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"There's no shame in using a ghostwriter"

YouTube star Zoella was criticised after it emerged she had a ghostwriter – but what does a ghostwriter do, anyway?

Zoe Sugg/ Zoella and her book, which was ghostwritten.
Zoe Sugg/ Zoella and her book, which was ghostwritten.
Image: Dominic Lipinski

YOUTUBE VLOGGER ZOELLA has thousands of fans who hang off her every broadcasted word. She’s known for her fashion and beauty videos, as well as sharing her experiences with anxiety with her followers.

Her career is very much based on being herself, being honest, and forthright – but within the meticulously curated world of a few-minutes-long softly-lit and sharply edited YouTube video.

Zoella’s debut novel Girl Online was a record-breaker. But when it emerged she had some ghostwriting help – her publisher Penguin said she worked with an “expert editorial team” – the backlash forced the vlogger to temporarily take a break from her online world.

What is ghostwriting?

Ghostwriting is a common part of the publishing world, but not something that is often talked about outside it.

This year has seen somewhat of a sea change in this, with Roddy Doyle being interviewed about ghosting Roy Keane’s book, and Sue J Leonard getting her name on the cover of the Marie Fleming memoir.

We spoke to two ghostwriters, Charlie Connelly and Sue Leonard, about the profession, and publisher Eoin McHugh to get the industry viewpoint.

What of Zoella?

Charlie Connelly says he doesn’t understand why Zoella has attracted so much opprobrium.

There certainly shouldn’t be any shame in using a ghostwriter: writing a book takes a particular set of skills that not everyone possesses, at least at first, so if you’ve a great story to tell that people want to hear, why not get a bit of help in making it as good as possible?

But he notes that social media “can make people feel much closer to the celebrities they admire, so maybe the sense that someone else has been inserted into the relationship in the case of Zoella’s book creates an illusion of distance that causes her following to feel resentment.”

Sue J Leonard says she is “slightly surprised at the fuss” over Zoella. ”Everyone knows Posh Spice hadn’t written [her] book,” she says by way of comparison, “because she talked about not having read one.”

As a publisher, Eoin McHugh describes it as ”not at all unusual for someone like Zoella to have a strong editorial team around her and for an experienced ghostwriter to be brought in to assist.”

“We have to appreciate that Zoella, in terms of her audience or fanbase, it’s a young demographic,” he says. “It’s very much a social media, online-driven thing. Inevitably, somewhere along the line a conversation was bound to bubble up; curiosity about the book.”

“I’m making an album and you’re the producer”

Connelly is an established bestselling author, having written a raft of books touching on contemporary Ireland, history, and even the shipping forecast.

He was approached by his friend Bernard Sumner, of the legendary bands New Order and Joy Division, to help him write his autobiography, which became Connelly’s first ghostwriting project.

The result, Chapter and Verse, came out in September. “I think Bernard described it quite well when he said, ‘it’s like I’m making an album and you’re the producer’,” says Connelly.

In the music business producers are often feted as artists in their own right, yet ghostwriters, even in their job description, are shifty, peripheral figures. Some of the best and most successful ghosts are people you’ve never heard of.

After years of contemplating ghostwriting, journalist Sue J Leonard approached two publishers and was immediately offered two publications.

She is not allowed to name some of the books she has ghostwritten, but says that ghostwriters are often given a nod in the acknowledgements to a book.

She says that to ghost a book you need to be able to “write well and with clarity”, as well as having narrative skills, the ability to structure well, and “keep the pages turning”.

Leonard ghostwrote Marie Fleming’s story, An Act of Love, and achieved something not all too common in the ghostwriting world: she got her name on the cover.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Leonard says that “it felt like a very new level – it felt like the first important book I’d done.”

“The first ones, I didn’t feel I had any power. You haven’t a proven record. I think the way I feel about it is, I hope my name would add value. So it’s something I’m going to fight for.

The process of ghostwriting

For Connelly’s book with Sumner, they would sit down for two or three hours at a time and talk.

“Occasionally I’d ask for a bit more detail, or guide him back from a tangent, but it was his story and I wanted to tell it in the way he wanted it told and, crucially, in a voice that sounded like Bernard,” he recalls.

Connelly would transcribe the recordings, tidy them up, and then send the material to Bernard. They would “bat the chapters back and forth, each making changes and suggestions until we were both happy”..

Sumner was meticulous throughout. ”I remember him saying, ‘you keep using the word ‘terrific’ – I never use the word ‘terrific’, can we get rid of it?’”.

Writing with Marie Fleming showed Leonard how intimate ghosting is. “You are basically like a counsellor sometimes. There are always tears.” She says that sometimes, the best stories don’t end up in the book.

Connelly also mentions this therapeutic aspect. Sumner would “often say that it had felt like intense counselling (I caught myself on several occasions asking, ‘And how did that make you feel?’…).”

Do ghostwriters get enough kudos for their work?

“I think any ghostwriter looking for kudos is in the wrong game,” says Connelly.

The fact that Bernard was happy with the result of our collaboration is all the ‘kudos’ I need. Well, I admit I did allow myself an extra cup of tea one day when I heard Richard Bacon on BBC Five Live say in an interview, ‘It’s very well-written, Bernard’.

“It wasn’t hard at all having someone else’s name on the cover; in many ways it was a relief,” he adds, though he emphasises that Sumner was “quite keen” for him to be credited in the book.

It was Connelly who, in the end, convinced his friend this was a bad idea. “He’s a very private person and people had waited a long time to hear his story in his words: if I’d been all over it too that candid confidence between reader and subject would have been destroyed.”

Finding a voice

Connelly says the two main practices with ghostwriting are getting the facts right and finding the subject’s voice.

Leonard describes how the subject’s voice “gets into your head to such an extent that when you’re fictionalising things, you paint scenes, you know exactly what they would say somewhere.” 

Getting paid 

Leonard says that every book is different – some she has written in 12 weeks. She once was in the running to write a book in two weeks, she says.

Pay also differs – sometimes you get a fee and no contract, sometimes you get a fee and royalties, sometimes you are under contract with a guarantee. Other times, you are paid as you go.

Giving the respect that’s due

Leonard feels that ghostwriting is “ becoming more of an accepted craft”, largely thanks to people like Roddy Doyle. She praises ”the fact that he was taking it seriously as a craft, it wasn’t ‘oh I just tossed off this book because it was easy’”.

People have asked her over the years “when are you going to write your own book, Sue?” but she says that since writing the Marie Fleming book, people have begun to take her ghosting more seriously.

McHugh says that the Roddy Doyle-Keane collaboration “would have raised a few eyebrows and people would have thought ‘Why would someone who is a serious literary novelist do that?’”

That is underestimating the level of skill involved. It’s a highly skilled task.

He describes ghostwriting as a spectrum: “At one end some [books] are just by the numbers. They’re not of the highest quality inevitably. But the best ones, the better ones are where you’ve got a strong subject and great writer and the whole subject is taken seriously.”

It’s a field that is not given the respect sometimes it’s due (I know why it is, because sometimes the respect is not warranted perhaps) but it’s a very wide spectrum.

Why so many sports books are ghostwritten

Transworld Ireland, where McHugh works, is an imprint which has published ghostwritten sports autobiographies by the likes of Ronan O’Gara, as the sports arena is a big one for ghostwriting.

One interesting exception was Paul Galvin, who wrote his own book. McHugh says the quality of sports journalism and sports writing in Ireland is “very, very high”, which seems to be reflected in how many sports writers go on to ghost.

At Transworld, they ask the subject if they can recall any journalists or writers they had an affinity with, someone who ‘got’ them and captured their voice.

Then they decide if this would be an ideal partnership, and if the two would work well together.

Ideally, they would like to have a 12-month run on the book, but this is not always possible. “The longer you can give, the better,” says McHugh. He says that some subjects do the initial interviews and let the ghostwriter to it, while others have more ownership over it: ”They will want to read it and edit it and actively go back and forth with the ghostwriter.”

“Sometimes it can genuinely be a co-authorship. Very often, those are the better books, where there is a real interest being taken.”

Groovy people

What else do we need to know about ghostwriters? We’ll leave that one to Connelly:

That ghostwriters are all fascinating, sexy, groovy people. The kind of people YOU want to know.

We’re pretty sure he didn’t ghostwrite that.

First published 9.15am

Read: This YouTuber’s book is the biggest-selling debut ever, but who is she?>

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