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The Bible vs. Mao: A “Best Guess” of the Top 25 Bestselling Books of All Time

• Inspired by the Huffington Post‘s attempt to list the top 15 bestselling books of all time, we offer a humble revision, expanding the list to 25 total.

• The Bible and Quotations from Chairman Mao still vie for the top spot, with more than 6 billion published copies each.

By Noel L. Griese

In the September the Huffington Post published an article by Alexander Carr listing the 15 top-selling books of all time. Such lists are nearly always under dispute. On behalf of the Southern Review of Books, I recently did some research looking into the list and offer a humble revision.

Here, we offer the expanded the list to 25 titles (26 if you count the Bible) to better show where the HuffPo‘s original 15 fit among our additions.

The Huffington Post article actually named 16 books that have sold the most copies worldwide, noting that the Bible is the top seller in the world. In my version of the the list, the Bible remained the top seller in the world, with sales figures ranging (widely!) from 2.5 billion to over 6.0 billion copies. To get to 6 billion copies, you need to include the Bibles that have been given away, as well as all translations.

Our additions to the Huffington Post‘s original list are marked in bold. We’ve added only single-title books in the list, no serials save for Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

PLEASE NOTE: This list is not as much a measure of how many copies have sold, but a measure of book’s popularity. It’s also not a suggestion of literary merit. Most scholars agree that the greatest works of world literature were written by Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Goethe. None of their works made the top-25 list.

Yes, it is extremely difficult to establish precise sales of contemporary books, and virtually impossible to establish exact sales of books published long ago. This top-25 list is no more than a best guess as to actual worldwide sales. Enjoy.

1. Quotations from Chairman Mao (The Little Red Book). Chinese, 1964, 800-900 million copies worldwide. A collection of quotations from Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong put together by the People’s Liberation Army. One source says 6.5 billion copies were printed and shipped, which would put the publication in competition with worldwide Bible distribution.

2. The Qur’an. Arabic. This ancient Islamic religious text has sold over 800 million copies.

3. (tie) Xinhua Dictionary (primary editor: Wei Jiangong). This Chinese dictionary, first published in 1957, has sold over 400 million copies.

3. (tie)Chairman Mao’s Poems, Mao Zedong. First published in China in 1966, 400 milion copies in print.

5. Selected Articles of Mao Zedong, first published in China in 1966, 252.5 million copies.

6. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens. English, 1859, 200 million copies.

7. (tie) Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, Robert Baden-Powell. English, 1908, 150 million copies.

7. (tie) The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. This cult classic by an Oxford professor was published in 1954-1955 and has sold 150 million copies worldwide.

7. (tie) The Book of Mormon, multiple authors, translated by Joseph Smith, Jr. Religious text published in 1830, over 150 million copies worldwide.

10. (tie) The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, Jehovah’s Witnesses/Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. Published in English in 1968, 107 million copies.

10. (tie) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. The first novel of J.K. Rowling’s famous “Harry Potter” series sold over 107 million copies since its 1997 publication.

12. (tie) And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie. Published in 1939, this murder mystery has sold about 100 million copies.

12. (tie)The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Published in 1937, 100 million copies.

12. (tie) On the Three Representations, Jiang Zemin. Published in China in 2001, about 100 million copies.

12. (tie) Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin. China, 18th century, 100 million.

12. (tie) American Spelling Book, Noah Webster (1783). Up to 100 million copies sold.

17. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis. English, 1950, 85 million.

18.She, H. Rider Haggard. English, 1887, 83 million.

19. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown. This wildly popular, but historically inaccurate thriller has sold over 80 million copies since its publication in 2003. (The last number we saw at the Southern Review before this was 40 million.)

20. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Published in French, 1943, 80 million.

21. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. English, 1951, 65 million.

22. (tie) O Alquimista (The Alchemist), Paulo Coelho. Portuguese, 1988, 65 million.

22. (tie) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling. “The Half Blood Prince” was the sixth installment of the Harry Potter series. English, 2005. 65 million copies.

25. (tie) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling. Second installment of the Harry Potter series, 1999, over 60 million copies.

25. (tie) Steps to Christ, Ellen G. White. English, 1892, 60 million.

The following books on the original Huffington Post list of the top-15 sellers of all time did not make our list of the top-25.

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling. Third installment of the Harry Potter series. 55 million copies.

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J. K. Rowling. Fourth book in the Harry Potter series. 55 million copies worldwide.

3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling. Fifth book in the Harry Potter series. 55 million copies worldwide.

4. Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Lew Wallace. English, 1880. 50 million copies.

Yes, it’s doubtful anyone can compile a completely accurate list of the top sellers of all time, given the notoriously unreliable nature of book sales statistics. If you have a candidate we’ve left out, email us the details. Be sure to include the numbers and leads for sources.

Noel L. Griese is the editor of The Southern Review of Booksand owner of Anvil Brokers/Publishers of Atlanta, GA.

DISCUSS: Have we missed any candidates?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2010 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Nice list, bus some acknowledgment that your list is solely based on combining the Huffington Post article with the Wikipedia article “List of best-selling books” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books) would have been more honest.

  2. Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Fram – Wikipedia was only one of the sources I checked. It doesn’t for example, list Baden-Powell’s “Scouting for Boys.” “Scouting for Boys” has of course had the advantage of being updated many times over the years. But so has “The Guinness Book of World Records,” which started life in 1955 and now is over 100 million sold. That’s not on the Wikipedia list. The same is true of “The World Almanac,” which started life in 1868 and is at 80 million. The lists are not perfect – not the Huffpo list, not the Wikipedia list, not the list above. They are all just best guesses, and likely to remain that.

  3. Posted September 7, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I should have noted as well that Noah Webster’s “American Spelling Book” is not on the Wikipedia list. One of the books I wonder about is Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” – still looking for stats on that one, if anyone has them. And a correction – Baden-Powell’s “Scouting for Boys” is on one of the Wikipedia lists – but should it be, given all the revisions over the years? Is it still the same book today, or is it a completely new book?

  4. Posted September 7, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that if ALL the Harry Potter book sales were added up they would topple all the others (including the ‘guilt’sales and giveaways) If LOTR made it in there as a serial,(that is, one continuous story) then why not HP?

  5. Posted September 7, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Could you perhaps list another source you used besides the Huffington post and Wikipedia? Since the books you added come straight from the Wikipedia article, without any difference or omission… By the way, the Guinness book is listed in the “Series” section, since it is published as a “new” book every year, while the Baden Powell book is more stable. It is a bit arbitrary, and the list is far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean that you should use it as one of your two sources and then first omit any mention from the article, and then act as if it was “only one of the sources” you checked. You may have “checked” more sources, but you certainly “used” only one.

    The HP books are not individually in the Wikipedia list because there are no good sources for individual sales figures for most of them. The seven books together have sold more than 400 million, as listed in the “series” section of the Wikipedia article.

  6. Posted September 7, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Fram and widdershins – I’ll answer your questions when I run the story in the Southern Review of Books newsletter on Sept. 14.

  7. Helmut Schwarzer
    Posted September 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I cannot think of a more ludicrous, brainless, time wasting exercise than this compilation. Read a book instead,any book, provided it is not on your list.

  8. Paul
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Hold on, Helmut; The Dream of the Red Chamber, it seems to me, is the one book on this list that DOES deserve to be read widely by grown-ups.

  9. Helmut
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Granted, Paul! Provided one chooses the best edition, translated by David Hawkes and given the title The Story of the Stone (5 vols. Penguin Classics).

  10. Posted March 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    6.5 billion copies for a single book? Hardly true.

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