As I’m trying to read a lot of the most critically-acclaimed books of all time, I thought it made sense to look at some of the bestselling books of all time too. These are the time-tested books that it is impossible to deny are anything but legendary. You can no more judge the artistry of a book by it sales that you can its cover (and these have had many of both), but it says something that over 100 million people have felt compelled to read these novels.
Is there an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here? Almost definitely. The bestselling books of all time are listed all over the place, especially in places where readers go to find new material. On a smaller scale it is why we have the ‘Bestsellers’ section in bookshops, not to showcase the best books but the ones that people are most likely to buy. It’s social proof at work, we read what others are reading so we don’t feel stupid.
Three of the bestselling books have felt significant boosts from film adaptations, but the rest are conspicuous in their absence from the silver screen in any meaningful sense. The rise of ebooks has no-doubt served to solidify the list, by presenting books in sales order to most people by default.
Starting this list, I had never heard of She, though it’s never been out of print since first publication in 1887. Nor had I heard of its author, H Rider Haggard – though I knew his most famous novel King Solomon’s Mines and its lead character Allan Quartermain.
The story follows the adventure of three men exploring Africa, who fall across “she who must be obeyed” – a fearsome Queen of the African interior. The Queen is revealed to be a powerful sorceress seeking to find the reincarnated form of a former lover.
Though now thought of as typical ‘lost world’ literature, She was an early and popular adventure story that seems to have captured imaginations for well over a century.
#7 – And Then There Were None
Famous for two reasons, this Agatha Christie murder mystery has sold over 100 million copies. Experimental even for Christie (see her other novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), the mystery follows the fortunes of ten people trapped on an island. Famously, they’re killed off one-by-one, to the tune of a children’s poem.
I’m not surprised to see this novel so high in the list of best-selling books. Hunger for the novel has never waned in the 65 years since its release. It’s a book I’ve read a few times, but not for many years. It needs time between sittings to distance yourself from the famous twist ending.
In some part, as is the way with these things, it’s popularity has been boosted by controversy over its title. While Ten Little Niggers was an acceptable title for a book at the time, the title was first amended to Ten Little Indians and the now widely used And Then There Were None (which also seems to be the best of the bunch, rhetorically speaking – giving a sense of the plot and tone of the novel).
And Then There Were None deserves its place on the best-selling books list. It’s an exquisite mystery and a great place for new readers to delve into the amazing bibliography of Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.
#6 – Dream of the Red Chamber
With sales of over 100 million since its first publication, Dream of the Red Chamber is the first of two books on this list written in a language other than English. This Chinese masterpiece is so influential that it has its own field of study – redology. Dream of the Red Chamber is the oldest book on this list, first published in the 1700’s (giving it a 100 year head-start on sales!).
The novel is epic, covering the fortunes of a family over many years and over 500 characters. Also known as The Story of the Stone, this novel is considered one of China’s four great classical novels.
Dream of the Red Chamber is largely unknown in the West (especially when compared to the other bestselling books on this list). It is incredibly hard to translate accurately, due to its use of colloquial language and use of poetry. There have been plenty of attempts, David Hawkes’ three-volume translation is often regarded as the best.
With the Chinese boom of the last decade, don’t be surprised if you hear more about Dream of the Red Chamber in the near future or find more Chinese literature climbing the list of bestselling books. As Western interest in China rises and the need to understand Chinese culture increases, so will sales of this influential novel.
#5 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
By far the youngest book to have sold over 100 million copies, there’s no denying the incredible success of the first Harry Potter book. Published as recently as 1997 and written by JK Rowling, there are few parts of the world that this book has not touched. I remember the book coming out and the popularity of the series growing with each installment, long before the hype of the films took over.
The book itself is relatively simple, with much of the mythology of the series developing over time. Harry Potter, a young orphaned boy finds out that he’s a wizard and is whisked away to the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. While learning his first spells, Harry sets out on adventure that would last for seven volumes.
With less than 20 years of sales behind it, we can expect this first Harry Potter book to keep moving up this list, quite possibly even to the top spot – although it would need at least another 93 million sales first. In fact, the rest of the series has all sold over 50 million copies each and could well end up on this list in the future.
#4 – The Little Prince
The highest placed non-English book on this list is the French Le Petit Prince, or The Little Prince. Sales of 140 million copies land this novella on the list of best-selling books. The Little Prince is a children’s book that has enjoyed huge success among adult readers.
The novella is about a pilot who crash-lands in the Sahara desert and meets a strange boy. The boy (the Little Prince of the title) is from an alien planet and talks to the pilot about his experiences travelling around the galaxy. The book is published with watercolour illustrations by the author that illuminate the story for readers.
Due to the poetry of The Little Prince, accurate translation is difficult. English versions are coloured by the interpretation of the translator, some choosing follow a more literal path and others attempt to match the spirit of the story.
#3 – The Hobbit
No Surprises that The Hobbit makes it to number three on the list of best-selling books, with over 140 million copies. This popular children’s book has been a best seller and critically acclaimed since it was published in 1937. Initially the simple tale of Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit spawned the greatest fantasy saga of all time, The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbit follows Bilbo, Gandalf and a band of dwarves as they set of to fight a magic dragon. The adventure takes in trolls, goblins and the legendary Gollum. It’s a wonderfully written story and the depth of Tolkein’s immersion in his world is obvious. It’s no surprise that the writer has just as much hunger for more of Middle-Earth as his readers.
With the recent film adaptation (bizarrely stretching this breezy novel to around nine hours of bum-numbing CGI), The Hobbit is another novel on this list that we can expect to keep selling record numbers for years to come.
#2 – The Lord of the Rings
JRR Tolkien’s second entry in this list of the best-selling books is his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings. This epic novel is split into three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Begun as a sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings took 12 years to complete and spread over 9,000 pages of manuscript. The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies.
There’s no way to summarise the events of The Lord of the Rings into anything like a useful synopsis. The novel follows the fate of the ‘One Ring’, found by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The ring is a huge source of power and sought out by the evil Lord Sauron and a group of good guys set of to destroy it. Like The Hobbit, the central character is a peaceful hobbit pushed to face his fears and earn the respect of those bigger than him.
The novel has been a bestseller since publication of the first volume in 1954. With the recent Lord of the Rings film adaptations, the success of the book has only increased.
#1 – A Tale of Two Cities
It’s fitting that the most popular author of all time takes the top spot on the list of best-selling books. A Tale of Two Cities has sold over 200 million copies since 1859. Perhaps not Charles Dickens’ most famous story (that would be Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol), A Tale of Two Cities has held on to its success for over 150 years.
Focusing on the French revolution, the novel tracks the fates of several characters as France undergoes radical change. As with most of Dickens’ stories, A Tale of Two Cities concerns itself with social justice, and the lives of ordinary men and women in times of upheaval.
Unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, A Tale of Two Cities has never enjoyed a significant sales boost from a cinema adaptation. Several version have been filmed, but none have had anywhere near the impact of the book (although the 1935 version was Academy Award nominated for Best Picture). More than the other books in this list, A Tale of Two Cities has blossomed on quality alone since it was first bought as one of 31 monthly instalments.
Best Selling Books
With eight books boasting sales over 100 million copies, this list is a real insight into world literature since the 1700’s. Fashions have come and gone, but these novels have endured thanks to their readability, entertainment value and artistry. It’s great to see the crime and fantasy genres so well represented, not that any number of sales can convert readers who avoid genre at all costs. For the purists, novels of great literary ambition and merit like Dream of the Red Chamber and A Tale of Two Cities make the grade.
There are a few novels edging towards the 100 million mark; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Da Vinci Code have old sold over 80 million copies. Might there be a future where Dan Brown outsells Charles Dickens? Many writers and readers will hope not, but the truth behind these lists is popularity. History will record what readers like to read, be they genre fiction novels or poetic epics.
Where there any surprises on this list of best-selling books?
How many of the best-selling books have you read?