There has been what we might call a little literary scandal over the publication of a new book for teenagers, Girl Online. To many of us - all right, us oldies - it seems fairly missable, dismissed in the Telegraph as a book that "even Winnie the Pooh might regard as a bit twee". But hang on - a young author's fluffy debut novel published by Penguin and reviewed in a national newspaper?
To preempt any accusation of sour grapes, I should point out that I've had my fair share of media reviews. My latest book was number 1 in The Times crime review last month. So I am not griping about the success of Girl Online out of any sense of personal entitlement, or jealousy. As it happens, I am thrilled by the huge success my own books have enjoyed. I'm certainly not jealous of the public humiliation Zoe Suggs has suffered.
I'm just slightly bothered about the issues it raises.
Girl Online has attracted attention from the media that many hard working genuine authors can never hope to receive. I use the work 'genuine' advisedly, because of course we all know that Zoe Suggs did not write Girl Online herself. When Penguin decided to put her name on the cover, they also decided not to disclose the fact that the book had been ghost written by a 'real' author. Their duplicity backfired, angering a lot of people.
What on earth prompted Penguin to behave in such a cavalier and disrespectful fashion towards authors, books and readers?
The truth is, Penguin probably don't care about the criticism, because Zoe Suggs has 6 million followers on her vlog, where she chats about fashion and girly issues. Enough of these young girls are buying Girl Online for it to be number 1 on the bestseller list on amazon, admittedly only in hardcover. Penguin expect it to be the number 1 bestseller for Christmas, and I daresay it will be. Teenage girls don't care if Zoe Suggs wrote the book or just put her picture on the cover of a book someone else wrote. They are fans, devoted in the way that only teenage girls can be. Penguin know what they are doing, and it's all about sales. They have come a long way from their original raison d'etre in the 1930s, publishing cheap paperbacks to ensure literature would be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. These days they are running a business, struggling to survive in the competitive world of publishing. Regardless of any rights or wrongs, Girl Online is a profitable project.
The cult of celebrity meets the cult of youth. It's a winning formula. It's nothing new. Shakespeare complained in 1601 about unskilled child actors taking work from experienced professionals. For "there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion." Fashion, by definition, is ephemeral. Does anyone today know who those child actors were?
Instead of putting their efforts into promoting a transient fad, for a short term financial gain, Penguin would be better off supporting their many genuinely talented authors. Is Zoe Suggs (who isn't actually Zoe Suggs at all) really the best they can pull out of the bag as their Number 1 book for Christmas? They should be embarrassed. Publishers need to be working hard to introduce readers to talented new authors. If they don't, what is their role other than to make a quick buck?
If publishers simply try to cash in on current fads, they risk hastening their own demise. That is the real issue.