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Wilbur Smith, writer.Picture shows Wilbur SmithThe 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

3. Hungry as the Sea

4. The Diamond Hunters

5. A Time to Die

 

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

6 Responses to “This African Novelist Has Sold Over 120 Million Copies” Subscribe

  1. Fatima April 14, 2015 at 2:25 am #

    Have always loved his writing ( my brother introduced me to his work).

    It’s interesting to know such fun facts about him.

    Thank you.

  2. Ayo Eko Inika April 14, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    I loved his books. Yeah, so they might not be literary fiction, but they were hugely entertaining, and at that time of my life, they were exactly what I wanted. Now, I suppose you might describe his writing as formulaic – it’s succeeded so well, why change it?

  3. Jaja April 14, 2015 at 4:14 am #

    Did this 120 million sell in Africa or in the West? Because I’m curious how they tracked figures. Cool sha.

  4. Hannah Onoguwe April 14, 2015 at 5:35 am #

    I’ve heard about him, but never read any of his books. Now I’m making it my mission to do so! And who cares about literary prestige? Well, some people do, and it’s all well and good, but most times when I’m reading I just want to escape, get my mind off other stuff and be entertained.

  5. Samuel April 17, 2015 at 6:43 am #

    His book, ‘Monsoon’ is one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. The 940+ page novel was an absolute delight!

  6. Khadijah Muhammad April 17, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Eye of the Tiger is my personal favorite.

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