Ghost in the Machine

Let’s talk about Zoe Sugg. Firstly, good for her. She’s built a huge YouTube following which has given her a great platform to work from in the future. Having said that, people like her need to be careful who they partner with. From all reports, she’s very happy with Penguin, so there’s that. (Amanda Hocking was very happy with her publisher after she signed her contract, too. Anybody heard from her in past few years?) But Zoe also had to take “a break” from the Internet and has gotten excoriated in some circles once it was revealed that the book was largely ghost written. She needs to realize none of that happens if Penguin/Random House weren’t being disingenuous with how they’ve billed and marketed the book.

I have concerns about the nature of her contract. Namely, if Penguin contracted and paid the ghostwriter, who actually owns the rights to the book? Zoe claims the story and characters are hers, but I really would like to see how her contract is worded. It may well be her story but the book itself is a work product bought and paid for by Penguin from someone else. Is it possible Zoe might never be able to get the rights reverted under any circumstances because she’s never had them to begin with?

It kind of got me thinking about something I wrote a while back speculating that a deep substantive editor who made changes to story and characters might have a copyright claim on those elements of the work. If the storyline and characters came from Zoe but a different writer fleshed out the actual work, wouldn’t that put Zoe effectively in the position of a substantive editor rather than the creator? If she, in fact, does have an inherent copyright claim on the work, how would it not follow that other substantive editors have one as well? Ultimately, it’s all in the contracts. I hope Zoe had a good lawyer.

However great she is at her YouTubing, and she’s clearly magnificent at it, she’s not a writer and doesn’t have a deep level of understanding of the nature of publishing. I expect she was told by Penguin that this is all good, it’s how it’s always done and don’t worry about it. Meanwhile, the PRH CEO is at conventions mouthing off about what a great storyteller she is and how great her book is while purposely avoiding any disclosure that she didn’t actually write it. Now 99% of the time, we expect celebrity books to be ghostwritten. But those books are generally all nonfiction. Doing this with fiction, though, is a different animal entirely. And if it is really “how it’s always done”, would PRH like to disclose how many other works of fiction they’ve published and marketed under famous brands that weren’t written by the person who’s name is in big letters on the cover? And pseudonyms don’t count. That’s still the person who wrote it, even under an assumed name. I don’t expect they will any time soon. Even James Patterson, however you feel about his book mill, openly discloses that he only writes a short outline and credits the actual author on the cover as the writer, not some vague “thank you for helping me” stuffed in the acknowledgements.

Here’s the thing; publishers have largely failed in their plan to harvest indie authors who develop large platforms and fan bases as a sort of “farm system” or “minor league.” So they’ve moved on the harvesting non-writers who have developed large platforms in other media and constructing books to fit the brands in question. It’s good business, and I’m not going to fault them for taking a swing at it. What I will fault them for is using those platforms to market fiction under the brand name when that person didn’t actually write it. It’s deceptive, in my opinion, and more than a little obvious as a cynical money grab. What I hope the Youtubers are doing is realizing that their platform is what the publishers want and that it gives them leverage. I sincerely hope they are using that leverage to get the best contract that suits them and protects their interests going forward. Because what’s not really debatable is that Penguin doesn’t care about the long-term viability of Zoe’s brand, only that they can capitalize on it right now. They aren’t going to protect Zoe or any of the others. That’s up to them to do so themselves. I really hope they both understand that and are acting accordingly.

Would it have been so difficult for Penguin to have put “Zoe Sugg with…” the ghostwriter’s name on the cover? Would it have undermined their marketing to acknowledge this was more of a collaborative effort than an independently written novel? I don’t believe it would have. Penguin clearly did or they would have disclosed it before the Internet sniffed it out and disclosed it for them. Maybe that’s a lesson here, too. Deceptive or misleading marketing doesn’t work anymore now that the entire world can fact check your ass in a couple of hours.

It’ll be interesting to see how the next YouTuber book is billed and marketed. At the end of the day, Zoe is moving product, and a lot of it. These YouTubers are independent, self-made people for the most part. I’ll be fascinated to see how that translates to long-term arrangements with publishers. My guess is it will go like the indie author thing went for them. Some successes and high profile signings early that will fade as the novelty wears off and the inherent conflicts between publisher and YouTuber business models start to manifest and the YouTubers realize there’s more money (and creative control/freedom) in it to do it themselves.

But for now, publishers may have finally found a group to whom their skill sets and added value propositions actually still attract; people with huge social media followings and zero professional writing skills.

One last point in all of this, the sentiment issued by this asshole:

“The book I am most proud NOT to have published (and most ashamed for my fellow publishers for signing up): Girl Online by Zoe Sugg…Zoella’s ghost-written confection, cobbled together from her dispiriting blog and her superficial life spent shopping and stressing about makeup. When there are so many great YA books and writers, it is horrible that such effort should be put into churning out an offshoot of a blog that is essentially about … nothing.”
Andrew Franklin Publisher, Profile Books

Get over yourself, already. And if your claim is that you wouldn’t have published this knowing the success it would find, I will call bullshit on that every day, and twice on Sundays. Today just so happens to be a Sunday, so that’s absolute bullshit. Bullshit, I tell you!

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on My WordPress Notepad.

  2. As to whether an editor held some kind of rights over a book they worked on, I guess that would depend on the editor’s contract with the publisher. But then what if they were hired by an indie writer…?
    Agreed 100% with your analysis. They contracted Zoe’s platform, she subcontracted her brand. If anyone was supposed to be defending the purity of literary art, it was the company whose business is to publish literature. And, considering the editing process, there’s no way they didn’t know.
    Agreed that the publisher could have presented the book in a more honest way while being tasteful. “Zoe Sugg presents: Story XYZ” would be fine, since she’s basically a brand. Or do like Patterson does (although I don’t like that either, since the name of the person who actually wrote the book is always placed in the least noticeable location, in a font and size that makes it kinda disappear. They don’t even get the kind of billing that a lesser-known coauthor would.)

  3. +++ Here’s the thing; publishers have largely failed in their plan to harvest indie authors who develop large platforms and fan bases as a sort of “farm system” or “minor league.” +++

    Ah. I see you read the last part of the series.

    Sorry, publishers have not largely failed because they haven’t tried to implement the system I described there. The E-book market is still relatively new and the big and medium sized publishers have been too busy fighting it out with Amazon to pay much attention to the concept.

    +++ But Zoe also had to take “a break” from the Internet and has gotten excoriated in some circles once it was revealed that the book was largely ghost written. She needs to realize none of that happens if Penguin/Random House weren’t being disingenuous with how they’ve billed and marketed the book.+++

    While I don’t think much of ghost written books, what is so new about this? Does anyone thing Hillary Clinton “wrote” her book? Though it’s so badly written that I’m a bit suspicious. Or Bill Clinton wrote his? I don’t know the % of political memoirs that are ghost written but it’s rather high.

    As for branding themselves as products and introducing books under the brand, didn’t Tom Clancy do that already?


    • I’m sure they are ghostwritten, and if this were some form of nonfiction work, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. But fiction is different. It’s certainly not the first time fictional work has been branded, even James Bond outlived Ian Fleming through other authors. Clancy and James Patterson set up assembly lines of sorts. But the people who actually wrote most or all of those books were credited as such. It’s another thing entirely to present a work of fiction as being written by one person when that’s not the case. It’s not illegal, or even against copyright law, but it’s deceptive. How would you feel if you bought a ticket to see a musician and when you got there, some uncredited studio guy played all the songs? If I recall, Milli Vanilli tried to pull something like that years ago and it didn’t go so well for them. Zoe clearly has talent, not so sure it’s writing talent, but you don’t build a platform like she has without having an excellent capacity for connecting with an audience. But she’s what, 24? I would’ve swooned at the check and book deal she got when I was 24. I’m not sure the specific details would’ve mattered much. Now, though, I’ve got much more perspective. I just wonder if she’s got enough experience, or representation that’s truly in it for her long term interests? Money itself comes and goes but your reputation is how you continue to have the opportunity to earn. That’s a lesson many of us have to learn the hard way, unfortunately.

      • Well, I can’t argue with your distaste for the practice. But, if people who want to be president can produce ghost written tomes, I can’t be that disturbed about some blogger providing their brand to a ghost as long as I’m told what’s going on. Was there an deliberate attempt to hide the ghost? It doesn’t seem to have been a well kept secret.

        +++ Clinton caused an uproar with her bestseller, “It Take a Village,” when she denied the ghost writer any identification at all. That book was written by Barbara Feinman, a Georgetown University professor. Feinman was paid $120,000 for seven months’ work. +++

        I’m not sure that Clinton’s behavior is more palatable than some silly blogger’s.


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