By Brian Feinblum, Chief Marketing Officer, SVP
Which books are the all-time bestsellers? Let’s preface the answer with this: no one really knows for sure. Why? Sales records are quite poor and incomplete, and generally favor more recent books, where things are recorded meticulously.
Think about it. Books that were printed say, 150 years ago, were sold all over the place. We didn’t have BookScan or some centralized source to identify book sales. In fact, because government records are also incomplete or get destroyed overtime, and because book sale income taxes weren’t collected until the past century – there really is no way to know how many copies of a book were sold. Unscrupulous publishers would print and sell more copies of a book than they told an author – dependent on royalties – had sold. Some books where copyrights don’t cover them, such as those of Shakespeare, The Bible, or Ben Franklin, allow for multiple publishers and multiple nations to print and sell books and no one is adding them all up. Let’s also not forget pirated book sales that continue today in places like China. No one is adding them up either. And what of books published under pseudonyms, where the author’s identity was never uncovered?
So, having said all of the above, there are some noble attempts to gather up sales figures and estimated sales of the all-time bestselling fictional books. One such effort was undertaken for an entry in Wikipedia.
An entry entitled “List of best-selling fiction authors” tries to gather up numbers for authors – not specific books – and it includes all languages.
The list looks to be vastly incomplete, as too many authors listed were ones who publish in English, while a few are sprinkled from Russia, France, Spain, China or Japan. I’m sure many nations and languages have authors who should be on this list.
The list included authors that are believed to have sold at least 100 million copies of their books, based on approximate numbers repeated by reliable sources. However, this list didn’t include EL James, author of the 50 Shades of Grey series, who has been publicly linked to sales of 125 million copies. Such an omission makes you realize that the list is not complete by any means.
Still, the list identifies at least 85 authors whom have each sold 100,000,000 copies of their books. Who has sold the most? William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie are each credited with a range of book sales from two billion copies to four billion copies. Barbara Cartland (500M to 1 billion), Danielle Steel (500M – 800M) and Harold Robbins (750M) round out the top five. Some names are still seeing soaring sales, such as Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Anne Rice, and David Baldacci.
We’re a nation of numbers and lists, we like to recite factoids and want them to be accurate. Unfortunately, trying to compile sales figure lists globally, of all-time, is an impossible taste. But to know – or believe – that at least 85 authors each had 100M copies sold – is interesting. Collectively, they’ve sold billions of books and have influenced countless numbers of people.
In a world of 7.2 billion people, it still amazes me that so few authors can crack 100 million copies sold. If any author publishes books for 30 years and is successful, he or she should sell millions of copies each year. The more prolific you are, the likelier you’ll get to 100 million copies.
On the other hand, even the most successful writers have to keep on putting out quality books for a sustained period of time. They can’t just rest with one wildly popular book. But, over time, authors will rack up millions of copies sold each year just of their backlist titles.
One day there will be an author that will overtake the sales numbers of Shakespeare and Christie simply because the population will grow so large that it’ll require only a tiny percentage of it to buy in.
Related: Author Q&A With Charles Morgan