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Thread: All-Time SF&F Bestseller List
October 25th, 2008, 02:47 PM #1
All-Time SF&F Bestseller List
A question that comes up a fair bit on literature forums is: "How many books has Author X sold?". Compared to TV, where audience figures are easily available, and movies, where box office figures are even more easily retrieved, book sales figures are virtually impossible to calculate for an interested member of the public. The advent of the BookScan system in the USA has made this slightly easier, but the system is relatively new (introduced in 2001), it doesn't pick up every sale (according to Nielsen it tracks about 70% of sales) and only works in the USA (whilst more than half of the sales of titles take place outside that market). The New York Times and the UK Times offer their own figures, but refuse to disclose how those figures are reached. Publishers generally don't publish figures at all unless the book gets picked up for a movie option, or if the sales reach phenomenal levels. And of course often when figures are given they are for 'books in print' (i.e., the total number of copies of a book that exist, including those sitting unsold on bookshelves) rather than for books actually put through the till. Add to this the recent upswing in pirating books online, and the number of books where illegal or untracked editions have been printed in nations with a relaxed attitude to copyright, and you can see the difficulties faced in assembling any kind of all-time bestseller list.
For that reason, the following list should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Lake Michigan (the source for most of the figures is Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted):
1) J.K Rowling (350 million)
The Harry Potter series has been a phenomenon the likes of which publishing has never seen. In less than a decade, Rowling went from an impoverished single mother writing in an Edinburgh cafe to one of the richest women in the world, overtaking dozens of writers who had been working for decades in the process.
2) Stephen King (350 million)
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), it was stated that Stephen King's total worldwide sales in all languages are probably incalculable, and the figure given above is on the conservative side of things. I've seen some figures suggesting he has sold twice this amount, but the 350m figure seems to crop up most often. Some may argue that Horror isn't necessarily part of the SF&F genre either and King shouldn't be counted, but most of his horror features supernatural forces, which firmly places it as a subset of Fantasy. Also, no-one would really argue that Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower series aren't fantasy, and both of these works are set in the same multiverse as most (or, as some fans argue, all) of his other books, which puts him firmly in the Fantasy genre.
3) JRR Tolkien (c. 300 million)
Tolkien's sales really are incalculable, given how widely his books have been copied, published without permission and distributed worldwide in the last fifty years. However, it is pretty clear that by itself The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the biggest-selling single novel full stop of all time. 50 million copies of the novel have been sold this century alone. When you factor in the massive sales of The Hobbit, and the smaller but still significant sales of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin, plus his non-Middle-earth work, Tolkien is clearly a major force in SF&F publishing, arguably all the more notable as his output was small compared to some others on this list.
4) CS Lewis (120 million)
It is perhaps fitting that Tolkien's one-time best friend and sometimes collaborator should be next on the list. The 120 million sales is allegedly for his Chronicles of Narnia series by itself, and doesn't include his numerous non-fiction books or his other novels, such as his Space Trilogy.
5) Anne Rice (100 million)
A surprisingly high number from an author who hasn't produced a truly noteworthy book in some time.
6) Terry Pratchett (55 million)
Up until Rowling overtook him around the turn of the century Pratchett was a bona-fide phenomenon, publishing at least two novels a year for almost twenty years and being responsible for the sales of over 1% of all books sold in the UK and his books hitting the top of the Times bestseller lists like clockwork. Major success in the USA had eluded him until The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents won the Carnegie Prize in 2001. Following on from that, his US profile steadily rose until his books began hitting the NYT bestseller list as well. Aside from the occasional bit of mickey-taking, Pratchett was good-natured about losing out on his position as Fantasy's biggest-selling living author (with the King debate still going on) to Rowling, although his ire was provoked when some Potter fans complained that Equal Rites (1987) ripped off Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997), demonstrating a flexible interpretation of causality. Whilst Pratchett has now been firmly overtaken by Rowling, he bore it with equanimity and proudly maintains his position as the UK's most shoplifted author.
7) Robert Jordan (44 million)
Given how it dominates the discussion on some forums, this would seem to be a fairly lowly position for the biggest-selling of the modern epic fantasists. However, by any standards this is a seriously impressive number of books sold, especially given that the sales are split between a relatively small number of books (I suspect his Conan and Fallon novels' sales are all but negligible compared to those of The Wheel of Time sequence).
8) Terry Goodkind (25 million)
Pinning down concrete figures for Goodkind is harder than most due to some truly batty figures being circulated by his fanbase (at one time claiming he was Tor's biggest-selling author but failing to account for why only half as many copies of his latest book had been printed than Robert Jordan's). The worldwide figure of 25 million seems to be well-supported, however.
9) Terry Brooks (21 million)
Recently, with the announcement that movie versions of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara are in development, it was suggested by some papers that Brooks was the 'second-biggest-selling living fantasy author', which would appear to be hyperbolic. An interview with JIVE Magazine reveals them to be rather more modest, although still extremely impressive. His books have sold very well for more than thirty-one years and Brooks, along with Donaldson, arguably kick-started the entire modern epic fantasy subgenre and has been one of its most reliable and visible writers ever since.
10) Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (c. 20 million)
This one was a bit of a guesstimate, coming out of discussions over these two authors' success on a message board several years ago. The figure is certainly highly plausible, with TSR claiming that more than 4 million copies of their Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies by themselves had been shipped in less than a decade, and this doesn't account for their gaming products, other Dragonlance books and numerous non-Dragonlance novels, many of which have been bestsellers as well.
11) Frank Herbert (18 million)
If there's one thing this list has proven, if you want to be a massive-selling author you're far better writing Fantasy than Science Fiction, unless your SF novel features a ton of Fantasy elements. Frank Herbert's Dune is SF's biggest-selling single novel, with more than 12 million copies by itself sold. I'd also make a fair guess that the other 6 million sales are comprised almost entirely of his other five Dune novels.
12) Eoin Colfer (18 million)
The author of the Artemis Fowl series, which has proven a massive hit amongst YA circles. Colfer was recently picked to write the sixth Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel, following on from the works of...
13) Douglas Adams (16 million)
...whose exceptionally long periods of writer's block and multiple years spent writing very slim novels, not to mention a poor film adaption of his signature novel, haven't affected his immense popularity.
14) Kevin J. Anderson (16 million)
Whilst his Dune novels co-authored with Brian Herbert may have been critically mauled, that hasn't stopped them selling like hot cakes. When combined with his popular Star Wars and X-Files novels, not to mention original works like the Saga of Seven Suns series, Anderson clearly doesn't have anything to worry about.
15) Raymond E. Feist (15 million)
The author of the extremely long-running Riftwar Cycle of novels, which when complete will comprise approximately thirty books. Mixed reviews for his books published over the last decade or so do not seem to have influenced his legions of loyal fans.
16) Christopher Paolini (12 million)
His Eragon Trilogy (now in four parts) may have been ripped into by the critics with a vengeance, but his popularity is clear. In fact, his sales are all the more impressive considering they are largely based on just two books, with his third only released in the last few weeks.
17) Stephen Donaldson (10 million)
Possibly a surprisingly low showing for Donaldson. His Lord Foul's Bane, published in 1977, kick-started the modern epic fantasy explosion alongside Brooks' Sword of Shannara. However, unlike Brooks who has continued to work in the Shannara universe ever since, Donaldson spent a whole decade trying to stay away from his signature character with works such as Mordant's Need and the superlative Gap series before recently returning to the series, and the bestseller lists, with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
8) Laurell K. Hamilton (6 million)
Sex sells, obviously, especially when combined with werewolves and vampires.
19) George RR Martin (c. 3-4 million)
Again, another guesstimate based on discussions from various forums and the recent revelation that the Song of Ice and Fire series has sold 2.2 million copies (at least in the USA). GRRM is one of the highest-profile authors in the genre and A Dance with Dragons must be one of the most-discussed unreleased books in genre history. Much to the discontent of those who'd prefer he spent his time on Song of Ice and Fire and nothing else, his recent Wild Cards books have been strong sellers for Tor, and his Dreamsongs retrospective was a significant success as well. I suspect this figure is leaning to the conservative side of things, especially given how big Wild Cards was back in the 1980s.
20) Neil Gaiman (2 million)
If GRRM's figure is conservative, this is even moreso, and based solely on the figures I could find for sales of the Sandman graphic novels. Add in his other, highly successful novels and his real sales and position should be much higher.
21) Peter F. Hamilton (2 million)
The modern lord of space opera has shifted an impressive number of his brick-thick novels and with his US profile now growing rapidly, I suspect he's going to get even bigger in the years to come.
22) John Ringo (2 million)
The mildly controversial US author ("Oh John Ringo No,") of military science fiction is clearly enjoying the fruits of his success. People may be wondering where his sometimes-collaborator David Weber is, so I direct them to the 'Unplaced' list below'.
23) Robin Hobb (1 million)
A surprisingly low placing for one of fantasy's highest-profile and most prolific authors? Possibly. This was the figure given by HarperCollins Voyager in 2003 on the completion of her Tawny Man trilogy and applies solely to the nine books published under the Robin Hobb pseudonym in the UK up to that point. They do not include her earlier Megan Lindholm books, nor her later books, nor most importantly her US sales, all of which would likely make her position much higher.
24) David Gemmell (1 million)
Considering how many books he wrote (over 30), this figure may seem a little low. However, Gemmell never entirely cracked the American market, despite being a massive seller in the UK.
25) Steven Erikson (c. 500,000)
This may be even more of a surprise. The original source for the figure was Bantam UK, who announced shifting 250,000 copies of the Malazan Book of the Fallen in the UK in 2006, upon the publication of The Bonehunters. Given another two books have come out since then, and taking into account his Canadian and American sales, a doubling of that figure seems reasonable, although I suspect the true figure would be slightly less than this.
There's obviously a huge number of authors I couldn't find reliable figures for, many of whom would be fairly highly-placed on the list. I'll see if I can't track these down in the future and keep the list updated:
R. Scott Bakker
Iain M. Banks
Frank L. Baum
Orson Scott Card
Arthur C. Clarke
Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)
Guy Gavriel Kay
Last edited by Werthead; October 25th, 2008 at 04:46 PM.
October 25th, 2008, 03:49 PM #2
Bloody hell, the top three are in a league of their own...
October 25th, 2008, 07:32 PM #3
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- Aug 2007
I would be surprised if Bakker is on any list, he isn't even available in MMP in the US.
Also, guys like Reynolds and Morgan are too new, especially Morgan who also doesn't have alot of MMP available in the US, haven't had enough time to make much of an impression .
October 25th, 2008, 07:55 PM #4
Stephenie Meyer's people are claiming sales of $6.6 million for the first four Twilight books. That seems low, if it's true that 1.3 million copies of book four were sold on the first day of release.
October 25th, 2008, 08:41 PM #5
I know Morgan has been a significant success as well, given that the movie rights to Altered Carbon and Market Forces sold for significant sums of money (over $1 million in the former case).
Bakker is likely to be fairly low. Maybe 100,000 at the most? His trilogy was very well marketed in the UK and in response to an enquiry Orbit informed me that they were "Very happy," with his success. Add in Overlook and Penguin in the States and Canada and you probably have something in that ballpark.
I think anything newer than that - Lynch or Abercrombie for example - would be an exercise in futility though. There just isn't enough data. I recall something about Rothfuss selling 40,000 in hardcover and even more in paperback of his first book, but again it would be hard trying to find solid numbers.
One thing the list is confirming is that this idea of an author needing to be massive in the USA in order to have 'made it' is pretty much a fallacy. Neither Douglas Adams nor Terry Pratchett had anything like the impact in the USA they had in the UK, but both have sold enormously overall, especially in Pratchett's case, given his US sales don't seem to have picked up significantly until quite recently.
October 26th, 2008, 01:37 AM #6
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- Aug 2001
- Queensland, Australia
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Pretty sure i've read some where that Feist's sales are over 20 million.
October 26th, 2008, 10:17 AM #7
Feist is still huge in the UK and Australia (where he was bigger than Jordan for a while at the turn of the century, according to his publicists), but his US profile seems to have slipped somewhat.
October 26th, 2008, 10:35 AM #8
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- Sep 2000
What about David Eddings? Everyone and their dogs have atleast 1 copy of one of his books. He should be on par with Brooks as far as sales go or am I totally wrong?
October 26th, 2008, 11:07 AM #9
No figures available for Eddings, but he should be in the 20 million range.
Neil Gaiman offered this analysis of his own sales:
I think we're pushing seven million Sandman graphic novels now (although two million through bookscan sources since 2001 is quite possible) in the US. Last time I checked Sandman and related graphic novels were selling about 300,000 a year. Worldwide, and if you include Sandman individual issues, it's obviously a lot more.
You could add on a few more million for US and international sales of the prose books. It's much harder to find out how many books you've sold internationally than you'd think (I had to try and do it recently for Coraline, as the movie company wanted to know: most foreign publishers give you an advance for a license, and then either send you royalties or go quiet until their license expires and they need a new one, but often don't send out easily accessible numbers. Eventually we settled on "over a million copies sold internationally" as being true, but how many over a million god alone knows).
October 26th, 2008, 12:22 PM #10
Basically, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke should be pretty high on the list. Ursula Le Guin and Ray Bradbury would at least be on the lower rungs. The figures for Gaiman and Martin are way low. R.A. Salvatore would be in the middle. Clive Barker should be fairly high on the list. I'd also suggest looking into Bujold, if you're going to do it, Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey, and Eddings and Feist. Andrew Wheeler has an interesting post on the top selling SFF authors on his blog, if you want to check that out.
October 27th, 2008, 10:18 AM #11
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- Sep 2005
And Bradbury, absolutely, if for no other reason that he's required reading in some schools and that has to sell some books.
Last edited by Randy M.; October 27th, 2008 at 10:20 AM.
October 27th, 2008, 01:54 PM #12
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- Mar 2002
I haven't read Goodkind, but since pretty much all people I know agree that he's either terrible or mediocre, and that G.R.R.Martin seems to be considered some kind of a demi-god on this and other fantasy boards I visit, it's quite surprising to see Goodkind having sold so many times more copies. I know, lowest possible denominator and all, but still...
October 27th, 2008, 02:32 PM #13
- Join Date
- Dec 2005
- Ada, MI, USA
I think people here are put off by his "I am Superman" attitude and by his philosophical beliefs, though in my opinion they are not as ridiculous as those of AE Van Vogt for example who followed Hubbard on the cliff...
October 27th, 2008, 04:37 PM #14
*cheers* Wow, 6th place for Terry Pratchett!
But in my opinion, this list doesn't really give a life-like impression of how popular these authors are. Well, apart from the top 3, of course. If I take the fantasy-reading population of The Netherlands, for example, I know that most of them borrow their books from the library. I work in the only bookstore in a reasonably sized city and I am beginning to recognise the people who buy fantasy. I'm pretty damn sure someone like Goodkind or Martin would end up way higher on that list if all the people who have read their books would have actually bought them as well.
You can't really blame them, though. It's expensive. I know. I'm a collector of Pratchett's books. There's a lot of them.