It may shock you to know that there is no single repository for statistics on the number of books sold by an author. Likewise, there is no accountant on the sale of a specific book title. (Registering your book with the Library of Congress protects copyright only. The library does not track sales.)
Authors or publishers are given an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) that is unique to each book format. For example, a title can have multiple ISBNs, one for hardcover, one for paperback, and one for e-book. Authors can change publishers, and publishers can change names, merge, or disappear. Multiply this complexity by the sales made worldwide and you will understand why the numbers below have a huge margin of error.
This list includes only American fiction authors who are estimated to have sold over 100 million books. William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, both British, are by far the largest single book sellers at an estimated 2-4 billion. Yes, that’s a billion with a capital B. Note that the numbers refer to an author’s total works (including co-written works) and not to a specific title.
The list is fluid in that younger authors will no doubt improve their rankings as their careers progress. As population and communication have increased, so has the exposure of these authors to a growing audience. The extra popularity gained when a book is made into a film or TV show can cause sales and rankings to skyrocket.
The prolific series of children’s and young adult books by RL Stine, Ann M. Martin, Stan and Jan Berenstein, Richard Scarry, Gilbert Patten or Norman Bridwell (400 to 80 titles each) average only 2 million units per title. Collectively, each of these authors has sold over 110 million books. dr Seuss has only written 44 books with the same sales rate and, like Stine and Patten, is in the top ten. Only one 19th-century writer specializing in rags-to-riches stories about little boys makes the top ten. Horatio Alger wrote 135 dime novels.
Although only ten American women (one of whom Jan Berenstein wrote with her husband) made the top 40, one woman, Danielle Steel, landed at number one. She has sold between 500 and 800 million romance novels and has written about 120 titles. Other best-selling romance novelists include Janet Dailey, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber and the youngest and least prolific author Stephanie Meyer dusk Fame. Other women in the Top 40 include goth/horror writer VC Andrews, whose works are now written by a man; Anne Rice, Queen of Vampires; Suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark; and forensic author Patricia Cornwell.
Two western authors made the top 20. Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray have both sold over 230 million books. L’Amour is credited with over 101 books, while Zane Gray’s count is unclear. Publishers sold about 24 of his books after his death in 1939, but a conservative estimate is around 55 titles.
Only another American has done as well as Stephanie Meyer when it comes to selling the most books with the fewest titles. His name is Dan Brown. Thanks to Tom Hanks (The da Vinci Code) he has sold over 120 million books with only 5 titles. Likewise, only one name on the list is someone you might study in an American literature class. His name is Erskine Caldwell. You may have heard of his books, including Tobacco Street and God’s little morning.
The genres of mystery, suspense, thriller, and private detective are often grouped together in the minds of readers. Together they form the largest group of bestselling authors. TV’s Sidney Sheldon, Underdogs Champion Irving Wallace, and Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane have all reached their high ranks with around 25 titles. David Baldacci is gaining ground with 25 titles of his own to date. More prolific writers include Dean Koontz, James Patterson, and Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), all hovering around the 100 mark. With 50 titles, Rex Stout, famous for his Nero Wolfe series, sits in the middle ground of productivity.
Legal and medical crime novels/thrillers are sought for their professional topics. John Grisham with 33 titles and Earl Stanley Gardner with 140 titles are the most notable for their sales. Gardner, the author of Perry Mason, may one day be surpassed in terms of book sales given Grisham’s ongoing film adaptations. In the medical field, Robin Cook has 27 titles while Frank G. Slaughter wrote 62 books before his death.
There are two top 40 authors that fall under the adventure genre. Harold Robbins has sold over 750 million books with just 23 titles. Clive Cussler has 37 books with fewer than 150 million books sold. Cussler, L’Amour and Gray are what many women consider men’s novelists to be.
Some authors just don’t fit into any scheme. Not only do they stand out in their own unique way, they also define their genre. These include horror/fantasy author Stephen King with 70 books and spy author Robert Ludlum with 40 books. Michael Crichton of The Andromeda tribe and Jurassic Park is considered a techno thriller/science fiction writer. He has written 25 books. James Michener had 47 titles to his credit for historical novels.
A recent author, which may surprise you, has written about 70 books, many in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He was eager to take advantage of his favorite fictional character who has become an American icon. He even set up his own printing company to get his books published. He became one of the oldest war correspondents in World War II and died in 1950. You may have heard of him, Edgar Rice Burroughs. If not, you’ve probably heard of his famous jungle character, Tarzan.
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