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 sales of a particular book title. (Registering your book with the Library of Congress only protects copyright. The library does not track sales.)
Authors or publishers obtain an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) that is unique to each book format. Therefore, a title can have multiple ISBNs attached to it, one for a hardcover, one for a paperback, and one for an e-book. Writers can change publishers, and publishers can change their names, merge, or disappear. Multiply this complexity by 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 largest individual book sellers with an estimated 2 to 4 billion. Yes, that’s a billion with a capital B. Note that the numbers refer to an author’s complete works (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. Also, as populations and communications have increased, so has the exposure of these authors to a growing audience. The added popularity that comes when a book becomes a movie or TV show can send sales and rankings skyrocketing.
The prolific series of books for children or young adults by R. L. 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 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 at the same rate of sales and, like Stine and Patten, they are in the top ten. Only one 19th-century writer, who specializes in stories about young boys who rise from rags to riches, makes 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 it into the top forty, one woman, Danielle Steel, placed at number one. She has sold between 500 and 800 million romance books and has written around 120 titles. Other best-selling romance writers include Janet Dailey, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, and the younger and less prolific author, Stephanie Meyer of Twilight famous. Other women in the top forty include goth/horror author VC Andrews, whose works are now written by a ghost man; Anne Rice, the vampire queen; 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 Grey’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 more than 120 million books with only 5 titles. Similarly, only one name on the list is someone you could 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.
The mystery, suspense, suspense, and private detective genres are often grouped together in the minds of readers. Together they represent the largest group of best-selling authors. Sidney Sheldon of television fame, Irving Wallace, champion of the underdogs, and Mickey Spillane of the series Mike Hammer, have reached their highest positions 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 (also known as Ed McBain), all of whom hover around the 100 mark. In the middle ground for 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 notable for their sales. Gardner, the writer of Perry Mason may one day be surpassed in best-selling books given Grisham’s continuing 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 more than 750 million books with just 23 titles. Clive Cussler has 37 books with less than 150 million sales. Cussler, L’Amour and Gray are what many women consider romance writers for men.
Some writers just don’t fit any mold. They not only stand out in their own unique way, but 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 over 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 longest serving war correspondents of World War II, dying in 1950. You may have heard of him, Edgar Rice Burroughs. If not, surely you have heard of his famous jungle character, Tarzan.