"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: The Bestselling Books of All Time

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Bestselling Books of All Time


The biggest selling book of all time is, of course, The Bible

Given its place and significance in our cultural history, that’s probably not surprising. But, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn't count - for our purposes - because it's allegedly not fiction (though some might disagree.)
I want to restrict my study of the bestseller to fiction - because to me, any book about things and people that aren't obviously real would have to pretty powerful to inspire millions of people to buy it.

Okay. 

Would it surprise you then to discover that the bestselling novel, ever, is, in fact, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? 

Shocked the hell out of me. Yep, we've consumed over 200 million copies of this saga about the French Revolution and its effect on English mores.

After that, we're on more familiar ground with The Lord of the Rings at around 150 million - and this figure isn't skewed by the book often being sold as three books - they're still only counted as one. 

The redoubtable Agatha Christie comes in third with And Then There Were None, which in pre correct times was called Ten Little Niggers and later Ten Little Indian Boys - a cracking good read with a brilliant twist, written in 1939.

Here we get the glimmerings of one of my first conclusions about writing bestsellers. That, from the first three entries, what is clear is that so-called 'literary' writing is not what counts. It's emphatically the story that is more important. 

This is especially apparent when we look at number five in the list.

By the way, The Hobbit is at number four - but clearly, Tolkien had the advantage of writing the number two bestseller.

The fifth bestselling novel of all time is, in fact, She by Rider Haggard.

What? I hear you gasp.

Again here we see another indication that story is king.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince weighs in next, for reasons not immediately obvious. I mean, it's a cute story about kingship and aliens but 80 million copies? Must have been a slow news year.

Next, at number seven, we're at least not so flummoxed by the news that The Da Vinci Code has earned its place in the top ten bestsellers of all time.

I can already hear that rumbling out there. You're wondering about young Harry, aren't you? Patience, please.

Number eight reveals our twentieth-century obsession with all things warped with Catcher in the Rye - the book that arguably spawned a jailyard of psychopaths - and to this day is a story I find impenetrable.

Whenever I try to read it, I'm struck by the thought that it really must be about something, though I'm not quite sure what. Maybe that's its vague adolescent appeal. I prefer the more familiar ground trodden in Camus' The Outsider.

Number Nine - and one my favorites: The Alchemist by Portuguese visionary Paulo Coelho. At least here a profound message is disguised as a great piece of deceptively simple writing.

And what about number ten?

Don't hold your breath, you'll be disappointed to learn - perhaps even disgruntled to know - that Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning by the less than familiar Johanna Spyri takes that coveted spot.

Well, knock me down with a fevver, as they say in London.

So, I can feel that tug on my arm again...

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes in at number seventeen, believe it or not - after such evergreen classics as Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty, The Name of the Rose, Charlotte's Web and the other Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

I think what's interesting about these bestsellers is that they're probably not the books you were expecting to see. At all.

I mean, where is the like of Twilight, 50 Shades, Catch 22, The Godfather or even Jaws, The Exorcist, 1984, or Jurassic Park?

Top ten movie lists tend to feature the most recent films simply because more people exist to go and see movies nowadays - and gross numbers are what count.

But this is not the case with novels.

Each new generation finds entertainment in well-worn classics - but surely that doesn't explain why so many classics aren't featured in the bestselling novels list.

Of course, most so-called bestseller lists produced by book retailers, the media, and book publishers are often self-serving.

They shamelessly list the books they want you to buy - and will feature books they think people should buy but don't (not in large numbers anyway.)

And as Mark Twain once said, a classic is a book everyone knows they should read, but won’t.

Thanks for reading this.


Rob Parnell
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