Scholars can debate endlessly over which book is the "best" of all time, but finding out which ones have enjoyed the most commercial success should be a more concrete endeavor. We can just look at the sales numbers and rank them. Unfortunately, this turns out to be quite a challenge itself.
There is no central repository for total sales numbers for books. Publishers may not share sales numbers for individual books, or their reported numbers may be inaccurate (they seem prone to creative exaggeration, particularly when a movie version of the book is coming out soon). It gets even worse when you consider that many books are put out in multiple editions over the years, often by entirely different publishers. Older works that are in the public domain might be published simultaneously by several different publishers. The fact is, any worldwide sales figures for a book more than a few years old are educated guesses at best.
These problems are compounded when you consider religious texts like the Bible, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon. Not only are sales numbers impossible to verify, but these types of books are often given out to followers or handed out in public places. Even if you could somehow pin down the number of copies actually sold, the books are required reading for adherents of some of the world's largest religions. Comparing their sales numbers to the works of Dickens or Rowling is like comparing apples to oranges. Therefore, these books, along with "Quotations from Mao Zedong" (which has the same issues with computing sales numbers as the others, although it is not a religious text) have been excluded from this list. For the record, the excluded books have sold an estimated hundreds of millions of copies each (several billion, in the Bible's case) and would have taken most of the top positions on the list.
With all those caveats in mind (and not including e-book sales), here are the 21 best-selling books of all time, as far as we can tell.
Miguel de Cervantes' novel about a man who becomes so infatuated with tales of knights that he decides to become one is one of the first novels ever written, originally published in 1612. Quixote's misadventures as he travels across the Spanish countryside seeking wrongs to right and downtrodden people to uplift have amused and enthralled generations of readers, and gave us the idiom "tilting at windmills" to indicate a noble but futile endeavor.
While the novel enjoys surges in popularity now and then, especially in Spain, the sales number is a guess. It is the oldest book on this list, so it's had a long time to accrue sales. There is, of course, no way to tally sales from the 1600s, so although some sources suggest that this has sold 500 million copies, there's no way anyone could know for certain. We've placed it at this point on the list as a book that has had a great deal of worldwide popularity over a great span of time, but with an indeterminate total sales number.
This Chinese-language dictionary was first published in 1953. It became the standard dictionary among Chinese schoolchildren. Its widespread use in the most populous nation in the world (1.3 billion people as of 2010) gives this book a unique place on our list as the only reference book making an appearance.
First published in 1859, this novel by Charles Dickens examines the class struggles that lead to the French Revolution, and the uncomfortable truth that sometimes the revolutionaries are worse than the establishment. "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
Because this book is in the public domain and has been published in numerous editions by hundreds of publishers over the last 150 years, it's impossible to ascertain the exact number of copies sold. The number 200 million is controversial -- however, considering that the book is regularly on the required reading lists of students in the U.S. and elsewhere, it's entirely plausible.
Fantasy plays a big role on this list -- and note that there are no science-fiction novels. "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps the ultimate fantasy novel, the work that established the modern fantasy genre. It may seem like a cheat to list it as a single novel, but that's how it was written. The original publisher divided it up for logistical purposes in 1954, but for most of its history it has been sold as a single work (often in lavish boxed sets).
The first volume in J.K. Rowling's blockbuster series about young wizards living in a magical modern world is a perfect example of the difficulties in finding exact numbers for a list of this nature. It was first published in 1997, fully subject to modern sales tracking methods. However, with different publishers for different nations, and various publishers reporting seemingly exaggerated numbers, it's more accurate to say, "107 million, give or take 20 million or so."
This is the best-selling book by British mystery legend Agatha Christie, first printed in 1939. It details a series of murders on an island in which each death coincides with a line from an old nursery rhyme, with the seemingly impossible crime explained in Christie's ingenious epilogue.
The sales number is an estimate: Christie was once called the world's best-selling author by the Guinness Book of World Records, with 1 billion books sold worldwide. Since "And Then There Were None" is her best-selling book, 100 million copies sold is a good ballpark figure.
This Chinese novel chronicles the rise and fall of a family during the Qing dynasty, and was first published in 1791 by author Cao Xueqin. It's considered one of the classic works of Chinese literature, and has an entire field of literary study devoted to it. It remains popular even today, as new theories and ideas about it rekindle interest. The sales number is, again, an estimate -- one that might actually be a bit low considering how many years the book has been in print with sustained popularity in a nation of 1.3 billion people.
"The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a strange yet charming children's book about a prince who lives on a tiny asteroid. Published in 1943, it became extremely popular in France and then won over readers around the world. There are monuments to it worldwide, and astronomers even named an actual asteroid for the one the prince lives on in the story.
The sales number is uncertain. Some sources list it at a startling 200 million, while other list it at 80 million.
C.S. Lewis published this religious-themed fantasy novel in 1950. Intended as a children's book, it's set during World War II and is a classic example of a "magical doorway" story, in which a gate between the normal world and a magical one is discovered. This formula would, of course, be used to great success years later by J.K. Rowling.
Lewis' young protagonists travel to a realm called Narnia, where they encounter all manner of anthropomorphized animals, fantastical people and a godly lion. This book leads to an entire series of Narnia novels. Like nearly every book on this list that isn't a dictionary, it was also made into a film.
Dan Brown's 2003 mystery novel about a conspiracy hiding the secrets of the Catholic Church was no doubt boosted in popularity when the Catholic Church decried it (and the inevitable film, starring Tom Hanks). It shows that mystery novels are capable of holding their own against the fantasy books on this list, particularly if they go beyond a simple murder mystery to explore historical secrets and shadowy cabals.
Author Napoleon Hill is sometimes considered the father of the self-help movement in the U.S. He studied successful and wealthy people and then created a formula for achieving personal success. This, his most popular book, was released in 1937 during the Great Depression. It distilled his formula into a philosophical system for success that apparently resonated with people struggling to get by. It stayed on best-seller lists for many years, and spawned an entire industry of books about how to be a better person.
This was the sixth book in the seven-book Harry Potter series (all seven make this list). It is notable for detailing the childhood of main villain Voldemort, and for an infamous death scene that shocked many fans. Not only has it sold lots of copies, it sold them incredibly quickly -- nine million within 24 hours of its release in 2005.
"The Alchemist" is something of an oddity on this list, and may not belong here at all. Written in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho in 1986, and then translated into English in 1993, it is touted as an allegorical tale (basically a retelling of an old folk tale) about a young shepherd who seeks his destiny in the desert.
Some sources indicate that it has sold 65 million copies. However, it's possible that number was inflated to drum up interest in anticipation of a potential film adaptation [source: AFP].
The second book in the Harry Potter series, released in 1998, uncovers more of the mysteries of the wizard school Hogwarts and series villain Voldemort. It's difficult to say why some books in the series sell more or less than others – though they're all within about 10 million of each other, which is well within the expected margin of error and uncertainty.
J.D. Salinger's 1951 book about teen disillusionment is a must-read for adolescents everywhere – literally, in many cases. Like "A Tale of Two Cities," sales numbers for Salinger's novel likely benefit from frequent inclusion on high school required reading lists.
The fourth book in the series (2000) centers on the Tri-Wizard tournament, a friendly competition between representatives of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and two rival schools, and features Harry's first face-to-face meeting with a newly corporeal Voldemort. This series alone causes this list to skew heavily toward fantasy; the genre accounts for one third of the list.
Harry Potter book number five (2003) introduces a secret society dedicated to resisting Voldemort's growing power. Whether this book, "Goblet of Fire," or "Prisoner of Azkaban" has sold more total copies is anyone's guess, and is immaterial in any case. All of the royalties went toward making J.K. Rowling one of the richest women in the world, with a net worth estimated at $1 billion.
In this third installment, released in 1999, Harry and his friends have adventures involving werewolves and time travel at Hogwarts and learn a bit about Harry's parents, James and Lily, who died protecting him.
Lew Wallace wrote this biblical tale, publishing it in 1880. It cleverly discusses the life and times of Jesus Christ indirectly, using the protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, to observe Christ and other aspects of life in that era. Wallace meticulously researched the historical accuracy of the novel. It is credited with popularizing novels in the U.S., since the religious themes made it more palatable to readers at the time.
The sales number is an estimate – it was enormously popular in the years after it was first published, but few people read the novel these days. It's more likely you've heard of it because of the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston.
This controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov was first published in 1955. It has often been banned due to the nature of its subject matter – it concerns a man, Humbert Humbert, who develops a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Despite its lurid premise, the novel does have its champions: Time named it one of the 100 best novels ever published since the magazine's 1923 debut [source: Grossman].
The final, mammoth volume in the Harry Potter series was released in 2007 and had sold 44 million copies just one year later -- and that's before the paperback version had even come out. It has certainly passed the 50 million mark at this point.
There are several other books that are reported to have sold in the neighborhood of 50 million copies, including "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare" by Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Alpine classic "Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning" by Johanna Spyri.
HowStuffWorks takes a look at the genesis and expansion of the Little Free Library Movement started by Todd Bol in 2009.
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- Forbes. "The Celebrity 100: #9 J.K. Rowling." Forbes, June 11, 2008. Accessed Nov. 30, 2011. http://www.forbes.com/lists/2008/53/celebrities08_JK-Rowling_CRTT.html
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- Lifson, Amy. "Ben-Hur: The Book That Shook the World." Humanities, Vol. 30, 6, Nov./Dec. 2009. Accessed Dec. 1, 2011. http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2009-11/BenHur.html
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- Newsweek. "Don Quixote Slept Here." Newsweek, Feb. 25, 2005. Accessed Nov. 30, 2011. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2005/02/27/don-quixote-slept-here.html
- Taylor, Jerome. "The Big Question: How big is the Agatha Christie industry, and what explains her enduring appeal?" The Independent, Feb. 25, 2009. Accessed Nov. 30, 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-big-question-how-big-is-the-agatha-christie-industry-and-what-explains-her-enduring-appeal-1631296.html
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