It may surprise you to learn that there is no single repository of statistics on the number of books sold by an author. Also, there is no record keeper for the sales of a particular book title. (Registering your book with the Library of Congress only protects your copyright. The library does not track sales.)
Authors or publishers obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) that is unique for each book format. Therefore, a title can have multiple ISBNs attached to it, one for hardcover, one for paperback, and one for an eBook. Writers can change editors, and editors can change their names, merge, or disappear. Multiply this complexity by the sales made worldwide, and you can understand why the following figures have a tremendous margin of error.
This list includes only American fiction authors, who have sold more than 100 million books. William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, both British, are by far the biggest individual sellers of books with an estimated 2-4 billion. Yes, that’s a billion with a capital B. Note that the numbers refer to the complete works of an author (including co-written works) and not to a specific title.
The list is fluid in the sense that younger authors will undoubtedly improve their rankings throughout their careers. Likewise, as populations and communications have increased, so has the exposure of these authors to a growing audience. The added popularity you get when a book is made into a movie or TV show can send sales and rankings skyrocketing.
The prolific series of children’s or 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) averages just 2 million units by title. Taken as a body of work, each of these writers has sold more than 110 million books. Dr. Seuss wrote only 44 books with the same sales rate and, like Stine and Patten, they are in the top ten. Only one 19th century writer, who specializes in stories about young boys going from rags to riches, makes it into the top ten. Horatio Alger wrote 135 dime novels.
Although only ten American women (one of them, Jan Berenstein co-wrote with her husband) made the top forty, one woman, Danielle Steel, made it to number one. She has sold between 500 million and 800 million romance books and has written about 120 titles. Other best-selling romance writers include Janet Dailey, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, and the younger, less prolific author, Stephanie Meyer of Twilight famous. Other women in the top forty include gothic/horror author VC Andrews, whose works are now written by a ghost man; Anne Rice, the queen of vampires; thriller writer Mary Higgins Clark; and forensic writer Patricia Cornwell.
Two Western authors made it into the top twenty. Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray have sold more than 230 million books. Love 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 about 55 titles.
Only one other 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) has sold over 120 million books with just 5 titles. Likewise, just one name on the list is someone you might study in an American literature course. His name is Erskine Caldwell. You may have heard of his books, including tobacco road Y God’s Little Acre.
Mystery, suspense, suspense, and private detective genres often cluster together in readers’ minds. Together they represent the largest group of best-selling authors. TV fame’s Sidney Sheldon, underdog champion Irving Wallace and Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane have all reached their all-time highs with approximately 25 titles. David Baldacci is gaining ground with 25 titles of his own to date. The most successful authors include Dean Koontz, James Patterson and Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), all hovering around the 100 mark. In the midpoint of productivity with 50 titles is Rex Stout, famous for his series Nero Wolfe.
Legal and medical mysteries/thrillers are sought after for their occupational themes. John Grisham with 33 titles and Earl Stanley Gardner with 140 titles are the most outstanding for their sales. Gardner, the writer of Perry Mason may one day be surpassed in bestseller given Grisham’s continued film adaptations. In the medical field, Robin Cook has 27 titles, while Frank G. Slaughter wrote 62 books before his death.
There are two writers in the top forty who belong to the adventure genre. Harold Robbins has sold over 750 million books with just 23 titles. Clive Cussler has 37 books with less than $150 million in sales. Cussler, L’Amour, and Gray are what many women think of as men’s romance writers.
Some writers just don’t fit any mold. Not only do they stand out in their own unique way, but they also define their genre. Among these are horror/fantasy writer Stephen King with 70 books to his credit and spy writer Robert Ludlum with 40 books. Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain Y Jurassic Park He is considered a techno-thriller/science fiction author. He wrote 25 books. James Michener had 47 historical fiction titles to his credit.
One last author who may surprise you wrote about 70 books, many in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He was eager to exploit his most popular fictional character, who has become an American icon. He even set up his own printing press to publish his books. He became one of the oldest war correspondents of World War II and died in 1950. You may have heard of him, Edgar Rice Burroughs. If not, surely you have heard of the famous jungle character of his, Tarzan.