Tributes paid to 'icon' Wilbur Smith after death, aged 88

Tributes paid to 'icon' Wilbur Smith after death, aged 88

Tributes have been paid to bestselling novelist and "icon" Wilbur Smith after he died unexpectedly at his Cape Town home, aged 88.

Smith passed away on the afternoon of 13th November with his wife Niso by his side “after a morning of reading and writing”, Wilbur Smith Books announced.

The author was a global bestseller whose novels have sold more than 140 million copies worldwide in over 30 languages, according to his publisher. He wrote 49 novels in all, including his hugely popular series following the Courtney family's adventures across three centuries in South Africa.

Smith's first novel When the Lion Feeds was published in 1964, the first in scores of bestselling novels. More than 50 years after his debut, he signed an eight-figure deal with Bonnier Zaffre in 2017, described by then Bonnier Publishing group chief executive Richard Johnson as “one of the biggest in publishing history". He signed a further 10-book deal with the publisher in December 2020.

Following his death, Kate Parkin, m.d. of adult trade publishing for Bonnier Books UK, said: “It is with deep sadness that we mourn the death of our beloved author Wilbur Smith whose seemingly inexhaustible creative energy and passion for storytelling will long live on in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. Wilbur never lost his appetite for writing and remained working every day of his life. He leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels, as well as completed and yet to be published co-authored books and outlines for future stories. It has been a privilege and an honour to work closely with him on this remarkable publishing legacy and we look forward to sharing them with his millions of fans worldwide in years to come.”

According to Wilbur Smith Books, he was “a believer in deep research, meticulously corroborating every fact” and adhering to the advice of his first publisher, Charles Pick at William Heinemann, to “write about the things you know well”. 

Wilbur Smith Books said: “Smith, accomplished as a bushman, survivalist and big game hunter, gained a pilot’s licence, was an expert scuba diver, a conservator, managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles. He also used his vast experiences outside of Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to assist with creating his fictional worlds. His own life, detailed in his autobiography, On Leopard Rock, was as stirring and incident packed as any of his novels.”

Born in January 1933 in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, and named after US aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright, Smith read stories by C S Forester, Rider Haggard and John Buchan as a child. 

Inspired by his own experience running wild on his father’s ranch, he wrote When the Lion Feeds, the story of brothers Sean and Garrick Courtney, and the tough life of cattle farming in the shadow of the Zulu wars and the gold rush. His agent sent it to Pick, then m.d. of William Heinemann, who picked it up. A Hollywood deal followed, and foreign rights sales racked up. 

In the 1980s he began the Ballantyne series, chronicling the family’s struggles during Rhodesia’s brief history and a decade later he would begin a series of novels set in ancient Egypt, the latest of which, The New Kingdom, was published this autumn.

After publishing 34 books with Pan Macmillan, Smith moved to HarperCollins in 2012 in a six-book deal said to be worth £15m. The deal, just five years before his Bonnier move, included his first co-authored title Golden Lion, written with Giles Kristian.

Kevin Conroy Scott at Tibor Jones and Associates, who represented Smith for the past 11 years, said of his death: “Wilbur Smith was an icon, larger than life, beloved by his fans who collected his books in hardbacks and passed his work down through generations, fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. His knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations. His work ethic and his powerful, elegant writing style made him known to millions. I cherish the role of working side by side with his wife Niso and the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation to keep the flame of his fictional universe alive for many years to come.”

With his wife, the author established the Wilbur and Niso Smith Foundation in 2015 which will continue, led by Niso Smith. The couple also recently started a vertically integrated media company, Leopard Rock Studios Ltd, to produce film, tv and other projects based on the author's IP.

During the Nielsen BookScan era alone, Smith has sold 6.2 million print books for £47m in the UK since 1998, including those written with various co-authors.

In its statement announcing his death, Wilbur Smith Books quoted the conclusion of 2018's On Leopard Rock, in which he said: “I’ve had tough times, bad marriages, people I loved dearly dying in my arms, burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life. I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions.” 

Wilbur Smith Books added: “He remained as committed to his readers as they were to him and their dedication and engagement was one of his greatest joys. On his behalf, we thank them all.”