Book publishing is an old and complex industry. It is both timeless and on-trend. I have been contacted this week by a few publishers looking for ‘new books that speak to the new climate’. They want books that can come out fast and that help people to navigate or find a new way (after lockdown).
Publishers do love to move fast and capture the zeitgeist. They are all looking for the wildfire book that sells 100,000 copies in a few months and pays all the bills.
But, truly, deeply, most publishers are looking for books that can sit on a shelf for many years. They want timeless over trendy. Or at least they want a good mix in their imprint.
They want books that sell and sell and sell. Big sales accrue over time. Look at the '20 bestselling books ever' list below. Some of these books have been selling for hundreds of years – and they still sell.
The Harry Potter Series still dominates the bestseller lists and global bookshelves 23 years after it first came out. See list of Top 20 below. Enid Blyton’s children’s books still sell over 500,000 copies in the UK every year – this almost a century after she wrote about Noddy and the Famous Five. Blyton has reportedly sold 600 million copies of her books.
I took a look over what books sold over the last decade (data limited to the USA). The list is surprising in that they are all novels.
But this is changing and overall the trend is moving towards nonfiction on the bestseller lists. In the last half of the decade we saw the rise of non fiction, which overtook fiction in book sales. The list for the new decade will show this.
According to Lee Graham of the NPD Group who did the list, “In 2010, nearly 80% of the top-selling titles were fiction, and by 2019 that percentage dropped to 32.”
“The consumer push for informational titles over fiction was reflected in larger non-fiction trends in the second half of the decade—such as the rise in cookbooks, self-help, and politics—which pushed more non-fiction titles into the top ten list.”
Many of the recent decade’s top-selling books, including these leaders, were tied to movie adaptations, which is a testament to the marketing power Hollywood brings to book sales.
The short take-away?
Readers love novels that entertain and thrill them
The longer a book is on the shelf the more it can sell
Non fiction is overtaking novels in sales.
US Top Sellers 2010-2020
1. E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) – 15.2 million copies
2. E. L. James, Fifty Shades Darker (2011) – 10.4 million copies
3. E. L. James, Fifty Shades Freed (2012) – 9.3 million copies
4. Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008) – 8.7 million copies
5. Kathryn Stockett, The Help (2009) – 8.7 million copies
6. Paula Hawkins, The Girl on The Train (2015) – 8.2 million copies
7. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012) – 8.1 million copies
8. John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (2012) – 8 million copies
9. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (2008) – 7.9 million copies
10. Veronica Roth, Divergent (2011) – 6.6 million copies
Source: The NPD Group / NPD Bookscan, NPD PubTrack Digital, includes US print book and e-book sales, 2010-2019.
Top 20 Books of All Time
Tracking sales is not an exact science- and not often subject to modern sales tracking methods. Often books have different publishers for different territories and multiple channels. This list is less accurate the older the books - but its a good overall indication.
The King James Bible, Quran, and Quotations from Chairman Mao are all rumoured to have close to 3 billion copies sold. But these figures are impossible to verify and rarely included on lists.
1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes has sold reportedly 500 million copies (Published in Spanish in 1605 and 1615). However this could be fuzzy – who keeps tabs on a book for that long?
2. Xinhua Zidian, a dictionary for the Chinese language sold 400 million. Published 1953 is it the standard dictionary among Chinese schoolchildren.
3. A Tale of Two Cities α historical novel by Charles Dickens sold 200 million (1859) the book is regularly on the required reading lists of students in the U.S.
4. The Lord of The Rings a fantasy novel by J.R.R Tolkien sold 150 million
5. The Little Prince by French aristocrat and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry sold 142 million (1943)
6. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by JK Rowling sold 120 million (1997)
7. And Then There Were None novel by Agatha Christie sold 100 million (1939). Christie sold 1 billion books sold worldwide.
8. Dream of the Red Chamber a novel by Cao Xueqin (written in the middle of the 18th century) during the Qing dynasty sold 100 million
9. The Hobbit a child fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien sold 100 million (1937)
10. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by children’s novelist, C.S. Lewis sold 85 million (1950)
11. She: A History of Adventure by English novelist H.Rider Haggard sold 83 million since it was released in 1887
12. The Da Vinci Code, mystery thriller novel by Dan Brown, released in 2003 sold 80 million
13. Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill in 1937 sold 70 million
14. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Book 5 by JK Rowling sold
65 million (2005)
15. The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo sold 65 million
16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling sold 60m (1988)
17. The Catcher in the Rye a novel by JD Salinger sold 60 million (1951)
18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling sold 55 million
19. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling sold 55 million
20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling sold over 50 million by Bloomsbury publishing in the United Kingdom and Scholastic in the United States.