Bonnier Zaffre has poached author Wilbur Smith from HarperCollins in an eight-figure sterling deal, described as "one of the biggest in publishing history" by Bonnier Publishing group chief executive Richard Johnson.
Mark Smith, c.e.o. of Bonnier Zaffre, acquired world all-language rights to eight new Wilbur Smith books, together with English language rights to 34 backlist titles including classics such as When The Lion Feeds, Elephant Song and River God, from Kevin Conroy Scott at Tibor Jones Agency.
Smith, who is now 84, is said to have sold more than 130 million copies of his novels worldwide, and is currently published in 25 languages.
HarperCollins published Smith's first co-authored title, Golden Lion, in September 2015 after he moved from Pan Macmillan in a six-book deal, rumoured to be worth £15m. Before that Smith published 34 books with Pan Macmillan. The last book under contract with HarperCollins deal is due to be published this autumn.
Johnson said: “This deal is one of the biggest in publishing history and a signal of our intent as we prepare for significant growth in the UK. It is the start of a number of announcements we’ll be making in the coming weeks.”
Mark Smith, who did the deal, said Wilbur Smith was "one of the most successful writers of our time" and that the agreement "perfectly exemplifies what we do as a company and the whole team is looking forward to publishing Wilbur with flair, vision and renewed energy".
"With over 130 million books sold, Wilbur is at the top of his game and is much loved around the globe. With world rights in the new titles, we are very much looking forward to working with likeminded, entrepreneurial and commercial publishers in all international territories,” he said.
He told The Bookseller there would be "more of this to come", with Bonnier Publishing looking to grow both by building their own brand authors and by buying them in.
"This is exactly part of our strategy, if we do have the opportunity to deal with, talk to and convince other brand name authors we are the place to be," said Smith. "We've built a great team and we're having great results, we're very focused and determined and we have a successful approach to commercial fiction; I think what we do is appealing so I hope there will be more of this to come."
Asked whether other publishers should be nervous about their prized writers being poached, Smith added "there is enough opportunity for everyone to succeed."
The first of Smith's new co-authored titles will be published in 2018 and Bonnier Zaffre plans to continue the release schedule, instigated by HarperCollins, of two titles per year. The books will be spread across the author's four main series. A number of authors will be co-authoring with Smith on the series (one co-author per book), including Tom Harper, Imogen Robertson, David Churchill and Corban Addison.
Smith backlist will have its "look and feel" refreshed and will be available in the new Bonnier Zaffre editions in e-book from the 1st January 2018 and in print from the 1st July 2018. Bonnier Zaffre has said it will provide "more focus" in its marketing of Smith's backlist, with series-based promotions with retailers in mind on a rolling basis. It is also thinking about relaunching books in chronological order, and bringing in a new brand manager or director who will work on Smith's front and backlist exclusively.
Wilbur Smith said: “I’d like to express my gratitude to John Sargent and Sally Richardson at Macmillan/St Martin’s Press for enabling me to secure my backlist legacy and to Macmillan's dedication to my work for over 30 years of publishing.
"I’d also like to thank HarperCollins, particularly Brian Murray, Kate Elton and their fantastic teams, who helped me reach my fans across the globe with the further adventures of the Courtney and Ballantyne families, as well as Taita in Ancient Egypt and my newest hero, Hector Cross.
"Niso, myself and our team are starting an exciting new chapter with Mark Smith and Bonnier Zaffre, a dynamic publisher who will ensure that my work will reach my readers – both old and new -- for generations to come.
"It’s such an energising time for me, my fans and my family of fictional characters, who are constantly talking into my ears asking to write their stories.”
A spokesperson for HarperCollins said: "We are immensely proud of all that we have achieved in the years that we have been Wilbur's publisher, collaborating with co-writers to transform him into a two-book-a-year bestseller and creating a legacy for the future. Every one of Wilbur's five books with HarperCollins has been a number one bestseller in multiple territories around the world. We look forward to publishing our final book with him - The Tiger's Prey - this autumn."