What Books Have Readers Really Chosen As “Best Sellers”?

The other day, having read one book described as “one of the best-selling books of the 20th Century” and another as “one of the best-selling books of all time,” my brain starting spinning in amateur research mode.

My first question was: what does “one of” mean?  Does it mean the 3rd best-selling book of all time? The 22nd?  Among the top 1000?

As one might expect, Wikipedia has a list of the best-selling books of all time, with various estimates of total sales.  But, with books from the 19th and 20th Centuries on the list alongside ancient works, Analytic Me started to wonder about rates of sale.

After all a train that travels 100 miles in 10 hours is nowhere near as fast as a train that travels only 1 mile in 1 minute.  Likewise a book that sells a million copies over a thousand years is not being chosen at the same rate as a book that sells two thousand copies in a single year.

And, to answer the objection that a book like the Bible wasn’t selling at a steady ready over time (particularly before the invention of moveable type), I would point out that it still had centuries during which to drum up support and publicity.

So let’s take a look at how the numbers crunch.

The Numbers

When I started my calculations I made two decisions.  First, considering that many of the works near the top of the list (the Bible, Qur’án, A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings) were compiled in installments, in order to give each work its best rate I decided to measure the rate to 2010 starting from the final installment/publication.

The second decision was to focus on books that were not pushed by hardline authorities.  This sort of “popularity” is, in fact, artificial.  For that reason, I didn’t bother juggling the inflated numbers of the various Maoist books, and I include the rates for the Bible and Qur’án only for illustration.

So, for illustration’s sake, let’s start with the book that is often toted as the “Best-Selling Book of All Time.”

The Christian Bible, while not actually compiled and canonized until the 4th Century, had its last bit completed roughly in 95 CE, giving us 1915 years with total sales 2.5 to 6 billion copies, depending on whose numbers you’re using.  That gives us a sales rate of 1.3 million to 3.1 million per year.

In a similar vein, the Qur’án was completed in 632 CE, giving us 1378 years with total sales 800 million.  That gives us a sales rate of 580,000 per year.

But, lets take a look at the sales rates of a few other books on that best-sellers list.*

Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber was published sometime in the 18th Century.  To give it the best shot at a good rate, let’s give it a generous date of publication: 1779, for only 211 years of sales time.  With estimated sales of 100 million copies, Red Chamber has a sales rate of 470,000 per year.

Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, published complete in 1859 to give us 151 years of sales time, with total sales of 200 million, has a sales rate of 1.3 million per year, identical to the lowest sales rate estimate for the Bible.

Scouting For Boys, published in 1908 (102 years of sales), with total sales of 150 million, works out to a slightly higher sales rate of 1.5 million per year.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, published in 1939 (71 years of sales), with total sales of 100 million, has a sales rate of 2.1 million per year.  That’s staggering for a mystery novel.  Guess what’s on my new reading list.

Which brings us to my admitted favorite, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, published complete in 1955 (55 years of sales), with total sales of 150 million, for a rate of 2.7 million per year.

Yes.  That just happened.

But, it gets better if you include the the prequel, which is also on that best-seller list.  In fact, other than the disqualified Mao Zedong, Tolkien is the only author whose name appears twice on the “100 million and over” list.

Published in 1937 (for 73 years of sales), with total sales of 100 million, The Hobbit has a sales rate of 1.4 million per year.  If you put The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit together (never mind The Silmarillion, which was the best-selling book in America in 1977) Tolkien’s books have sold 4.1 million copies per year, outpacing even the best sales estimates for the Bible.

But to be completely honest, let’s do the numbers on the highest ranking best-seller publishing in this century.  Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003 (7 years of sales), with total sales of 80 million copies, has a sales rate of 11.4 million copies per year, well on its way to becoming the most popular Jesus story of all time.

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* Let me add that my point here is not to deride the importance of the Bible or the Qur’án.  I am, after all, a religious scholar by formal training, and a (non-thumping) Christian with a deep respect for Islám, particularly its classical civilization.

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5 comments

  1. One thing I read about bestsellers that is interesting to note is that when something reaches high up on the New York Times bestseller list, people will purchase it even without reading it. Admittedly this would only really apply to “The Da Vinci Code” here, but it is interesting nonetheless; people get them as something of a conversation piece but as for the actual content of the book, it is never seen. As an avid reader I find it annoying, but I guess it’s just the way of people.

  2. That is a good point; not every sold book is a read book.

    But, this probably applies to more than just The Da Vinci Code. I would bet even money that half of the Bibles purchased aren’t read beyond a few paragraphs here and there, and there are likely quite a few leather-bound copies of A Tale of Two Cities just looking pretty on conspicuous display.

    The obverse of your point is probably true, too: books that are bought only once, but passed around and read multiple times. Thanks for shooting holes in my analysis! 🙂

  3. Interesting. What about population growth? Does that make the older books comparatively a little more popular, do you think? 🙂

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