“Is this the book deal of the century?” asks The Guardian. The blockbuster author, Wilbur Smith, has apparently signed a £15m six-book deal with HarperCollins without being officially required to write a word. All he has to do is come up with six plotlines, offer a bit of advice on characterisation, and leave the rest to “carefully selected co-authors”.
The move has caused a furore in the publishing world, with some ardent Smith fans threatening to boycott the new books (see below). But as far as Smith, 79, is concerned, it all makes perfect sense. “I have plenty more books in my head clamouring to be written,” he says – and only a finite amount of time to write them.
Smith’s adventure books, mostly set in either Africa or ancient Egypt, depict worlds where “virile hunks swash, buckle and bonk”, says The Sunday Times. And the author is clearly no slouch himself in that department. He recently described how he met his fourth wife, Tajikistan-born Mokhiniso Rakhimova (known as Niso), who is 39 years younger than he is.
“I saw this nubile little Asian thing going down Sloane Street and I joined her in the bookstore.” After steering her towards the Wilbur Smith shelves, he chatted her up and asked her to lunch. They were married in May 2000.
Some have suggested Rakhimova was a key figure in advocating the new scheme. She would certainly be the “probable financial beneficiary” if Smith dies during the period of the six-book contract. But given he has already amassed a £100m fortune from 33 existing novels (estimated total sales: 120 million), she may not have worried too much on that score anyway.
Born in Northern Rhodesia, the son of a rancher, Smith has always had a lust for adventure. As a child, “I wanted to be a great white hunter, a prospector for gold, or a slave trader”, he told The Daily Telegraph. Those fantasies were swiftly washed away by “the cold showers, beatings and rotten food” endured at a boarding school in South Africa. But it was there that he discovered books: “the Biggles series was my favourite – and I haven’t looked back”.
After Rhodes University, Smith trained as a chartered accountant, writing in his spare time. In time-honoured fashion, his first novel was turned down. But in 1964 he had such a big hit with the second, When The Lion Feeds, that he gave up his job at Salisbury Inland Revenue to write full time.
An avid hunter of wild game and an intrepid skier, Smith has houses all over the world and loves to travel. “That said, my heart belongs in Africa. I was born there and I hope I’ll die there.” But not quite yet. Niso, he says, is always encouraging him to take regular exercise. “Very often she’ll say, ‘Are you coming to the gym?’ If I say no, she says, ‘OK, you can stay here and get old and die if you like and then I’ll take all your money.’ That gets my trainers on, I can tell you.”
The 21st-century James Bond franchise
Smith once described himself as a man who has never queried a bill and been ripped off all over the world: “They always saw me coming”. Yet this year he has emerged as a ruthless negotiator, ditching his 45-year relationship with Pan Macmillan to jump into bed with NewsCorp-owned HarperCollins – just ahead of elaborate celebrations in 2014 to mark his 50th anniversary as a published author.
Pan Macmillan is said to have baulked at the idea of employing co-authors, which was proposed by Smith, his wife and a new agent, says Richard Brooks in The Sunday Times. The trio also reportedly suggested a plan to supply between 30 to 40 treatments for future novels, in effect transforming Smith “into a franchise for many years to come”.
There’s not much wrong with that, says Neil Sears in the Daily Mail. Smith is hardly the only blockbuster writer “to share the creative load with others”. Thriller writer Tom Clancy has used a stable of co-authors, as have James Patterson and Clive Cussler. And no one blinks an eye about ghost-written celebrity “autobiographies”.
Some think Smith’s formulaic writing makes him a prime candidate for a franchise. As The Guardian’s Pass Notes puts it, “he writes novels about people having sex in Africa. Set in the past. Occasionally they escape from jackals between shags. Sometimes it might be pirates or hippos.” But that rather undersells his personal appeal to many fans.
Jonny Geller, of the literary agency Curtis Brown, thinks the deal will work if the quality of Smith’s books is maintained: “provided they are good, I don’t think the public cares,” he says. In the meantime, get ready for the best of Wilbur Smith on a range of other media, says The Bookseller.
There are “action-packed” games apps based on recent novels, and a film of Those In Peril, due out in 2014. The producer reckons the hero, ex-SAS soldier Hector Cross, “has the potential to be a 21st-century equivalent to Fleming’s Bond”.