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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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How Ken Follett became a pillar of the literary establishment
with a £67million fortune

By ROBIN McGIBBON

Richard Dismore’s long “think piece” about journalists and books reminded me of a supremely prophetic conversation I had with former London Evening News reporter Ken Follett in the mid-seventies, a couple of years after he’d joined my publishing company, Everest Books. as an editor.


Ken wanted permission to start work earlier and leave earlier because he’d been commissioned to write a novel and was keen to spend more time on it at home in the evenings.


I had no objection, as long as he did what was needed in the office, and we went on to talk about his novel – a spy thriller called Storm Island, later re-titled Eye of the Needle. Ken had high hopes for it and was already thinking of a follow-up.


“Another spy book?” I ventured.


Ken shook his head. “No, it’s a story about the building of a cathedral in a fictional English village. In the twelfth century.”


I stared at him, so underwhelmed I wasn’t sure what to say. “Twelfth century,” I said, dismissively. “Well, good luck with that.”


Thirty-five years and many, many novels later, I learned that Ken had sacked his New York-based literary agent Al Zuckerman, preferring to have his worldwide publishing contracts negotiated by second wife, Barbara, a former Labour MP.


Shocked, I rang Al to commiserate. He was surprisingly philosophical.  “I won’t starve,” he quipped.


Al was keen to chat about Ken’s phenomenal success in the 40 years since I’d introduced them, and asked if I’d read Pillars of the Earth, the 12th century novel Ken had told me about. I admitted I hadn’t and Al said, not without some pride, that the book, published in 1989, had sold more copies than all of Ken’s other novels put together, and an eight-part TV drama series was being filmed as we spoke.


I was aware that Pillars was a huge seller, but had no idea just how huge. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised I failed to see the potential in the young Follett’s vision that afternoon in the Seventies. As a local paper record columnist, I’d boasted to my readers that The Twist would never catch on!


PICTURE SHOWS: Ken Follett enjoying life as a tax exile in Grasse, on the French Riviera in 1979, after a publishing auction for Eye of the Needle, in the U.S., made him a dollar millionaire. He’s now in the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated fortune of £67million.