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

In Growth Markets by Guest Contributor

• 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?

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.