It is within the remit of a writer to dream. Indeed, it is arguably a prerequisite for any writer of fiction. And though there are numerous writers who pursue their passion for the sheer joy of it, plenty more have at least one eye on the potential sales of their published works. Just as a footballer might aspire to win the FA Cup or the Premier League, so an author might hope to top the bestseller charts. Of course, topping the bestseller list for a week or two is one thing, but how about making it onto the list of the best-selling novels of all time?
In this article, we’ll run through the novels (or works of fiction, as some might not quite fit the definition of a novel) that have sold the most copies over the years. Note that the best-selling book of all time is The Bible, around five billion copies of which are thought to have been sold. But (whatever your view on the matter) we can’t really categorise that book as a work of fiction. Instead, we’ll kick off our list with one of the greatest novels ever written.
Best-Selling Novels Of All Time
Here we will go through the best of the best when it comes to worldwide sales of novels. Note that it is impossible to get completely accurate sales figures, especially for the novels that have been in print for centuries. As such, the figures given will necessarily be approximate. Some novels were originally published with different names (and indeed in languages other than English), but we’ve gone with the titles currently recognised in the UK.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – 500 million
Cited by many as the first novel, and by others as the greatest novel ever written, Don Quixote (or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, if you prefer) was published in the early 1600s in two parts and has had a profound impact on literature. And it’s sold a lot of copies in the last 400 years. More than half a billion, in fact.
There have been numerous interpretations of the meaning and even the genre of the novel and it has been described as a comedy, a tragedy and a parody, or even all three simultaneously. On one level it is an adventure story that follows Alonso Quijano and his various quests as a knight errant (a wandering knight) under his chosen name Don Quixote de la Mancha. But what is it about the novel that has allowed it to endure in the popularity stakes when so many more recent works have fallen by the wayside?
Perhaps it relates to the protagonist’s need to dream of something more than reality appears to offer. Perhaps it is the contrast between Don Quixote and his more down-to-earth squire Sancho Panza. Perhaps it is just one of those moments where something truly fantastic has been created that is almost beyond description. Whatever the reasons, this fine novel attracts many new readers with each passing year.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – 200 million
Charles Dickens wrote some true classics and many would argue that his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities would barely scrape into his top 10 if judged on quality. In most lists of the Greatest Novels by Dickens, you would expect Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol to be ranked higher than A Tale of Two Cities. And yet it is this book of his that has been purchased the most.
It perhaps also helps the novel’s cause that it has one of the best first lines in literature, beginning: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” But that alone can’t account for the massive sales the book has amassed. Like with many of the works listed here, it is difficult to say for sure what has pushed them to such extraordinary sales figures. Its depiction of how the characters of the novel interact with the various contradictions they encounter can still seem relevant today (despite it being set around the time of the French Revolution).
But also the theme of redemption (that runs through the novel) has great appeal, whether related to the individual or society at large. Of course, Dickens is a master at drawing the reader into his scenes and characters, and there is no doubting that this memorable and sometimes hard-hitting novel has got under the skin of readers from across the ages.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – 180 million
Unlike some of the rather light-hearted children’s books that have sold tremendously well (though not quite this well), The Little Prince is rather downbeat and even quite dark. Having said that, many of the greatest children’s stories ever written have at least some elements of darkness, from the great fairytales through the ages to the likes of Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman. The darkness in this story is understandable on one level given that it was written and published during World War II. Indeed, the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was reportedly killed when flying a reconnaissance mission for the Free French Air Force in 1944.
Back to the story though, and this short novel, which included illustrations by the author, is masterful in its critique of how adults and adult society shun creativity and imagination, to the detriment of all. The narrative follows a pilot who crash-lands in the desert where he encounters The Little Prince who is actually a planet-hopping traveller. Although technically a children’s story, the themes are appealing to adults and like many such enduring allegories, it holds a mirror up to the human condition and urges the reader to take a long, hard look.
The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien – 150 million
This might be a rather contentious inclusion (at least this high up the list) as technically The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. But Tolkien reportedly wanted the work to be released as a single book, and thus we’ll include it as such here. Written as a sequel to The Hobbit (see below), this epic adventure went some way towards helping the modern fantasy genre find its place in literature and it has had a wide-reaching influence across other areas of culture ever since.
Set in the fictional land of Middle-earth, the story follows the quest of the hobbit Frodo Baggins and his various companions as they attempt to take a magical ring to Mount Doom in far-off Mordor so it can be destroyed (the only way to save their world from the forces of evil). The narrative follows the classic “hero’s journey” template (as outlined by Joseph Campbell among others), complete with the call to adventure, the crossing of the threshold, the various trials faced along the way and the supernatural assistance (from the likes of the wizard Gandalf, among others).
The scale of the novel and the detail and imagination shown within have contributed to its vast appeal over the years. From the array of creatures and beings portrayed to the detail in which the languages and history of Middle-earth are presented, Tolkien produced one of the great works of literature in any genre, certainly according to his millions of fans around the world.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling – 120 million
The hero’s journey (also known as the monomyth) is apparent too in the Harry Potter series of books by J K Rowling, and especially so in the opening novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Instead of Gandalf, there is Dumbledore; instead of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring, you have Ron, Hermione, Hagrid and co; and instead of the evil Sauron, you have Voldemort. Throw in a few fun spells and the setting of an antiquated English boarding school, and, hey presto (or should that be Aparecium, Potter fans?), you have an international bestseller on your hands.
We’re probably being a little harsh on Rowling there, to be fair. But sometimes you just have to hit the right wave and surf it for all you’re worth. And there’s no doubting the fact that the Harry Potter books have been on the crest of that wave almost since the first one appeared back in 1997. The Harry Potter phenomenon has spawned some (fairly good) films and various spin-off illustrated books, video games and theatre productions and it has made Rowling pretty darn rich too.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – 100 million
Initially published in 1939 under the title Ten Little Niggers, the mystery novel was released in the United States in 1940 as And Then There Were None. It was not until 1985 that the original title was changed in the United Kingdom, however. With more than 100 million copies sold, it is the biggest selling crime or mystery novel ever.
Based on the original title and some enduring references that would be considered racially insensitive these days, the novel is perhaps a little dated to say the least. But it, along with many other of Christie’s works, maintains a level of popularity that is enjoyed by few living authors.
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien – 100 million
Humans, at least those who buy and read books, are clearly rather partial to hobbits. But there is also something heartwarming about an underdog overcoming the many perilous challenges Bilbo Baggins faces in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Although The Lord of the Rings is widely regarded as the better novel, this shorter and earlier work from Tolkien is loved by millions and it transcends the fantasy genre to attract fans who would ordinarily not opt for stories containing wizards and orcs… although some younger generations have been led towards Tolkien’s novel both by the impressive film adaptions by Peter Jackson and, in a roundabout way, through reading the Harry Potter books.
Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin – 100 million
This 18th-century Chinese novel is a wide-reaching and intricate family saga that has found an audience beyond the author’s homeland. Described rather simplistically by some as a Chinese Romeo and Juliet, and widely regarded as the greatest Chinese novel ever written, Dream of the Red Chamber is perhaps not at the top of every UK reader’s reading list, but for those seeking an introduction to Chinese literature, it is certainly the place to begin.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis – 85 million
Another well-loved and enduring fantasy adventure novel is up next as C S Lewis’s first of seven from The Chronicles of Narnia. As with Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Lewis creates a world that has many similarities to our own, but with an array of interesting and otherworldly creatures and beings. It bears some of the hallmarks of most fantasy novels with the White Witch playing the Voldemort/Sauron role and various others acting as guides or sorcerers, including the lion Aslan who could be viewed as a similar figure to Dumbledore or Gandalf.
Some of the similarities to Tolkien’s novels might not be a complete coincidence: the two men worked together in the English department at Oxford University and were part of the same literary group. So it’s safe to say they may have influenced one another to a degree.
Part of the lasting appeal of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that it involves a (relatively) normal group of children who happen across fantastical adventures by travelling through a portal contained within a rather mundane object (the wardrobe). This contrast of reality with fantasy appears to garner many fans among both adults and children alike.
She: A History of Adventure by H Rider Haggard – 85 million
One of the relatively lesser-known novels on the list, H Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure has sold not far short of 100 million copies since it was first published as a book in 1887 (it was serialised prior to that). The novel tells the tale of Horace Holly and Leo Vincey as they venture into the African interior and encounter a mysterious queen (the “She” of the title).
As with the aforementioned Christie novel, this can seem fairly dated in certain ways, such as in relation to white superiority, the merits of imperialism and aspects of feminism. But it has been a tremendously influential novel over the years and fans have included such literary greats as Rudyard Kipling, Henry Miller, J R R Tolkien and even Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale, among many other fine works).
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – 85 million
Of all the novels to have sold anywhere as many copies, none has faced such heavy criticism as Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Whether the criticism has been fair or whether it is literary snobbery (or just plain jealousy) is open to debate, but there have certainly been plenty of people lining up to diss this book since its release. Notable remarks include that of the great author Salman Rushdie who said, “Do not start me on The Da Vinci Code. A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.”
Stephen Fry, meanwhile, suggested Brown’s work was “arse gravy of the worst kind”. Even Stephen King, who is not a stranger to selling a lot of novels (or indeed snobbish criticism of his works!) suggested that Brown’s work was the “intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese”.
Of course, not everyone thought it was pants. And there have been plenty of people who have purchased this novel and Brown’s other books to suggest that he must be doing something right, even if it doesn’t live up to the standards some people expect.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling – 85 million
Anything Tolkien can do, Rowling can (almost) emulate. The second book in the Harry Potter series has not sold quite as many as the first, but it’s not far behind. (Note that we won’t add the others in the series, each of which has sold somewhere in the region of 65 million copies, as you get the idea… Harry Potter sells!) Obviously it expands on the life of Harry Potter and his friends, introduces loads more characters and spells, and generally tells a pretty good magical adventure yarn. As do the rest of the books in the series… so you get the gist.
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi – 80 million
Although there is darkness in the Disney animated version of Pinocchio, this 1883 novel on which it was based is much darker still. The fairy tale style is present in the book, but it has more literary depth than many such works that are primarily written for children. It shines a light on the human condition in the way many great books do, and it has grabbed readers from across the globe making it one of the most translated tomes in history.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – 75 million
Paulo Coelho apparently took just two weeks to write his beautifully simple but powerful novel, The Alchemist. Seen by some as a “self-help book in narrative form” there is no doubt that the theme of finding one’s destiny and the protagonist’s journey towards that end has a vast appeal throughout all cultures of the world. Hence this book too has become one of the most translated of any ever written.
What Lessons Can New Writers Learn From The Best-Selling Books Ever?
You may have aspirations to write a book that will sell millions or even hundreds of millions of copies. And why not? Might as well aim for the stars, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. But what can we learn from the books mentioned above? Are there any lessons for new authors to learn when aiming for the kind of sales figures that would make Stephen King, Lee Child or James Patterson envious? Well, maybe.
One way to get millions of people to buy your book is to make it amazingly good. The likes of The Name of the Rose and To Kill a Mockingbird certainly fall into the category of greatness when it comes to novels. But it is perhaps surprising (and reassuring to those of us who were not born literary geniuses) that the vast majority of the best-selling novels ever do not feature too highly on lists of the greatest novels ever written. There are some obvious exceptions, including the novel at the very top of the charts, Don Quixote, and the likes of War and Peace and The Catcher in the Rye. But there are plenty of books that would not usually be classified as great from a literary perspective. We’re looking at novels like The Da Vinci Code, Kane and Abel and even the Harry Potter series.
Of course, popularity and greatness do not always go hand in hand in many walks of life, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But now let’s look at the genres that have done well when it comes to mega-sales.
A Selection of the Best-Selling Novels Ever
|Don Quixote||1605-1615||Comedy, Tragedy, Parody|
|A Tale of Two Cities||1859||Historical fiction|
|The Little Prince||1943||Novella, Children’s fiction|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||1997||Fantasy|
|And Then There Were None||1939||Mystery, Thriller|
|Dream of the Red Chamber||1791||Family saga|
|The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe||1950||Fantasy, Children’s fiction|
|She: A History of Adventure||1887||Adventure|
|The Da Vinci Code||2003||Mystery, Thriller|
|Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets||1998||Fantasy|
|The Alchemist (O Alquimista)||1988||Fantasy|
|Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows||2007||Fantasy|
|Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince||2005||Fantasy|
|Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix||2003||Fantasy|
|Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire||2000||Fantasy|
|Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban||1999||Fantasy|
|The Catcher in the Rye||1951||Bildungsroman|
|The Bridges of Madison County||1992||Romance|
|The Name of the Rose||1980||Historical novel, Mystery|
|The Eagle Has Landed||1975||War, Thriller|
|Watership Down||1972||Fantasy, Adventure, Children’s fiction|
|One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad)||1967||Magic realism|
|The Ginger Man||1955||Picaresque novel, Comedy|
|Charlotte’s Web||1952||Children’s fiction|
|Anne of Green Gables||1908||Children’s fiction|
|Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ||1880||Historical fiction|
|Black Beauty||1877||Children’s fiction|
|The Tale of Peter Rabbit||1902||Children’s fiction|
|Jonathan Livingston Seagull||1970||Novella, Self-help|
|The Very Hungry Caterpillar||1969||Children’s fiction|
|To Kill a Mockingbird||1960||Southern Gothic, Bildungsroman|
|Flowers in the Attic||1979||Gothic horror, Family saga|
|Sophie’s World||1991||Philosophical novel, Young adult|
|Angels & Demons||2000||Mystery, Thriller|
|Kane and Abel||1979||Thriller|
|How the Steel Was Tempered||1932||Realist novel|
|War and Peace||1869||Historical novel|
|The Adventures of Pinocchio||1881||Fantasy, Children’s fiction|
|The Thorn Birds||1977||Romance, Family saga|
|The Kite Runner||2003||Bildungsroman, Historical fiction|
|The Great Gatsby||1925||Tragedy|
|Gone with the Wind||1936||Historical fiction|
|Nineteen Eighty-Four||1949||Dystopian, political fiction, science fiction|
|The Revolt of Mamie Stover||1951||Romantic Fiction|
|The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo||2005||Thriller|
|The Lost Symbol||2009||Thriller|
|The Hunger Games||2008||Young adult fiction|
|James and the Giant Peach||1961||Children’s fiction|
|The Young Guard||1945||Young adult historical novel|
|Lust for Life||1934||Biographical novel|
|The Wind in the Willows||1908||Children’s fiction|
|The Fault in Our Stars||2012||Young adult romantic fiction|
|The Girl on the Train||2015||Thriller|
|The Godfather||1969||Crime novel|
|Catching Fire||2009||Young Adult fiction, adventure, dystopian, science fiction|
Novels incorporating the fantasy and adventure genres and sub-genres are disproportionately represented in the above table, certainly compared to something like science fiction or magical realism. This is partly due to the joint exploits of J K Rowling and J R R Tolkien, but other notable highly successful novels that fall into these genres include: The Alchemist, Watership Down, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Adventures of Pinocchio.
Fiction aimed at children and/or young adults is also well-represented. James and the Giant Peach, The Wind in the Willows and The Very Hungry Caterpillar are just three of the many enduring classics that have sold tens of millions of copies over the years.
Finally, there are various thriller, mystery and romance books that have racked up the sales through the decades. These are perhaps the kind of books that appear in every airport or train station bookshop and which are often classified as “easy reads”… though that of course does not necessarily mean they were easy to write!
Should New Writers Target A Specific Genre/Market?
Mark Twain famously said, “Write what you know.” If you are attempting to bring your reader into the world you have created, you will certainly have a better chance if you are writing with authority and first-hand knowledge. But on the other hand, it’s unlikely Tolkien ever met an orc or Rowling a Dementor, so really it could be more a case of “write what the hell you like… but do it convincingly.”
We would certainly caution against choosing a genre or style of writing with a view to selling lots of books. For one thing, it probably won’t work. (It’s just a fact that most works of fiction do not sell in their millions. Sorry about that.) But also, when you assess your reasons for writing, if you look deep within yourself, you might well find that the eventual publication and subsequent sales of your novel are secondary to the pleasure you glean from writing it in the first place.
Of course, that might not be the case with everyone. But it should be obvious to most people that writing in the hope or even expectation of getting anywhere near the list of the best-selling novels of all time is extremely likely to be a fool’s errand. If you want to write, write for writing’s sake. And then, assuming you enjoy the process, if anything comes of the work you produce, it’s a massive bonus. And you never know, you might be that one-in-a-billion author that ends up selling upwards of 100 million copies of your book.