Monday, 7 October 2013

Best. Sellers. Ever.

In the history of publishing only six works of fiction have sold more than 100 million copies. Can you guess what they are?

Six clues, one per book:

1.  The main character of this, easily the biggest-selling novel of all time, is a dissipated English barrister.

2.  W. H. Auden said that the author of this epic had in some cases outdone Milton's achievement in Paradise Lost.

3. Written by an intrepid aviator whose exploits inspired a French parfumier.

4.  First published in serial form in the Daily Express, this story was originally set on Nigger Island and featured characters named Lawrence Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, General John Macarthur, Emily Brent, Anthony Marston, Dr Edward Armstrong and William Blore.

5.  An 18th century dynastic tale by an author who died in alcoholic poverty.

6.  An earlier book by the author of one other novel on this list

Intrigued? Scroll down for the list (courtesy of Wikepdia), followed by some thoughts.
BookAuthor(s)Original languageFirst publishedApproximate sales
A Tale of Two CitiesCharles DickensEnglish1859200 million
The Lord of the RingsJ. R. R. TolkienEnglish1954–1955150 million
Le Petit Prince Antoine de Saint-ExupéryFrench1943140 million
And Then There Were None 
(aka Ten Little Niggers)
Agatha ChristieEnglish1939100 million
紅樓夢/红楼梦 (aka Dream of the Red Chamber)Cao XueqinChinese1754]–1791100 million
The HobbitJ. R. R. TolkienEnglish1937100 million

Like you I've read them all - apart from 紅樓夢/红楼梦 (entirely unknown to me) and . . . er . . . A Tale of Two Cities. Never got around to it for some reason. I haven't, come to that, read Martin Chuzzlewit or Barnaby Rudge, but we all have our gaps. Dickens is a double surprise - for the truly astonishing sales and for the fact that A Tale of Two Cities, with its French revolutionary setting, is such an unDickensian novel. 

I read And Then There Were None during a damp holiday in the Channel Islands, aged 13, in an edition that carried its unfortunate original title (see below). I associate Agatha Christie's books with musty hotel lounges and the smell of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. Her combined sales are simply mind-boggling - her 85 books have sold between 2 and 4 billion copies. The only author to outsell her is Shakespeare, although he's had four centuries to build up an audience.

Once you get way from individual books and look at the career totals for the most popular novelists (and Shakespeare) the mind begins to reel - both at the numbers and at the absolute nullity and fatuity of all but two of the writers in the top fifteen. The table below shows, from left to right, the author's name, their estimated minimum and maximum sales, the language in which they first appeared, the genre with which they are most associated and their nationality. Read this and wonder.

William Shakespeare2 billion4 billionEnglishPlays and poetryBritish
Agatha Christie2 billion4 billionEnglishWhodunits including the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series85British
Barbara Cartland500 million1 billionEnglishRomance723British
Danielle Steel500 million800 millionEnglishRomance120American
Harold Robbins750 million750 millionEnglishAdventure23American
Georges Simenon500 million700 millionFrenchDetectives, Maigret570Belgian
Sidney Sheldon370 million600 millionEnglishSuspense21American
Enid Blyton300 million600 millionEnglishChildren's literature, Noddy, The Famous Five800British
Dr. Seuss100 million500 millionEnglishChildren's literature44American
Gilbert Patten125 million500 millionEnglishAdolescent adventures209American
J. K. Rowling350 million450 millionEnglishHarry Potter11British
Leo Tolstoy413 millionRussianAnna KareninaWar and Peacephilosophical works48Russian
Jackie Collins250 million400 millionEnglishRomance25British
Horatio Alger, Jr.200 million400 millionEnglishDime novels135American
R. L. Stine100 million400 millionEnglishGoosebumps series, Fear Street series, Horror, Comedy430+American
Corín Tellado400 million400 millionSpanishRomance4,000Spanish
Dean Koontz325 million400 millionEnglishHorrorThrillerScience fiction91America

I've left in most of the links so you can, if you're so inclined, learn more about these authors - several of them, such as Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon, entirely unknown to me.

One other thing that strikes me is the approximate parity between male and female writers; of the top seventeen - seven are female. Make sense of that who will.

An do, please, take a closer look at Corin Tellado (1927 - 2009) who published, as you can see above, 4,000 romantic novels. That's right - four thousand. Most of these were only 76 pages long and issued weekly (as required under her draconian contract with the Barcelona publishers Braguera), but she still makes Georges Simenon look like a workshy dabbler. 

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