You may be surprised to learn that there is no single repository of statistics on the number of books sold by an author. Similarly, there is no record keeper for the sales of a particular book title. (Registering your book with the Library of Congress only protects copyrights. 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, one for a hardcover, one for a paperback, and one for an e-book. Writers can switch publishers and editors can change their names, merge, or disappear. Multiply this complexity by your worldwide sales and you can understand why the following figures have a huge 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 2-4 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 gained when a book is turned into a movie or television show can send sales and ratings skyrocketing.
The prolific series of books for children or young adults 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. 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 poor-to-rich stories about young children, is in the top ten. Horatio Alger wrote 135 cent novels.
Although only ten American women (one of them, Jan Berenstein co-wrote with her husband) made the top forty, one woman, Danielle Steel, came in at number one. He has sold between 500 and 800 million romance books and has written about 120 titles. Other best-selling romance writers include Janet Dailey, Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, and younger and less prolific author, Stephanie Meyer from Twilight fame. Other women in the top forty include goth / horror author VC Andrews, whose works are now ghosts written by a man; Anne Rice, the queen of vampires; suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark; and forensic writer Patricia Cornwell.
Two Western authors made the top twenty. Louis L’Amour and Zane Gray have sold more than 230 million books. Love is credited with more than 101 books, while Zane Grey’s count is unclear. Publishers sold around 24 of his books after his death in 1939, but a conservative estimate is around 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 who could study in an American literature course. Her name is Erskine Caldwell. You may have heard of his books, including Tobacco trail and God’s little acre.
Mystery, suspense, suspense, and private detective genres often cluster in readers’ minds. Together they represent the largest group of best-selling authors. Sidney Sheldon of television fame, Irving Wallace, champion of the homeless, and Mickey Spillane of the Mike Hammer series have reached their high rankings with approximately 25 titles. David Baldacci is gaining rank with 25 titles of his own to date. The most fruitful authors include Dean Koontz, James Patterson, and Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), all of whom are hovering around the 100 mark. Straddling the productivity median with 50 titles is Rex Stout, famous for his Nero Wolfe series.
Legal and medical mysteries / thrillers are sought 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 outbid in bestsellers 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 among the forty who are included in 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 in sales. Cussler, L’Amour, and Gray are what many women consider men’s romance writers.
Some writers just don’t fit any mold. Not only do they stand out in their own way, but they also define their gender. Among them are horror / fantasy writer Stephen King with 70 books under his belt and spy writer Robert Ludlum with 40 books. Michael Crichton of The Andromeda strain and 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 around 70 books, many of 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, you’ve surely heard of his famous jungle character, Tarzan.