The 10 Best-selling Books of All Time
This post includes a list of the 10 best-selling books of all-time as well as the 10 best-selling book series of all-time. Best-selling books are ranked by number of copies sold.
Also, it is worth noting that some religious and political books such as The Bible, Quran, and Quotations from Chairman Mao are believed to have more than a billion copies each in existence. However, sales numbers for these books are nearly impossible to track because many are given away by churches or governments. Additionally, these books have often been printed by a wide range of publishers over centuries, many of them unreported. For these reasons, major religious and political texts are not listed here, but we can all agree that they are among the top selling books of all-time.
1 Don Quixote – 500 million
Miguel de Cervantes’ novel about a man who becomes so infatuated with tales of knights that he decides to become one is one of the first novels ever written, originally published in 1612. Quixote’s misadventures as he travels across the Spanish countryside seeking wrongs to right and downtrodden people to uplift have amused and enthralled generations of readers, and gave us the idiom “tilting at windmills” to indicate a noble but futile endeavor.
While the novel enjoys surges in popularity now and then, especially in Spain, the sales number is a guess. It is the oldest book on this list, so it’s had a long time to accrue sales. There is, of course, no way to tally sales from the 1600s, so although some sources suggest that this has sold 500 million copies, there’s no way anyone could know for certain. We’ve placed it at this point on the list as a book that has had a great deal of worldwide popularity over a great span of time, but with an indeterminate total sales number.
2 A Tale of Two Cities – 200 million
First published in 1859, this novel by Charles Dickens examines the class struggles that lead to the French Revolution, and the uncomfortable truth that sometimes the revolutionaries are worse than the establishment. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
Because this book is in the public domain and has been published in numerous editions by hundreds of publishers over the last 150 years, it’s impossible to ascertain the exact number of copies sold. The number 200 million is controversial — however, considering that the book is regularly on the required reading lists of students in the U.S. and elsewhere, it’s entirely plausible.
3 The Lord of the Rings – 150 million
Fantasy plays a big role on this list — and note that there are no science-fiction novels. “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps the ultimate fantasy novel, the work that established the modern fantasy genre. It may seem like a cheat to list it as a single novel, but that’s how it was written. The original publisher divided it up for logistical purposes in 1954, but for most of its history it has been sold as a single work (often in lavish boxed sets).
4 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – 120 million
The first volume in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster series about young wizards living in a magical modern world is a perfect example of the difficulties in finding exact numbers for a list of this nature. It was first published in 1997, fully subject to modern sales tracking methods. However, with different publishers for different nations, and various publishers reporting seemingly exaggerated numbers, it’s more accurate to say, “107 million, give or take 20 million or so.”
5 The Hobbit -100 million
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again is a children’s fantasy novel by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.
The Hobbit is set in a time “between the Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men”, and follows the quest of home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins to win a share of the treasure guarded by Smaug the dragon. Bilbo’s journey takes him from light-hearted, rural surroundings into more sinister territory.
The story is told in the form of an episodic quest, and most chapters introduce a specific creature or type of creature of Tolkien’s geography. Bilbo gains a new level of maturity, competence, and wisdom by accepting the disreputable, romantic, fey, and adventurous sides of his nature and applying his wits and common sense. The story reaches its climax in the Battle of the Five Armies, where many of the characters and creatures from earlier chapters re-emerge to engage in conflict.
Personal growth and forms of heroism are central themes of the story, along with motifs of warfare. These themes have led critics to view Tolkien’s own experiences during World War I as instrumental in shaping the story. The author’s scholarly knowledge of Germanic philology and interest in mythology and fairy tales are often noted as influences.
The publisher was encouraged by the book’s critical and financial success and, therefore, requested a sequel. As Tolkien’s work progressed on the successor The Lord of the Rings, he made retrospective accommodations for it in The Hobbit. These few but significant changes were integrated into the second edition. Further editions followed with minor emendations, including those reflecting Tolkien’s changing concept of the world into which Bilbo stumbled.
The work has never been out of print. Its ongoing legacy encompasses many adaptations for stage, screen, radio, board games, and video games. Several of these adaptations have received critical recognition on their own merits.
6 And Then There Were None – 100 million
This is the best-selling book by British mystery legend Agatha Christie, first printed in 1939. It details a series of murders on an island in which each death coincides with a line from an old nursery rhyme, with the seemingly impossible crime explained in Christie’s ingenious epilogue.
The sales number is an estimate: Christie was once called the world’s best-selling author by the Guinness Book of World Records, with 1 billion books sold worldwide. Since “And Then There Were None” is her best-selling book, 100 million copies sold is a good ballpark figure.
7 Dream of the Red Chamber – 100 million
This Chinese novel chronicles the rise and fall of a family during the Qing dynasty, and was first published in 1791 by author Cao Xueqin. It’s considered one of the classic works of Chinese literature, and has an entire field of literary study devoted to it. It remains popular even today, as new theories and ideas about it rekindle interest. The sales number is, again, an estimate — one that might actually be a bit low considering how many years the book has been in print with sustained popularity in a nation of 1.3 billion people.
8 The Little Prince – 80 million (or perhaps 200 million)
“The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is a strange yet charming children’s book about a prince who lives on a tiny asteroid. Published in 1943, it became extremely popular in France and then won over readers around the world. There are monuments to it worldwide, and astronomers even named an actual asteroid for the one the prince lives on in the story.
The sales number is uncertain. Some sources list it at a startling 200 million, while other list it at 80 million.
9 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – 85 million
C.S. Lewis published this religious-themed fantasy novel in 1950. Intended as a children’s book, it’s set during World War II and is a classic example of a “magical doorway” story, in which a gate between the normal world and a magical one is discovered. This formula would, of course, be used to great success years later by J.K. Rowling.
Lewis’ young protagonists travel to a realm called Narnia, where they encounter all manner of anthropomorphized animals, fantastical people and a godly lion. This book leads to an entire series of Narnia novels. Like nearly every book on this list that isn’t a dictionary, it was also made into a film.
10 The Da Vinci Code – 80 million
Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery novel about a conspiracy hiding the secrets of the Catholic Church was no doubt boosted in popularity when the Catholic Church decried it (and the inevitable film, starring Tom Hanks). It shows that mystery novels are capable of holding their own against the fantasy books on this list, particularly if they go beyond a simple murder mystery to explore historical secrets and shadowy cabals.