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Meet Team Zoella: You say “ghostwritten” like it’s a bad thing

There are several ways of getting to my desk in the morning. Each of them leads through several other offices. And when I walk in, or out, or across the building, all these rooms are filled with people whom you would be forgiven for mistaking for one another. These people are editors in one of the most prestigious education publishers in the world.

They sit and type at their desks. They fill up whiteboards in meeting rooms with equations, sketches and charts. They make long and passionate phone calls that take hours and span time zones, obsessing over every sentence, every footnote, every punctuation mark. The entire office building is filled with people who work to get things published – to spec, to budget, to standard. It’s the same in our humanities department, our language learning team, and in fiction team across the road. It’s the same in New York where we work also. And it’s the same in every publisher’s office here in town.

I’m only writing this because the Internet seems to think Zoella had to do it all by herself, and since she didn’t, it’s betrayal and cheating.

A few days ago, I sat and had a lovely breakfast with someone I care about. We talked a lot about new books and new ways of writing. She told me how much money Zoella’s book will make, and how it’s the next big thing. We both agreed that it’s great for her and that nobody’s got a clue what will work in publishing next year anyway. We said that the naysayers are probably up in arms about Zoella’s book, as they usually are when a young woman does something more successful. Which, in our books, just proves she’s on to something.

Then it emerged that she didn’t write the book herself, and the whole kerfuffle kicked off. I’m not here to debate the reasons why people felt inclined to dismiss the book on these grounds – it’s a different, darker and sadly familiar story that many successful women can relate to. I have only two things to say about this; I’m sure other people can say more.

Thing 1: nobody writes a book themselves. There is always someone whose job it is to become an expert on a tiny part of the book. That’s why we have editors. That’s why the person I ate breakfast with works with tiny legal details of publishing. That’s why I get to meet three hundred people every year, talking about books we sell. That’s why the books I write myself won’t have covers I designed myself. Zoella knows about online blogging, digital presence and digital narrative (and yes – writing for a blog is different than writing for a book). Wayne Rooney knows about football. Robbie Williams knows about singing and show-biz. They all had ghostwriters. You want to know their story, and it’s a story you’re getting.

Thing 2: ghostwriting is a good, good thing. You desperately want to know how Gazza or Victoria Beckham lived their lives, dealt with their successes and failures. These are the stories that fire up your imagination. But trust me – you don’t want to read the stories they wrote. Who says writing is for everyone? Who says that just because your life has been fascinating, you must be able to convey it in style which is equally gripping? A way with words may be one of the things people leave behind, just to chase the ambition that drives them to be awesome and respected for the kind of thing they can then tell their ghostwriters about. If David Beckham stayed after class to work on infinitive clauses and paragraph structure, there would be no story. 

You wouldn’t expect Zoella to handle her own legal contracts with her publisher. You wouldn’t want her to negotiate the fees and the publicity schedule all by herself. You would be surprised to see her doing the proofreading, the typesetting, contracting the reprints. You would forgive her for not translating the work into all the other languages out there. Right?
And yet, just because someone else helped her write, her success doesn’t feel so good any more. I’ve got bad news, buddy: every book you have on your bookshelf / e-reader is a team effort. The best thing you can do is respect the team and be a part of it: buy the book, read it and talk about it constructively. The worst thing you can do is single out any part of the process, point fingers and vent your frustration.

A good set of questions to end this tiny rant with: what if you had a success story to tell, and a team of people to help you tell it? What if there was, today, a group of experts surrounding you, offering help, just to make your story a success?
How would you feel about the work that lies ahead of you – all of you? Would you be happy to delegate different tasks to those whose job it’s been to carry them out? Or would you prefer to do certain things yourself? Where would you draw the line: at what point do you imagine yourself saying “no, this is important. I want to have influence on this”?
Perhaps most importantly: what would be your success story? What do you see written on the blurb? Why should we care about your (hypothetical) book – why should a team of talented people at a publishing house be deployed to help you spread the gospel?
Fashion bloggers, football kickers, britpop singers, prime ministers: they all were in this situation once. Someone told them to shut up and explained what it’s gonna be, and they nodded and listened and pretended to understand and then the book came out.
Zoella didn’t write the book herself.
Nobody writes their book themselves.
If you ever become book-worthy, you are not going to write the book yourself.
And if you think you are, maybe you aren’t.

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