Friday, September 28, 2012

The Most Popular Books Ever Written

As an author, it's essential to also be a reader. Authors are influenced and inspired by other greats who have taken pen to page to pour out prose. Every writer should have a reading habit bordering on addiction, because it's important to continuously build upon your craft. Reading is really research for new writing styles, new punctuation usage, tone and wordsmithery (not a word technically, but I like it). 

So if you want to write a bestseller someday, doesn't it follow that you should study bestsellers of the past? Take a look at the most popular books ever written (at least, to date) and see how your work compares to the best of the bestsellers. 


Still the One

The trouble is, it's hard to determine just which books are actually the best. How do you determine what makes a book great? Is it good reviews? Sales? The number of people who have read it? As it turns out, the best book in one of those categories usually ranks pretty high in the others, too.
  •  Fiction Novels
Among fiction novels, there's no general consensus as to which is the absolute best, but there are a lot of opinions. The Guardian ranked Don Quixote (pronounced Key-Hoe-Tee) as the greatest novel of all time. Also on their top 100 list: Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Emma, Little Women and Huckleberry Finn.

According to multiple sources, Don Quixote is the best-selling fiction book ever written. More than 500 million copies of the book have been printed and sold worldwide, though exact figures are hard to obtain because the story was printed originally in 1612. The title character is famously a bit of an accidental hero, known to tilt at windmills and make many mistakes in his bizarre quest.

Other sources say that Dickens actually holds the top slot. His novel A Tale of Two Cities, first printed in 1859, has sold more than 200 million copies. Closely on its heels is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), a French novel published in 1943. The Lord of the Rings is definitely in the hunt, however, having sold 150 million copies since its 1954 release.

Of course, those are all just stand-alone books.
  • Series Books
Some authors can't confine their creativity to just one book; their stories are too big for that. Rather than comparing each individual book in a series, many rank the success of the series overall...but then, it's unfair to compare a whole bunch of books to just one. So when it comes to ranking the best of the bestsellers, series books get their own category. 

Perhaps predictably, Harry Potter takes this title. The series (7 books in total) has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. British author J.K. Rowling is far ahead of her closest competition, author R.L. Stine. Stine's Goosebumps series has sold around 300 million copies around the world.
  • Cookbooks
It doesn't have to be fiction to be a bestselling book. Many authors have found success with cookbooks, because every human being has to eat food to survive. Anyone who can teach others how to make that food tasty is valuable, and it shows in sales figures.

Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, is arguably the most famous cookbook ever written. It inspired Julia Child, among others, to create her own cookbook and taught millions of women around the world how to perform basic to complicated recipes. Since 1931, it's sold a whopping 18 million copies worldwide.

Two other cookbooks have sold a few more copies. Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book is cited as being the most popular cookbook of all time, with 40 million copies sold. First printed in 1930, the book has been updated many times throughout the years to stay relevant (a recipe for success). But it's actually Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, first printed in 1950, that's the most popular. More than 65 million copies of this one have been sold.
  • Non-Fiction
We all love novels, and cookbooks are definitely handy little kitchen tools. But the books that have sold more copies than any other are all labeled as non-fiction.

Religious books are unquestionably the most popular books ever written. Quotations from Chairman Mao, the Qur'an and the Bible, in that order, are the most-printed, most-distributed books around the world. Multiple hundreds of millions of copies of these books have been printed and re-printed over many centuries, and it's impossible to estimate just how many of these books have been published through the years.

Most sources agree that the Bible is the biggest bestseller. Estimates put the total number of books printed at right around 5 billion. The classification for religious books is clearly debatable, but they're labeled as non-fiction (somewhat unfairly to biography writers, as far as I'm concerned). So whether they're fiction or not, this is the category in which they're always shoved -- and in any case, all three of these books have out-sold true fiction novels.


The most popular books ever written all have a lesson to teach, and it's this: people love a great story. If it's truly fantastic and entertaining and funny and poignant and meaningful, a story can stay popular for many hundreds of years and touch many millions (or billions) of people. Think about all your favorite books, what you love about them and why you love them. Think about the way those books make you feel, what they make you think, why they resonate with you. Take those elements, and learn how to bring them to your own books. Maybe in a few years, your book will end up somewhere on the list of the most popular books ever written.

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