Zoella’s Clockwork Novels: Fanfiction, Ghostwriters, and the Bizarre, Automated Future of Publishing


Another year, another novel churned out by the YouTube Megastar-Publishing Complex. This week, the Guardian announced that Zoe “Zoella” Sugg, Internet superstar and “author” of Girl Online, last year’s runaway hit and the fastest-selling debut novel of all time, will publish a sequel, the appropriately titled Girl Online 2. Only, as is well documented, Sugg didn’t write the novel, even though she said she did. The book’s jacket copy finds Zoella confiding to her fans: “My dream has been to write a book, and I can’t believe it’s come true.” But, as it turns out, the book was ghostwritten, factory produced by an underlaborer named Siobhan Curham, who wrote the book for a measly £7,000 to £8,000.

In December of last year, we predicted not only that we’d see more novels from YouTube stars in 2015, but also that we’d see more ghostwritten novels by celebrities, in the vein of books “written” both by Sugg and the Jenner sisters. It could be no other way: Zoella’s success was destined to become boilerplate, in multiple senses of the word. This much is proven, already, by the publication of the second Girl Online novel, which we know to be ghostwritten. And this new model for generating fiction has found its way to the US, too, where Harvey Weinstein recently purchased the film rights to Paige McKenzie’s The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, which is due to be released on March 26. If you want an idea of what how well this new publishing complex is working, just look to Perseus, the novel’s publisher, who has upped the book’s print order to 100,000 in advance of its publication.

Given the early (and likely continued) success of this model, it’s fair to say that many readers don’t care — they vote, as the platitude goes, with their pocketbooks. Some young readers, though, attentive to this factory model of producing fiction, are not so smitten with Sugg and the industry. Last December, a teenager wrote to the Guardian to explain why he is dispirited by the charade.

To me ghostwriting is more appropriate for autobiographies than fiction. You feel less hoodwinked when you read up on someone’s life, knowing that they have sat with a professional writer and allowed this person to pick their brains…Genuine prose is not something that can be factory-produced (especially in the case of a book like Girl Online) and every bit of fiction you will read will have the author’s voice in it somewhere, however deep.

Even if we accept that publishing has a long history of mass production, of heaving forth books that readers can buy with little thought, it’s also true that we’ve never seen quite so brazen an attempt to relegate fiction writers to the bottom of the production chain. The writing of fiction, at least in recent history, has been seen as an act of unalienated labor. It may be a thankless, fiscally diminished way of making a living, but it has also been tied to expression, to the production of a given writer’s dreams and thoughts.

Maybe now, though, it’s time to see Zoe Sugg’s clockwork, ghostwritten novels as part of publishing’s newly aggressive attempt to automate its own processes. It’s not only that Sugg’s ghostwriter is underpaid and self-effacing, a cog in a machine; it’s also that this new complex is made possible by the status of the stars themselves. YouTube megastars, compared to celebrities in other media, are less established, less contracted, less enmeshed in a web of legal protection — and therefore cheaper.

In this respect, both the YouTube megastar and the self-effacing ghostwriter are weirdly analogous to the writer of fanfiction and the self-published author, both of whom publishing has gone to great lengths to exploit in recent years. The now competing self-publishing models of Apple and Amazon point to an automated future where these corporate behemoths can cut the “red tape” of fiction production — you know, the entire editorial process that improves the quality of the book — in favor of a “consumer” driven model that relies on upvoting. Services like Amazon’s Kindle Scout trade the considered, comparatively slow process of reading, acquiring, and editing fiction for efficient, automating technologies. And, in monetary terms, it already seems to be working. Under the regime of Amazon’s Kindle Direct services, some genre outlets, like the erotical publisher Ellora’s Cave, are sinking.

If you need convincing that this new mania for automation is a bad thing, just consider the fiction itself. Katy Waldman, in an excellent piece written for Slate this week, gleefully considers the perils of such reader-driven automation:

On Kindle Scout, one reads all these excerpts, meets all these orphan-vampire-wizard teens, encounters the incendiary seductions and unruly blond mops of ringlets and teeth gritted with fury—and discovers so few moments of real inspiration, divine or infernal. Perhaps sublime failure is as difficult to achieve as sublime success.

In the piece, too, Waldman slyly hints at the logic that bolsters such dreams of reader-driven automation:

But I am not here to talk about the democratizing heroism of self-publishers and crowdsourcers. Or about the growing centrality of the consumer, who is able to customize her reading experience by telling Amazon precisely what she wants to read before any work goes to press.

This passage struck me because, inverted, it damns the entire process. The fact that the reader gets to choose “precisely what she wants to read before any work goes to press,” neutralizes the dream of fiction — that it can surprise us; that it may not always give us what we want; that it can redistribute the way we think, hear, and see the world. Under automation, fiction loses the power to alter what we think is possible. It becomes nothing but a magic mirror that reaffirms our prejudices.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the new automation preys violently on a strange mutation of the American Dream. Since the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey, we’ve seen a groundswell of fanfiction written, in part at least, with an eye toward getting rich. Big Publishing and Amazon have built an apparatus to exploit the get-rich-quick mentality of fans, who, once writing out of loyalty and care for a specific world or genre, are increasingly prone to writing because they might be rich and published. The fanciful dream of the fantrepreneur, in other words, is the cash-rich reality of automated publishing.