Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Zoe Sugg, Penguin, and why I'm an Indie Author

Let me start by saying that I know that I am behind the times and this story broke a few days ago, let me also say that until today I had no idea who Zoella, or Zoe Sugg was, nor had I heard of her debut book Girl Online.

More importantly, I have nothing against Zoe Sugg, or her book.

That said, this story caught my attention today. For anyone who doesn’t know (as I didn’t until I started researching this blog post) Zoe Sugg is a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers, who was offered a book deal by Penguin books, and whose debut novel outsold the debut offerings of JK Rowling and Dan Brown in their first week of sales.

Now let’s ignore the fact that neither Dan Brown, nor JK Rowling had millions of followers before the publication of their books, and that their debut books sold purely on the basis of their writing talents, because that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the ‘revelations’ that Zoe Sugg didn’t write her book completely on her own. In fact it now seems that she had the help of ghost writers and editors.

Here’s the thing. I have no problem with Zoe Sugg. She made a smart business decision that is no doubt going to make her a tidy sum of money. She’d have been silly to turn it down.

I have no idea how much or how little she wrote of the book. But there was one quote from her that spoke volumes. To me at least. When talking about the involvement from the editorial team, she said:

“Everyone needs help when they try something new.”

She’s right. They do. But I think where it rubs me up the wrong way is this. Most writers don’t publish their first book. Most writers bury their first book somewhere and hope it never sees the light of day. Because we know that we have to develop our craft. We have to hone our writing skills. We write and we write, and we edit like crazy and we become better writers. Most of us don’t get that first book deal handed to us on a silver platter. And out there is the ghost writer, who did hone her craft, who developed her skill and became a great writer, and who isn’t getting the credit because she’s not a big enough name. And that makes me sad.

Sugg has said that the characters and idea are all her own. But there is so much more that goes into writing a book. Weeks, months, even years of working on plots, sub-plots, dialogue, character growth, the prose itself. These are the hard bits. These are the bits that take skill.

Trust me, Zoe Sugg, coming up with the idea is the easy part.

But no, my problem is not with Sugg, the problem I have is with the publishers. In fact, with the traditional publishing industry in general.

This whole story is just another sign of how the traditional publishing industry is failing. Failing itself, failing truly talented authors out there, and more importantly, failing readers themselves.

It seems that there is an ever increasing slew of celebrities publishing books – almost all of them ghost written. These books sell in huge numbers because of the ‘brand’ behind them. Great for the publishers. Not so great for the rest of us.

I understand completely that publishing is a business. And the goal of any business is to make money. Otherwise what’s the point. But increasingly, it seems, the publishing industry is throwing away any kind of integrity, or standards, in the search of big sales.

There is a quote from Penguin that I find particularly interesting:

“As publishers our role is, and always has been, to find the very best talent and help them tell their story and connect them with readers.”

Right. But the problem is, they didn’t go out looking for incredibly talented young writers to hone and encourage their talent. They went looking for a big name that would sell books. They didn’t care about the content, they cared only about the name on the front cover. Their role as publishers should be to find the very best writers. Not just any celebrity who can sell a few copies, even if the work isn’t their own.

Which tells us what?

That traditional publishing isn’t interested in finding new voices to tell you unique and interesting stories, or about finding beautifully written works of art. They’re interested in sales. Full stop. End of story. And I have to admit, in the laziest way possible. Who needs marketing when you have a book that’s guaranteed to sell?

And people wonder why more and more writers such as myself aren’t even trying to go the traditional publishing route. We’re not interested because we know they’re not interested.

What message does this send to the struggling writer out there? Want to write a bestseller? Don’t write an amazing, original, well written book, just have a lot of followers on Twitter or Youtube, and then let someone else write the book for you.

Every time a story like this comes out I lose just that little bit more respect for the traditional publishing industry, and I ask myself, is it any wonder that more and more writers are turning to the Indie, or self-published route?

I think not.


  1. This is a great post. As someone who DOES know who Zoe is (I have followed her for years and I do actually genuinely like her), I can see why people are so disappointed in her. For me, it isn't about the fact that she used a's the fact that she was never open and honest and always insisted that she wrote the book. She has a huge following, a large section of which is young, impressionable girls who will believe anything their 'idol' tells them...and buy anything she releases and promotes.

    This is why Penguin offered her a book deal. It was apparently offered to her after the 13-year old neice (or granddaughter, can't remember the details) of a Penguin big-wig assured him that it would be a massive hit. When you hit down to the point - Zoe's name and brand can sell anything at the minute...including a book written secretly by someone else.

    The backlash Zoe is suffering now is horrible though, and not deserved to this extent. Yes she lied, but we don't know the circumstances surrounding the book deal, and how much she was allowed to say. But I hope at least that the publishing houses learn their lesson with this one...and that situations like this are handled with more integrity in the future.

    Alot of bad decisions were made in Zoe's case, by many different people...and unfortunately she is now reaping the falllout of that. Her...and her alone. Because it's HER name on the front of the book.

    Regardless, I have read Girl Online (I knew it was ghostwritten even though it hadn't been officialy revealed yet) and I did throughly enjoy it. I think, like you said, the main anger lies in the fact that many writers bust their balls day in day out to produce work that may never see the light of day...but they do it because they love it. Zoe was handed a book deal on a silver platter...and didn't even put the real work in to the final product.

    Great blog by the way

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Lauren. Interesting to hear from someone who knows more about Zoe Sugg than I do.

    Honestly though, I do have nothing against her personally. Good on her in a way for being successful. After all it's what we all dream of.

    I just wish Penguin, and other publishers who do this with celebrity books, could put all that money they spent on her book, including the ghost writing fees, into really nurturing and honing the talent of true young authors. There are so many great writers out there who just need a break, but the publishing houses won't take a chance on anyone who isn't a big name in some way shape or form.