closures and she’ll start following some of the UK’s  fabulous book bloggers I may well send her a copy of my 2015 book This is Not a Love Story which features a girl vlogger who loves glimmering tealights, vintage teacups and makeovers. Call it zeitgeist, Zoella.

Most of all, I look forward to Zoella shouting about the books written under her rumoured ghost’s real name: Siobhan Curham. Siobhan has written many wonderful YA books, and she scooped a national award for her novel Dear Dylan, which she self-published with no help from anyone.   

Wouldn’t that be great? Zoella? 


25 comments:

Anonymous said...

John Green was a successful writer before his YouTube career began. Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award in 2006, a year before he even created a channel. He has had added success as a result of YouTube, but was able to establish himself without the help of an online following. Saying that he started out like Zoella (who became an internet personality well after John had written books and started the Vlogbrothers) does a discredit to his talent and hard work.

Keren David said...

It was a joke - but point taken.

Stroppy Author said...

A lot of people make a living from ghosting (I'm not one of them, but I know some). Outing them annoys their publishers and costs them work - possibly their whole career. So it's a shame there was an effor to out Siobhan for the sake of taking a pop at Zoella.

It's a delicate balance - people who don't make a fortune from their own novels often like to subsidise and support that income by writing character-led fiction, by ghost-writing, but a host of other types of writing which might be anonymous (including writing genre fiction under another name). It's not a clever game to to hunt down who these people really are - it's a violation of their choice of a way of working. Hence Siobhan has refused to comment. (I'm not criticising you, Keren - I know it was in the Telegraph!) It would be nice if there was some kind of acknowledgement that a book has not been entirely written by the sleb whose name is on the cover, but 99% of readers don't give a damn anyway.

Perhpas there will be a happy outcome in that a few readers might buy some of Siobhan's original novels if they like the Zoella book - let's hope so, as she's going to need the income now.

Candy Gourlay said...

Wise (and generoust too). Thanks, Keren.

Keren David said...

Well that is just what I am suggesting, Stroppy. Hopefully the success of Zoella's books will get more people reading Siobhan's books, and those of other UKYA writers. And I don't agree that 99 per cent of readers don't care. Not if they are 13-year-old girls who now have to struggle with the knowledge that their idol has been less than honest with them.

Zoë Marriott said...

Eminently sensible, as always, Keren. I'm glad you made that point about not sneering at Zoella just because she's a young girl who likes young girly things and is liked by other young girls. THAT isn't the problem. The problem is... well, the thing you said the problem is. And if it's true that Siobhan Curham was paid so little for that much work then I do think it's appalling. *I* wouldn't even take that deal, and I'm perpetually skint (not that anyone would offer me a ghostwriting gig anyway).

Thank you for the shout out, btw :)

Eve Ainsworth said...

Great post Keren. I think this whole situation has raised an interesting debate around ghosting.
It would be great if more readers find Siobhan's books through this and even more YA authors perhaps.

Eve Ainsworth said...

Great post Keren. I think this whole situation has raised an interesting debate around ghosting.
It would be great if more readers find Siobhan's books through this and even more YA authors perhaps.

Nicola Morgan said...

Keren, I completely agree. Until this morning when I saw the press release, all I'd done was read the headline, which talked about her "book" (not "novel") which, because I know Zoella's online work, I assumed wrongly was a self-help/non-fic book, not a novel. Earlier comments I'd made online were made in the light of not realising it was a novel. Which changes things. If it had been a non-fic book based on her blog/vlog, that would have been different, because she has done so much of the groundwork herself and built up her own relevant following. A novel is a different thing entirely.

Catherine Johnson said...

Absolutely spot on Keren. Her brand is a towering achievement girls love her. Here's hoping Siobhan Curhams books garner a fraction of Zoella's sales.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Gosh we needed this post so much and you have put the whole thing in such great perspective - this is exactly what blogs ( vlogs. etc.) are for, so well done that writer - Keren David - and must say, very chuffed you put my name in as well...

Lee Weatherly said...

Excellent post, Keren (and thank you for the mention!). I think what bothers me most about this is the quite cynical use of Zoella's devoted fan base as a cash cow. Yet even that wouldn't feel so bad had they just been more transparent. Instead, now that it's come out, young teens are heartbroken that someone they trusted lied to them. Very sad.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

So well said, as always, Keren. The whole affair raises important points about writing, ghosting, celebrity 'culture' and exploitation.

Richard said...

While I can understand the problem people have thinking that one person wrote the book only to find it was someone else, I don't have a problem with an anonymous ghostwriter not getting any royalties.

If it was 7k for six weeks work, then she's getting paid more than I am in my day job. The software I write sells for tens of thousands, of which I don't see a penny. If a customer pays for me to do work for them, my rate is around £100 per hour. I don't see any of that either.

I could go freelance and pick up a larger percentage, but then I don't get job security, pension contributions, healthcare, etc. As Stroppy Author says, it is a choice. You choose to work for less money, but not necessarily less value.

Keren David said...

As I said, the ghostwriter took the deal. So it obviously felt like a fair deal to her. What's interesting though is that it's possibly a better deal than she gets for writing her own books, which says a lot for the state of the industry.

C.J.Busby said...

It's that state of the industry that depresses me most about this. It's another take on what I was trying to articulate in my post a couple of days ago - the very poor rewards to writers in an industry based on commercialism.

Anonymous said...

Presumably, Richard, you don't work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, which would have been the minimum required to write 80,000 words in six weeks. This doesn't factor in the 15 per cent that the writer would have given to her agent or the weeks taken up by the editing process. As you yourself point out: no sick pay or holiday pay is included. And this is one job in a year. I think you'll find that this type of job works out as below minimum wage. Most of us writers are willing to take peanuts for the joy of writing our own books and seeing our names on them. When we are employed as hacks, we should be properly compensated.

Amanda Craig said...

I like this post a lot - and as Zoe says, good point about the good Zoella actually does in highlighting teenage girls' anxieties. But Penguin and her agent should sort out this mess. It isn't good PR

Emma Haughton said...

Fab post, Keren. Says everything I'd want to say - only better!

Caroline Green said...

Great post, Keren (and thanks so much for the name check).

Hopefully young people will seek out SC's books now, as you say.

Becca McCallum said...

I have been living under a rock, clearly! I only discovered there was such a person as Zoella because it happened to be on the BBC website, and then your blog post popped up on my blog feed. Like Nicola Morgan said above, I assumed that it was a book about the process of doing her vlog and creating her online image, not a work of fiction.

Keren David said...

As the mother of a teenage girl I've known about Zoella forever (or so it feels...). I'm just surprised she wasn't snapped up by a publishing house ages ago.

Richard said...

Sorry, Anonymous, I wasn't trying to denigrate your career or suggest it paid well. I have no qualification to do so. I only wanted to point out that sometimes a guaranteed income is worth more than a possibility of a much larger one, and that that dilemma is not unique to the publishing industry.

Mark Thornton said...

Really interesting discussion, particularly at a time when authors average incomes are declining precipitously.

I know three ghostwriters very well through the shop, and the work they all do is very different (one helps individuals write religious memoirs - very niche, one writes for Working Partners, the other ghosts for a huge celebrity). For one of them, ghostwriting pays the bills that allows them to work hard at becoming a name themselves.

With the Zoella debacle it's the publisher who deserves the flack. They completely misunderstood 'the brand' - Zoella's values with respect to her fans include honesty, and instead the publishers saw the marketing low-fruit.

I don't think you can blame Zoe at all for this, but don't expect any publishing suit to stick their head above the parapet and apologise anytime soon...I bet their just advising her to ride out the storm, which will blow over soon. Shame.

Cheri said...

Great post Keren. I've taken a slightly more personal and intimate view of events over on my blog, if you wanted to head over and take a look and let me know what you think that would be hugely appreciated!

http://illuminoire.blogspot.com
Cheri xox