If you Google "best-selling books of all time" (as I did before writing this post) you will discover a frustrating lack of hard data or consistency, and soon find yourself (as I did) flicking spoonfuls of sausage gravy at your monitor.
Why is it so hard to calculate mankind's commercial literature consumption since Phineas T. Caveman first scrawled his hard-knock story on an angry tiger's butt so many decades ago? Lots of reasons, it turns out. Many sales stats for popular literature come directly from publishing companies, who don't always share the raw data to back their claims. Religious texts like The Bible and Qur'an have seen such a vast history of publication through hundreds of different companies and thousands of different editions that compiling a definitive sales figure becomes walk-on-water impossible. Then there's the question of whether or not digital book sales should be factored in or given a category of their own. Basically, you can fill a book with all the things we don't know about counting book sales, but nobody wants to do that because they'd have to add that to the figures too.
But through all the confusion, exaggeration, and arbitrary categorization, we've found that a few titles remain constant. Following is a list of books that have earned definitive top-selling accolades for one reason or another. The results may surprise you...
Best-selling book of all time: The Bible
Okay, you're not surprised. Well, wait for it.
But, yes, The Bible. The Good Book. Old Sin'n'Sumerians. Exact figures are impossible to determine here, as the Bible has been reprinted approximately 80 jazillion times in varying versions, translations, and denominations—plus, most of the Bibles are just given away for free by whoever those hotel room creepers named Gideon are. Some pages cite The Good Book's sales at about 2.5 billion, while others lean toward the loftier 6 billion range. Either way. Can you even imagine how many times the word "begat" has been printed? *shudder*
Best-selling political text of all time: Quotations from Chairman Mao ("The Little Red Book")
To be fair, a lot of readers didn't have much of a choice about owning this collection of philosophical quips from Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong. The Little Red Book has allegedly published over one billion copies and sold between 800-900 million worldwide since its 1964 release by the People's Liberation Army. That's a monumental feat no matter what your political philosophy.
Best-selling book of all time that isn't a religious or political text: A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens' required reading classic has reportedly sold about 200 million copies since its release in 1859, and its legendary opening sentence remains the most quoted sentence by people who haven't actually read the book out of every sentence from every book that people haven't actually read. Probably.
But, alas, we may have to change these figures in the next decade or so to make room for…
Best-selling series of all time: Harry Potter
All together, the HP franchise's seven volumes have sold some 450 million copies worldwide as of last year. Sorcerer's Stone alone sold a little over half the numbers of Tale of Two Cities—about 107 million copies—since its 1997 debut. As a wizard might say: Expecto More Dough-num!
Best-selling series of all time that isn't Harry Potter: Goosebumps
R.L. Stine's 62-volume-plus-spinoffs collection of grody campfire frights totals about 350 million worldwide sales since 1992. That's significantly less per-book than the HP franchise but, yowza! 62-plus books in 20 years is some downright Proustian proliferation, but even more interesting: these abstract meditations on childhood have mummies.
Best-selling regularly-updated book of all time: The Xinhua Dictionary
This dictionary of Chinese characters has been a household and classroom mainstay since its first publication in 1953, and is now up to its 11th edition. Exact sales of the dictionary's combined editions are nebulous—and will be even more so if a current charity plan to provide free copies to as many underprivileged students as possible goes into action —but as of 2004 the numbers were placed somewhere around 400 million.
Best selling comic book of all time: X-Men #1
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Jim Lee and Chris Claremont's anticipated rebirth of the Uncanny X-Men brand sold an unprecedented 8.1 million copies (others argue it was only about 3 million, but that's still a pretty big deal for the inky word-bubble market.) With extant copies ranging from a-buck-ninety-eight to $800 (a pittance compared to some) it's hardly the rarest comic. But apparently it's more than enough reason to reboot.
Best-selling eBook of all time: ???
The eBook market is still so new and full of independent publishers who keep their data private that nobody has been able to come up with a concrete number for total sales so far. We do know that Stieg Larsson was the first eBook author to break 1,000,000 digital sales with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and that Kathryn Stockett's The Help holds the record for longest run on the New York Times' relatively new list of digital bestsellers with a 61-week marathon. But an all-time best-seller has yet to be decided. You could be the first!
Worst-selling book of all time: The Blogger Who Dreamed of Being Wizard-King of Planet Makeout: Book One of The Blogger Dreamed series
So far this CRIMINALLY UNDERRATED American bildungsroman has sold a single copy.