A few months back, we brought you a list of some of the top-selling books of all time. Now, what about the best-selling authors?
As before, many disclaimers are required. For this list, the question of what counts as an "author" takes center stage. Both Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have written under pseudonyms (Richard Bachman and Robert Galbraith, respectively) and both were outed. While it seems reasonable to count books written under those pseudonyms within their respective author’s totals, some situations are not so cut and dried. The 18th-century work A General History of the Pyrates (a key source for information about the Golden Age of piracy), for example, is credited to one Captain Charles Johnson. However, historians have never been able to find evidence of a Captain Charles Johnson, so in 1932 one scholar decided that it was written by Daniel Defoe—and as a result the book is now frequently listed as one of his works. In the past few decades, though, that attribution has been doubted in favor of a journalist named Nathaniel Mist. So, should this best-seller’s numbers be credited to Defoe, Mist, or left off the list entirely?
Historians are also increasingly theorizing that Shakespeare wasn’t the sole author of many of his plays—according to The New Oxford Shakespeare, “His last three plays were all co-written with [John] Fletcher—who, in all three, seems to have written more of the surviving text than Shakespeare.” How then to deal with Shakespeare? Should his works be divvied up? Or should an asterisk be placed on the record? These questions can get into surprisingly deep philosophical territory.
With those caveats out of the way—and the further caveat that this list doesn’t include religious works, and is, with a few exceptions, steering away from authors who appeared on the best-selling books list; it’s also not complete, exhaustive, or a "top ten" list—here are some candidates for best-selling authors of all time.
Mao Zedong // Untold billions
Mao Zedong appears on our best-selling books list for Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, but he’d likely still be on the list even without Quotations. According to sociologist Zhengyuan Fu, “The scale of the production and consumption of Mao’s icons and symbols is unprecedented in human history. During the ten years from March 1966 to August 1976, there were 1,820 ... state-owned printing factories that printed 6.5 billion volumes of Quotations from Chairman Mao (the little red book), 840 million sets of Selections of Mao Zedong’s Works (3.36 billion volumes), 400 million volumes of Chairman Mao’s Poems, and 2.2 billion sheets of Mao’s standard photo portraits, which came in five standard sizes.” As always when dealing with these kind of numbers, some sources go smaller, but the total is definitely immense.
Agatha Christie // Estimated 2 billion books sold
According to Guinness World Records, Agatha Christie has the title of “world’s best-selling fiction writer,” with estimated sales of over 2 billion. UNESCO also lists Christie as the most translated author in history.
Barbara Cartland // Possibly over 600 million
Romance novelist Barbara Cartland illustrates the inherent difference between best-selling authors and best-selling books. Sources differ, but it’s generally agreed she wrote around 723 books (over 600 of which were novels) with estimates for her total sales ranging from 600 million to a billion books. Doing some division shows that each book may have sold only a touch over a million copies, but her sheer output—she’s said to have, at times, written 20 books a year—makes her a best-selling author.
Corín Tellado // Possibly around 400 million
According to her obituary in The Guardian, some erroneously believe that Corín Tellado was a publishing house rather than a person. Much like Barbara Cartland, Tellado wrote romantic novels, but a lot more—estimates put her total number of books at anywhere from 4000 to 5000 over a 63-year career; she is said to be the best-selling author in the history of the Spanish language, and on par with Miguel de Cervantes for readership. As an example of the number of books she could produce, she worked some of her career during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, when authorities would heavily censor her books and send them back; The Times of London reports, “In some months as many as four of her novellas might be rejected by the regime’s censors.”
Dr. Seuss // Somewhere between 100 and 650 million
In 2001, Publishers Weekly did a survey to determine the best-selling children’s books. Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel wouldn’t enter the list until number 4 with Green Eggs and Ham at 8 million, but he had six of the top 20. Nowadays, The Washington Post says that Dr. Seuss has sold 650 million copies in 95 countries, with Green Eggs and Ham still leading the way at 17.5 million copies sold.
Charles Schulz // Unknown, though at least 300 million
Newspapers create a fundamental problem for lists like this. If someone writes an article a day for a newspaper and the newspaper has a circulation of a million, it adds up quickly. Though few people buy a newspaper for one writer, Charles Schulz is special. According to a 1999 Wall Street Journal article, his books alone have sold 300 million copies. But it’s the comic strip, Peanuts, that truly shines. At one point it had 355 million readers, appeared in around 2600 newspapers in 75 countries, and according to the Washington Post, Schulz drew “every frame of his strip, seven days a week, since its inception in October 1950” until it ended in early 2000. Robert Thompson of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University proclaimed Peanuts was “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”
Eiichiro Oda // 450 million
Eiichiro Oda is the mangaka (manga creator) behind One Piece, which has reportedly sold 450 million copies worldwide since 1997—though just 70 million of those have been outside Japan. In 2015, Guinness World Records recognized it as the "Most copies published for the same comic book series by a single author.”
James Patterson // An estimated 300 million
Patterson is frequently thought to be the best-selling author in the world today, and has been since 2001. He’s also credited as the first author to sell 1 million e-books, and is generally listed as the author with the most New York Times bestsellers.
Horatio Alger // Claims of up to 200 million
Horatio Alger was a 19th-century master of the dime novel. His books featured rags-to-riches stories of young boys in the rapidly urbanizing United States. Later on, he’d even shoehorn a presidential biography—Abraham Lincoln, the Young Backwoods Boy; or, How a Young Rail Splitter Became President—into his incredibly successful formula.
Leo Tolstoy // Possibly over 400 million
As always, statistics are hard to come by for older authors, and Tolstoy has this problem in spades. The common internet assertion that he has sold over 400 million copies is based on a single throwaway line in a 1987 New York Times article on Pushkin. With such little evidence, why does he deserve his place on the list? For one, he has definitely sold a lot of books, even if not everyone claiming to have read him is telling the truth; a 2016 BBC survey found that Tolstoy had two of the top five books people most lied about reading (War and Peace at number 4 and Anna Karenina at number 5).
In addition, Tolstoy’s works have become surprise hits in the 21st century. In 2004 Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club picked Anna Karenina; The New York Times reported that, while ordinarily the publisher would be lucky to sell 20,000 copies a year, they upped their press run to 800,000 in preparation for the pick. Meanwhile, in 2016 War and Peace entered the UK Bookseller’s top 50 for the first time thanks to a BBC adaptation. No matter the accuracy of the 400 million number, Tolstoy has had a surprisingly good 21st century.