The word on the street is “never talk about money and book sales in African literary circles.” African novelists are too cool and too intellectual to be bothered by how well or badly their novels do in the market.
Maybe that’s why you’ve never heard of Wilbur Smith, Africa’s richest and biggest celebrity novelist—with 120 million copies of his novels sold.
He was born in Zambia but lived most of his life in South Africa.
In some ways, writing has always been about money for Wilbur Smith. He was slaving away at a crappy job as a government accountant when he sold a story to a literary magazine for 70 pounds—twice his monthly salary as an accountant. He promptly abandoned accounting for writing.
His first published novel, When the Lion Feeds, was an instant success. Ever since, he has published bestselling after bestselling historical fiction set in Africa.
In 2012, it was rumored that for a 15 million dollar deal, he left Macmillan—his publisher of 45 years—for Harper-Collins.
He is also an aggressive investor with 75 percent of his writing revenue ending up in stock market investments. Smith has houses in multiple choice locations all over the world, which once included a 22-acre estate in Seychelles.
Wilbur has a massive international fan base. His novels are historical fiction, though not in a Things-Fall-Apart sort of way.
Unlike Achebe’s historical trilogy, Wilbur’s novels are very commercial and not considered high-brow fiction. However, what they lack in literary prestige, they make up in entertainment value and astronomical sales. Critics may not think they are the best things ever written, but readers can’t seem to get enough.
As you can imagine, Wilbur has been the target of tabloid news. He’s on his fourth marriage, as we speak, and estranged from all three children from previous marriages. Last year, he told The Telegraph that the problems he has with his children boils down to money. They want more of his money than he is willing to give.
You might be thinking of adding Smith’s novels to your reading list. But where do you begin reading an author with a 36-book catalog?
Amazon suggests that you begin with one of these five.
1. Wild Justice
2. River God