Millie Bobby Brown posing on the red carpet and the cover of Millie Bobby Brown's Nineteen Steps

Millie Bobby Brown’s New Book Raises an Interesting Conversation About Ghostwriting

Millie Bobby Brown’s new historical fiction novel, Nineteen Steps, hit shelves on September 12, and, on the surface, the Stranger Things star’s book appears to be quite the success. It has already nabbed the coveted label of a New York Times bestseller and has high praise from fellow bestselling historical fiction author Kate Quinn emblazoned on its cover. Meanwhile, there is quite an interesting story behind her novel.

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Brown’s book is inspired by her grandmother, Ruth, and her experiences growing up in London during World War II, including being a survivor of the Bethnal Green tube station disaster in 1943. It was one of the worst civilian disasters during the war, occurring when civilians seeking cover tried to descend an unsafe staircase at the station, resulting in a stampede that killed over 173 people. Hence, the book is a strong tribute to her grandmother and the victims and survivors of the Bethnal Green disaster.

There’s just one problem with Brown’s book—she didn’t write it herself. Author Kathleen McGurl served as a ghostwriter for Brown’s book. McGurl took to her self-titled blog back in March to discuss the process. Meanwhile, according to her, Brown’s involvement in the writing process seemed fairly minor. McGurl explained that she was simply sent Brown’s and her family’s research and notes and had several Zoom calls with Brown before writing the first draft. She explained that there were multiple drafts and refinement, so Brown was perhaps more involved in later drafts. As Brown becomes the latest celebrity to employ a ghostwriter, it has renewed a debate about whether ghostwriting should have a place in celebrity book publishing.

Millie Bobby Brown’s ghostwriter renews age-old debate

Brown’s use of a ghostwriter for Nineteen Steps has spurned some online debate. On the one hand, some users think that’s not very important, as it’s a norm in the publishing industry. Others point out the unfairness of the situation, as numerous great writers will never be published or have their stories told, yet someone who didn’t write their own book can become a published and bestselling author.

The debate over utilizing ghostwriters is familiar. Many celebrities employ ghostwriters, though it’s important to note that this is most common with stars writing non-fiction. Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Ritchie, and Michelle Obama have hired ghostwriters for their celebrity cookbooks or memoirs. Even James Patterson, considered one of the bestselling authors in the world, is known to employ ghostwriters. Hence, what Brown did is quite common and very legal.

Additionally, Brown hasn’t tried to hide that she employed a ghostwriter, as McGurl was permitted to announce her role in Nineteen Steps. Brown’s transparency is commendable and makes her usage of a ghostwriter much less ethically questionable than some authors. Meanwhile, ghostwriting is a respectable profession that writers do for many reasons, whether to pay the bills or because they prefer privacy. These writers get well compensated and agree to the conditions of writing. If McGurl is content without her name being on the cover, who are we to say that it should’ve been?

Why it matters that Brown used a ghostwriter

At the same time, just because other people do it and it’s legal doesn’t seem like enough reason to do something. This wasn’t a memoir, where a celebrity tells their life story and the ghostwriter essentially puts it into writing. While based on Brown’s research and family story, this was a work of fiction. These were characters, ideas, and emotions that came wholly from McGurl’s mind and that Brown merely put her name on.

While ghostwriting might be the norm in celebrity writing, that doesn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t be. The publishing industry is plagued with issues right now with AI, unlivable wages, and book banning, and that’s just for the authors who actually get published. It’s estimated that the odds of getting one’s work published are 1% to 2%. If you’re a new author, getting one’s foot in the door is almost impossible. Meanwhile, those facing the most significant obstacles often have the most important stories to tell. It’s well-known that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors have an especially hard time having their voices heard in the white-dominated publishing industry.

Then, there’s also the fact that Brown’s book hasn’t been well-received, with some users even roasting it online. Even reviews that praised the story noted that the writing was simple, flat, and sounded like it was written by someone who had just learned the definition of literary components like foreshadowing. If Brown had so much help writing this novel and it still turned out fairly poor, perhaps she shouldn’t have been writing it. Perhaps she should’ve allowed the time and resources spent editing, publishing, and marketing her book to be allocated to a better-written book from someone who has truly put the effort in.

Even though it’s not a stellar book, it was already destined to be a bestseller before it was published, and one can only imagine the handsome advance Brown must’ve been paid for that book and the royalties she’ll enjoy. Yet, authors who have written far superior work than hers struggle to pay bills because they don’t have a big celebrity name to put on their books. Some authors will work their entire lives and never get published or never make a decent wage. Yet, Brown could slap her name on a poorly ghostwritten book and become a bestselling author.

So, no, Brown didn’t do anything unusual or illegal. However, Nineteen Steps is still a big slap in the face for real authors, and a reminder that the publishing industry doesn’t judge on writing talent or skill but on which face, name, and story it thinks is best suited for sales and profit.

(featured image: Jon Kopaloff / Getty / William Morrow)


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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.