Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top 25 Best Selling Books of All Time

That the reliability of articles and statistics found on Wikipedia are a bit questionable will be our starting point, the "given" of this little exercise.  That said, I think some interesting "truths" can be gleaned from the site's list of all-time bestselling books.

Do keep in mind that the list makes a distinction between "most published and distributed" and "best selling."  That eliminates contenders like the Bible, the Qur'an, and Quotations from Chairman Mao.  Too, sales figures for individual Harry Potter and Twilight books are, for some reason, said to be so unreliable that they are not included in the list (although the Potter series is estimated to have sold more than 450 million copies in total, and the Twilight series, some 116 million copies).

If we accept these standards, the best selling single-volume books of all-time are said to be:
  1. A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens - 1859 - 200 million copies +
  2. Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery - 1943 - 200 million
  3. The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien - 1954-1955 - 150 million
  4. The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien - 1937 - 100 million
  5. Dream of the Red Chamber - Cao Xuequin - 1754 - 100 million
  6. And Then There Were None - Agatha Christie - 1939 - 100 million
  7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - C. S. Lewis - 1950 - 85 million
  8. She - H. Rider Haggard - 1887 - 83 million
  9. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown - 2003 - 80 million
  10. Think and Grow Rich - Napoleon Hill - 1937 - 70 million
  11. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger - 1951 - 65 million
  12. The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - 1988 - 65 million
  13. Steps to Christ - Ellen G. White - 1892 - 60 million
  14. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov - 1955 - 60 million
  15. Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning - Johanna Spyri - 1955 - 50 million
  16. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care - Dr. Benjamin Spock - 50 million
  17. Anne of Green Gables - Lucy Maude Montgomery - 1908 - 50 million
  18. Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse - Anna Sewell - 50 million
  19. The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco - 1980 - 50 million
  20. The Eagle Has Landed - Jack Higgins - 1975 - 50 million
  21. Watership Down - Richard Adams - 1973 - 50 million
  22. The Hite Report - Shere Hite - 1976 - 48 million
  23. Charlotte's Web - E. B. White - 1952 - 45 million
  24. The Ginger Man - J. P. Donleavy - 1955 - 45 million
  25. The Tale of Peter Rabbit - Beatrix Potter - 1902 - 45 million

A few things immediately jump out at me:
  1. Being originally published in the English language is a huge advantage (as 20 of the top 25 were),
  2. But one book each in French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese cracked the top 25,
  3. Children and YA books are quite well represented,
  4. Quality is not required for a book to become a massive bestseller (as in, The Da Vinci Code and She),
  5. Dr. Spock and Shere Hite made the list with "medical" books,
  6. The only religious book to make the list was published way back in 1892, and
  7. I doubt that some of these books are being much read at all these days.
Interestingly, just out of the top 25 are books like: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Angels and Demons, and Valley of the Dolls (God, help us, I kid you not on these three) and War and Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird.

As you can see from the ballpark-sized rounding off of these numbers, lots of books are grouped together and are really impossible to rank.  But I do suspect that the rankings shown are relatively correct.

Any thoughts?


  1. Several of them owe their success to classroom use. Catcher in the Rye is a favorite in high schools in part because it's never been made into a movie. Tale of Two Cities is excellent and it's short, for Dickens, so it gets used in colleges and high schools quite a bit. Most of the books for younger readers are still used in schools, too.

    I confess to having read both Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Valley of the Dolls. I've also read She. You can probably skip all three.

  2. One little quibble that I have is that Lord of the Rings is a trilogy and not always sold as a single volume book.

    Being of Chinese descent I am fascinated to see Dream of the Red Chamber in there. I have not read it but I know that it is greatly admired in China, but not so well known outside China. It is also very long and is sometimes also sold in multiple volumes.

  3. Interesting observation on Two Cities and Catcher, James. I think you're right about that being one of the reasons for their longevity because I don't think Tale of Two Cities is even close to being Dickens's best work...and I have, frankly, never been all that impressed by The Catcher in the Rye.

  4. Ed, you're right. I hadn't thought about Lord of the Rings being multiple volumes...wonder how that affected the sales estimate. It's not consistent with those single volumes in the rest of the list.

    Considering China's huge population, I'm a bit surprised that only one Chinese-language book made the top 25 list, really.