We all know that ‘best-selling’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘best’, but the commercial successes of fiction authors provides us with fascinating insight into the historical and cultural value of their work. Although exact sales figures are impossible to calculate (especially when we’re dealing with books which are hundreds of years old and have been published or collected countless times), the following authors are considered to be the most successful in the world of fiction.
10. Gilbert Patten
Inspired by the British ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, Gilbert Patten is perhaps most famous for his dime novels and sporting stories in the Frank Merriwell series. He began writing in 1896 for Street & Smith publishing and produced one 20,000 word story per week (never missing a deadline) for over twenty years. The characters of Frank and Dick Merriwell became immensely popular as icons of All-American sportsmanship and, despite their popularity, Patten never received any royalties and was only paid $150 per story. It is estimated that his works (he wrote more than 75 novels and an unknown amount of short stories) have sold around 500 million copies.
9. Dr Seuss
Theodor Geisel was an American writer and cartoonist best known for his children’s books which he wrote and illustrated under the pseudonym Dr Seuss. Fondly remembered for his witty mastery of rhymes, Geisel has sold more than 500 million copies of his books worldwide. His best selling titles include ‘The Cat in the Hat’, ‘The Lorax’ and ‘The Grinch’, all of which have been adapted into multimillion dollar movies. Known as a true perfectionist who only liked to be paid after his work was complete, Geisel would go through many iterations of his stories, sometimes discarding 95% of his material and starting over until he was satisfied. He has become so celebrated his birthday is now used as the national day for ‘Read Across America’.
8. Enid Blyton
Although her work was first published in 1922, Enid Blyton’s timeless writing still manages to connect with young (and old) readers to this day. Some of her most famous fictional creations include Noddy, The Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and her works have been translated into over 90 languages. However, she is not without criticism. It was rumoured that some of Blyton’s 800 books were written by ghostwriters – a claim she profusely denied. Further complaints stem from her stories being considered elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic and conservative. Libraries and schools even began banning her books and the BBC refused to broadcast her work for close to 20 years due to ‘lack of literary merit’. Despite this backlash, her books consistently remain on the top sellers list, with a recent surge in popularity in China and the Commonwealth. This has led to an agreement to adapt Noddy into a new television series, albeit with slight changes to remove some racist overtones.
7. Sidney Sheldon
American writer Sidney Sheldon was unusual in his success. Beginning as a screenwriter before turning to novels, he created the hit show ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and wrote for ‘The Patty Duke Show’, ‘Hart to Hart’ and ‘Nancy’. It wasn’t until he turned 50 that he released his first best-selling novel, ‘The Naked Farce’, which earned him a nomination for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. He continued with this success and published a further 17 books, all usually in the crime/thriller genre. Influenced by American serials, his novels are well known for their cliffhanger chapter endings which were deliberately employed to force the readers to continue reading. This technique seemed to work as Sheldon’s works have sold approximately 600 million copies worldwide. Appealing to his fanbase of women, his female characters retain their femininity whilst being portrayed as strong, talented and capable.
6. Georges Simenon
Belgian writer Georges Simenon was potentially one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, usually writing between 60 and 80 pages of work per day. His bibliography includes 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographies, various articles and countless pulp novels written under many different pseudonyms. Approximately 700 million copies of his works have been sold. Despite all this, he is best known for his police detective character Jules Maigret. First serialised in 1931, he was present in 103 stories, with his last one being published over forty years later in 1972. These novels have been translated into most major languages and continue to be adapted into radio plays, films and television series. Simenon is the best selling Belgian author of all-time and he was nominated for the title of ‘The Greatest Belgian’ in honour of his contribution to literature.
5. Harold Robbins
Self-professed playboy Harold Robbins was an American writer who penned 25 best-sellers and sold upwards of 750 million copies across 32 languages. His first novel, ‘Never Love a Stranger’, was published in 1948 and stirred huge amounts of discussion due to its graphic sexuality. He continued this trend with subsequent works, mixing his own personal experiences with melodrama, sex and action to keep his stories fast paced and interesting. His best known novel, ‘The Carpetbaggers’, was published in 1961 and focused on the aeronautical industry as well as the glamour and sex of Hollywood. The four main characters are allusions to business tycoons Howard Hughes, Bill Lear, Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer. After Robbins’ death, his most famous titles were republished by his estate and many ghostwriters penned several new books based on existing notes, ideas and unfinished stories he had left behind.
4. Danielle Steel
Danielle Steel has the distinction of being the only living author on this list. With sales of more than 800 million copies to her name, Steel produces multiple novels each year and is often writing up to five projects at once. All of her novels have been bestsellers and they have been translated in 28 languages. Steel’s stories often centre around rich families who are facing an outside crisis, such as jail-time, fraud, blackmail or suicide. This has often led to critics deriding her work as nothing but ‘fluff fiction’. However, this is perhaps unwarranted, as her novels continue to delve into the darker aspects of human nature, including incest, divorce, war and, at one point, the Holocaust. Although her works are no longer printed in the amount they once were, Steel still manages to top the best selling list thanks to her strong and avid fanbase.
3. Barbara Cartland
English author Barbara Cartland is one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers, having sold an astonishing 1 billion copies of her work. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider the sheer amount of publications she was responsible for. Her 723 novels have been published in 36 different languages and in 1983 she earned the Guinness World Record for having the most novels published in one year (an astounding 23). Known for her romance novels and pushing the limits of sexuality, her first novel, ‘Jigsaw’, was an erotic society thriller which quickly became a bestseller. As she continued to test the boundaries, Cartland’s racy subject matter was often seen as too risque and she even found some of her work being banned outright by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. As her career progressed, her views became less liberal and her later novels were no longer considered sensational. Regardless, she still remained hugely successful and had several unfinished manuscripts published posthumously.
2. Agatha Christie
Acclaimed British author Agatha Christie is widely celebrated for her 66 crime novels and 14 short stories. Her most famous creations – Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Mr Satterthwaite and Tommy & Tuppence – helped her achieve sales exceeding 2 billion copies. A keen spiritualist, her work is highly influenced by religious sects, sacrifices, ceremony and seances. As Christie began travelling the Middle East extensively, these themes became more and more central to her storytelling. Some of Christie’s novels have been published in 103 different languages making her the most translated author ever, and her 1939 book ‘And Then There Were None’ is the best selling mystery title of all-time
1. William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s creative output includes approximately 154 sonnets, 38 plays, two narrative poems and additional verses whose authorship cannot be determined. His extensive work has been translated into almost every language and his plays are easily the most performed of all playwrights. The Bard of Avon first dabbled in comedy before moving on to tragedies like ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Macbeth’ – dramas which are often regarded as the best work in the English language. During his later life, he produced mostly tragicomedies which were darker in tone than his earlier comedies but ended in reconciliation, rather than murder or suicide (or both). Although no precise figure is known, it is estimated his works have sold more than 4 billion copies.