There is a dynamic list on Wikipedia of the best-selling fiction authors of all time. At present, 99 authors are listed, all with sales of 100 million+ copies of their books.
Of those 99 authors, just over two-thirds wrote in English. Since readers have different expectations of translated fiction (and not all of those bestselling authors’ works have been translated into English) I decided to focus on the 67 authors writing in English.
So, what does it take to be a seriously bestselling author?
One answer is write a lot of books.
Although the best selling of the best-selling authors write bestselling books, some best-selling authors write many, many books which simply sell well.
Consider beloved children’s author Enid Blyton. She wrote around 800 books and is estimated to have sold 600 million copies. That’s around 750,000 copies per book. Huge, I’ll admit. But compare Blyton to erotica author E. L. James:
James had written just 3 books when she made it to the list, with estimated sales of over a billion copies. More than 37 million copies per book. James is a real outlier when we consider that the average author on this list wrote more than 100 books during their career, meaning that writing a lot of books (as Enid Blyton did) certainly is the typical route to success.
James’ sales are even more remarkable when we consider that her first novel was written almost a century after Blyton’s. They’ve had far less time to sell.
Then again, Blyton’s books have stood the test of time, still selling well decades after they were penned, and highly sought-after by collectors. Charity shops, on the other hand, have begged people to stop donating copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy after being inundated with copies of James’ book. Who knows whether people will still be reading Fifty Shades in fifty years’ time – perhaps it will be studied as part of the curriculum, gracing required reading lists in lit classes.
Another answer is to write specific kinds of books.
Comparing the extremes of Blyton and James’ careers suggests another answer: the kind of book you write – or the kind of audience you aim at – is extremely important when it comes to being a best-selling author. After all, an author can hardly sell a lot of books if there aren’t a lot of people who want to buy those books.
The list contains a mix of genres – seven mystery/crime/detective novelists, five adventure writers, five fantasy authors, two horror and two western, and one each of historical and literary works.
By far the most successful genres, if we are to judge success in terms of sales, are children’s/YA (12), romance (13), and thriller (19). These three genres, broadly understood, make up two-thirds of all of the best-selling English novels of all time.
Children’s and YA
It’s unsurprising that so many authors who write for young readers appear on this list – and especially that so many write picture books for very young children.
While only a few series for older readers – Harry Potter, Goosebumps, the Baby Sitters’ Club – made it onto the list, there were many more series for younger kids.
Very small children tend not to choose books themselves. Rather, they receive them as gifts from aunties, uncles, and even grandparents, who often select books they enjoyed reading to their own children, or even enjoyed having read to them as children themselves.
Browsing Amazon in 2022, we find The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon (in it’s 75th anniversary edition!), Guess How Much I Love You (in a 25th anniversary edition!), Corduroy (in a 50th anniversary edition!), Where’s Spot?, along with We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and P is for Potty (both 30th anniversary) dominating the first page of bestselling books for toddlers.
Children’s books, it seems, are the *perfect* books to write if you want prolonged sales. Kid’s books tend to focus on universal themes like getting tucked into bed or going to the toilet – life lessons that haven’t changed much in the last 25, 30, 50, or even 75 years. They often feature brightly coloured animal characters whose clothes and hairstyles don’t go out of fashion simply because they have none. And even if graphic design aesthetics change, parents and grandparents will get a jolt of nostalgia when they look at the same old cover they had when they were small, so the publisher rarely needs to do anything other than whack a gold sticker on the cover to sell it all over again to a new generation.
Which begs the question why buy a new book at all? Why don’t parents and grandparents simply hand down the old copies of their books?
Because kids are messy. Pages are torn, chewed, drawn on, spat up on, dragged through goodness knows what, ripped out, you name it. Children’s books go through the works. Even board books and bath books wind up with teeth marks and missing pages. You can’t give a brand new baby a battered old book. And so, the cycle repeats.
Children’s books are also relatively quick to write, consisting of only a few hundred or few thousand words, compared to the tens or hundreds of thousands of words in a novel aimed at adults. This means authors can sell dozens of copies of books to each child – think of the Mr. Men series, or the Berenstain Bears.
Does that mean becoming a children’s author is the best ticket to becoming a bestselling author?
I highly doubt it.
Just because children’s books may be quick to write once you have come up with a formula doesn’t mean they are easy.
It is telling that of the nine children’s authors on the list, not a single one published their first novel this century. In fact, the most recent author writing for very young children to make it onto this list is Roger Hargreaves, who first published Mr. Tickle in 1971, more than 50 years ago. Children’s literature is definitely not easy to break into.
Romance and Thriller
The two largest categories, with their emphases on sex and death, represent the opposite end of the spectrum, though perhaps with just as much emphasis on bodily fluids – romance/erotica and thriller/crime writers.
While, at first blush, these categories may appear to have nothing in common with children’s books, there is one way in which they are similar: disposability.
Genre fiction, such as romance novels, but also thrillers, sci fi, westerns, and detective novels, are all often published in cheap paperback editions as “pulp” fiction. As the name implies, the physical production of these books is often of poor quality, and to a greater or lesser extent, readers have been made to feel ashamed for reading genre fiction.
Criticism and book-shaming isn’t restricted to erotica and romance, either. Consider Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – readers of the novel were widely mocked for reading a book described as “pseudo-intellectual”.
Readers may be reluctant to offer to loan a book that isn’t looked upon favourably by the mainstream, and likewise, reluctant to ask to borrow such a book from friends, lest they out their own “poor” taste, or insult their friend’s.
But the quality of a book’s production also serves to lower the likelihood of borrowing and increase the likelihood of purchase: nobody minds offering to lend or asking to borrow a well-regarded hardcover book. Not only will such a book withstand multiple reads, and make both borrower and lender look good, but because well-produced books typically cost more, the borrower will save money in the process.
When it comes to a cheaply manufactured book, however, for which there is limited or no social currency attached to, it is almost as cheap to just go and buy your own copy. Libraries, too, rarely buy cheaply constructed books, preferring hardcovers over paperback, in order that they withstand multiple loans, meaning that anyone who wants to read a book which is only published in a cheap periodical-style paperback edition must buy it themself.
Additionally, I have visited many secondhand bookshops where Mills and Boon and Harlequin books are explicitly banned due to their sheer overwhelming numbers, meaning that readers of these novels must purchase them new.
While not an example of periodical-style fiction, I believe these factors may in part explain the enormous sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. The discourse surrounding the book at the height of its popularity meant many readers did not want to admit to reading it. Because big box stores were selling copies for exceptionally low prices, readers felt far less friction opening their wallets to test the book out than they would having to ask a friend. In this way, the media’s disparaging comments about the book may well have served to drive up sales by not only increasing curiosity, but by decreasing readers’ willingness to borrow the book from others.
And of course, when it comes to erotica, there is a far more personal element involved, too. Psychologically speaking, not only are readers opening their literary tastes up to intellectual criticism when they choose to share them, but they are also, to some extent, revealing something of their sexual preferences too, if they choose to share books. Practically speaking, readers may wish to avoid used erotica for many of the same reasons people avoid used children’s books – even the most robustly constructed book may be torn, saturated by bubble bath water or champagne, or, heaven forbid, covered in bite marks.
Does this mean becoming a paperback writer is the best ticket to becoming a bestselling author?
Again, I doubt it.
While not every romance or horror or sci-fi or other genre fiction novel on this list was a “dime” paperback printed on shoddy paper with a garish cover slapped on the front, the fact remains that at least some of the writers on this list earned their massive sales in part through the particular conditions of the publishing industry of the time. Writers of western novels are one such example. While there are still readers of westerns, for the most part, the genre and its style of production have gone out of fashion.
Electronic books have dramatically changed how we consume books – leading to more sales and less lending – but also introducing many readers to fan fiction and other modes of consumption that don’t necessarily lead to sales. Nowadays, it’s just as easy to borrow a cheap romance from your library’s app as it is to borrow a serious literary work. And it’s just as private as buying your own copy, too.
Be a specific kind of author
I’m sure it will be of no great surprise to anyone that close to two-thirds of the authors on this list are Americans. To some Americans, this will be unsurprising because, of course, America is number one. But to other Americans, and the rest of the world, this will be unsurprising because of the sheer number of US-based readers, and their general preferences for US-based writers, writing in American English.
The remaining authors are all listed as having British/UK heritage, though Arthur Hailey is listed as British/Canadian, and Wilbur Smith as South African/British. And that’s the most diversity you’ll see on this list, at least among those writing in English.
Likewise, more than two-thirds of the writers on this list are male. Once again, this is unsurprising: just as most non-Americans tend to read across national lines, most non-men tend to read across gender lines (a notable exception being romance, where female authors are preferred). But just as most US-based readers have a strong preference for US-based writers, most males have a strong preference for male writers.
Does this mean becoming an American man is the best ticket to becoming a bestselling author?
I would like to say “I doubt it” again.
The truth is, we really don’t know what the future holds.
The authors who have sold 100 million+ copies of their books, for the most part, began their writing careers between the 1940s and 1970s. In other words, the post-war boom.
They sold a lot of books back then, to be sure, but they have had 5 or more decades to write and sell even more books – and aside from some of those pulpy books which are today out of print, for the most part, publishers have continued to market these authors, updating their books with new, modern covers, adding gushing reviews and introductions from contemporary writers, even re-issuing manga versions of some old cheap romance novels in order to appeal to a new generation.
There simply hasn’t been enough time for the rising stars of the 1980s to 2020s to have accumulated enough sales to join the ranks. Only two authors this century have made the list – Twilight author Stephanie Meyer in the 2000s, and E. L. James in the 2010s with her fan-fic based on Meyer’s work. As I mentioned above, I’m not sure that these books will continue to sell in enormous numbers. Rather, I suspect that, as time passes, we will find a rather different crop of authors enter the list, and my personal hope is that we will see a lot more diversity than we have over the last 200 years – both in terms of representation, and in terms of fresh, thought-provoking writing that finds a broad audience.