19th November 2021

Wilbur and Me by Richard Charkin

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Richard Charkin pays tribute to the undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith. Richard Charkin is non-executive director of Bonnier Books UK, as well as founder of Mensch Publishing. Previously he was executive director of Bloomsbury and chief executive of Reed International Books and Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Author/publisher relationships are strange and varied. Wilbur Smith had had many publisher friends and accomplices – editors, booksellers, publicists, agents, translators, and reps.  My relationship with Wilbur combined all or none of these roles depending on one’s perspective. We worked together at Heinemann, Macmillan and (after an interlude when he was published by HarperCollins) now at Bonnier. It is extraordinary that an author as loyal to his publisher as Wilbur should have been moved so frequently. This clearly had more to do with the moving tectonic plates of book publishing than the author’s wishes. He would have wished to stay with his original publisher, Heinemann and their MD, Charles Pick, through thick and thin, but circumstances changed and so did Wilbur’s loyalties.

What never changed though was his loyalty to his readers and to the booksellers and translating publishers around the world.

Every year around the time of the London Book Fair he would hire the private room at the very top of Elena’s L’Etoile in Charlotte Street and host a convivial dinner for thirty or forty of his book trade allies. Publishers from Poland, Italy (where he remains the mega-seller to beat all mega-sellers), Japan, Germany and so on – interspersed between the buyers from W.H.Smith, Waterstone’s, and in the glory days of book clubs, the head of Book Club Associates where he, along with Catherine Cookson, was the backbone of clubs such World Books and the Literary guild. The dinners were bibulous, informal, cosmopolitan, and fun. Just like the man.

He loved parties. He was the host at many, such as his 80th birthday celebration upstairs at The Ivy or the launch of the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize at Stationer’s Hall. He was equally happy to be the guest of honour at posh publishers’ launch parties for him at, for instance, Mosimann’s in Belgravia or less posh but no less fun an impromptu party on the top floor of the Flatiron Building in New York which housed St Martin’s Press. He and his wife, Niso, were equally gracious as host and guest and entered into the spirit of each event.

Outside the parties he was a great diner-out. He loved great restaurants but I am pretty certain there was nothing he liked better than totally relaxed evenings on the big table at the Chelsea Arts Club where he could observe the members and their guests with a novelist’s eye and not worry about any kind of absurd rules. I remember one evening there when I took a bit of a chance and hosted a dinner for Wilbur and Jeffrey Archer. Authors don’t always want to share the limelight but this, thank goodness, worked out fine. I doubt the Chelsea Arts has ever had a table whose combined book sales would have exceeded this one although I suspect some of Booker Prize wannabes there might have turned up their noses a bit.

Like many authors he was totally committed to his readership and he was lucky enough that this fan base was large enough to generate sales which in turn generated substantial income. But it was always the readership which mattered most. If he got that right the income would follow. Not all authors understand this.

We have lost Wilbur but his books remain, the legend remains, and his writing will continue to mould books and inspire readers. Niso, I am certain, will ensure that Wilbur will never be forgotten and I too will do my best to repay some of my debt to one of the most brilliant and decent authors I have been honoured to work with.