Zoella: Who Wrote Girl Online?

Who Wrote Girl Online?


A Blog Entirely Free of Ghosts (but which I previously published on PHA Media)

Ghost writers aren’t uncommon, there are very few stigmas attached to the authors that use them or the writers that eventually come forward to claim a little responsibility.

Yet Zoella has taken a break from the internet in an uncanny case of literary déjà vu.

In the same way as an online backlash forces protagonist Penny offline in Girl Online, negative responses to the ‘help’ she received from a well-known young adult writer and a high-ranking editor has made Zoe Sugg, author, take a step back from social media (NB. she has NOT quit YouTube).

Previously, I mentioned Zoe Sugg, AKA Zoella, in a blog about thought-leadership. As a leading voice for fashionistas, YouTuber’s and young people the world over; I described Zoella as part one of a group of powerful online personalities that exemplify the ‘power of we’.

The release of Zoe Sugg’s first book emphasised her enviable, much-loved status. Girl Online disappeared off shelves faster than Harry Potter, selling a record-breaking 78,109 copies in the first week.

Yet even in the early days there were a few raised eyebrows. Readers and rivals questioned whether ‘Zoe Sugg’ was merely an ‘authorial manifestation’, a name slapped onto a book that somebody else wrote.

And as the reviews came pouring in, critiquing the story that is tooth-achingly sweet and more than a little predictable, this little chink became a fissure.

I should probably admit here that I spent four hours reading this book cover-to-cover, which is why I was intrigued when Penguin Random House admitted that Zoe Sugg’s first novel was not written entirely by the YouTube sensation.

“To be factually accurate,” claimed a spokesperson, “you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.”

So she had help.

Is this really a problem?


I have mixed feelings about the news, uncertain about how I feel about ghostwriting in general since it’s something I do myself, but also in the way the story has been handled.

Siobhan Curham, a young adult author, allegedly helped create Girl Online. Recognised in the acknowledgements as being ‘with [Zoella] ever step of the way’, it was this brief mention that has given rise to much of the speculation that Curham wrote the book. I sympathise for a ghostwriter whose novel rockets to success under the banner of somebody else’s name, however, what we need to remember is that a ghostwriter signs a contract. They agree to the terms and conditions of ghost-hood.

This means Curham would have known that she was going to sign away her rights to authorship or even co-authorship when she agreed to help Penguin Random House make Zoella’s first novel a reality. It wasn’t stolen from her and ‘thanking’ her supporters on twitter probably wasn’t best practice for a ghostwriter…

On the other hand, why didn’t the publisher think to make this information clear from the start?

Ghostwriting is a relatively common practice. In fact, going beyond the celebrity examples of Katie Price or David Beckham’s ghostwritten literature, plenty of popular novels, especially children and young adult literature, have shadow writers. R.L Stein’s children’s horror stories, Goosebumps, were ghostwritten by various writers; The Man With the Golden Gun was the first Bond novel to be written by someone other than Ian Fleming but it was not the last; and there are even unconfirmed rumours surrounding To Kill A Mockingbird’s potential link to Truman Capote.

Oh dear

Oh dear

Now, unsurprisingly, many have leapt on the opportunity to tear into Zoella for being dishonest.

However, despite the people calling Girl Online an act of fraud, or plagiarism (it is actually, by definition, neither), the sad fact is that Curham would never have received this attention if her name had been beneath the title.

Because Zoella is the name that sells. She is the entrepreneur, the personality, the businesswoman and the brand.

Whether or not she is an author, she is, and will remain, an inspiration for her fans, and a thought-leader who has carved out a niche in a world where multi-channel media reigns. With millions of subscribers who love her, an endorsement from Zoella on her YouTube channel will indubitably still be worth its weight in commercial advertising regardless of the current media scrutiny surrounding her abilities as a writer.

Zoella is taking the fall but really, if there is blame to lay, surely it should be laid upon an institution that perhaps needs a little bit of rethink. It would be nice for a ghostwriter to be recognised for their prose and for success to be shared when it is due…

…But if the story winds its way to its natural HEA, #WeLoveYouGirlOnline will be matched by #WeLoveYouZoella, Zoe Sugg will bounce back to our blue screens with a smile and the déjà vu will come full circle.

And, hopefully, Curham’s sales will skyrocket as well.


Penny discovers Girl Online is still loved by fans, despite being ‘outed’ (p.335)

Disclaimer: This blog is free of ghosts. We tested it with the Specter Detecter AND a PKE Meter, just for good measure. Also if you would like to read TEN MORE THINGS about why we shouldn’t be horrible to Zoe Sugg, read the piece on the Guardian by Matt Haig (author of The Humans). It is excellent. 

Je serai poète et toi poésie, 

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