Find Your Next Great Book: the 10 Best-Selling Novels of All Time

The best selling novels/fiction books of all time

There is a bit of everything in the list of best-selling novels, from children’s books to chivalric epics and mystery books. Some of the authors, like Cervantes, amassed their millions of readers one century at a time, while others, like phenomenon J.K. Rowling, gathered their millions of readers in just a couple of decades.

These are the best-selling novels/fiction books of all time:

1. Don Quixote. 500 million copies.

Bronze statues of a tall knight and a short squire.
Quixote with his farmer squire, Sancho Panza. Monument to Cervantes, Madrid. (Photo: José María Mateos/CCBY2.0)

You have probably heard about this one. The Spanish masterpiece was written by Miguel de Cervantes and was published in 1605. It follows Don Quixote, a knight that has lost his mind after reading too many chivalric romances. With the assistance of his squire, newly recruited farmer Sancho Panza, he embarks in a series of noble adventures. In his way he fights windmills -which he believes are giants- and saves the downtrodden.

Don Quixote is praised by many critics as the first modern novel. And it deeply influenced Western Literature. In the last centuries, 500 million copies of the epic have been sold worldwide.

2. The Pilgrim’s Progress. 250 million copies.

Drawing. Four men stand next to one another.
Four characters from the book: Pride, Arrogance, Self-Conceit, and Worldly-glory. Illustration from the Henry Altemus edition of 1890. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

A Christian allegory written by Englishman John Bunyan in 1678. Christian, the protagonist, leaves his family to go on a quest. He is trying to reach the Celestial City. On his way he meets characters such as Faith, Prudence, and Charity. He also runs into people that lead him astray.

Bunyan, a Puritan, wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress while he was in jail for a religious offense against the Church of England.

3. The Lord of the Rings. 150 million copies.

Six people in costume dressed as hobbits, a warrior, and Gollum,
Dragon Con attendees dressed as characters from Lord of the Rings. (Photo: Ryan Quick/CCBY2.0)

Many of us have seen the movie. The original Lord of the Rings, though, is a widely popular fantasy novel. It was written by South African/Englishman J.R.R. Tolkien between 1937 and 1954.

The epic transports the reader to a medieval-inspired world where magic exists. A ‘hobbit’ – a human-like being but shorter and guileless- finds a powerful ring that can plunge the world into darkness if it falls into the wrong hands. So the hobbit sets off in a long journey towards a place where the ring can be destroyed and, thus, the world can be saved. On his way he meets humans, dwarfs, talking trees, and elves. They all form an alliance to help Frodo, the hobbit, reach his goal.

This best-selling novel was originally published in three stages, one book at a time, for financial reasons. But Tolkien himself was not happy with the trilogy format. The Lord of the Rings is actually one book divided into six sections.

4. The Alchemist. 65-150 million copies.

Picture of a smiling man.
Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho penned the successful novel in just two weeks. (Photo: Paul Macleod/CCBY3.0)

The protagonist, a Spanish boy called Santiago, goes on a quest. He yearns for worldly treasures, but the lessons he learns through his encounters fill him with spiritual riches instead. In the course of the story, he is transformed. And there are many readers that find that the tale, with all its advice on destiny and life, also transforms them. It is a story about alchemy after all.

You may have come across one of the lines of the book in social media: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

The Alchemist was penned by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho in just two weeks. The would-be best-seller was first published in 1988, after being rejected by several editorials.

5. The Little Prince. 140 million copies.

Drawing. A boy stands on a tiny planet. He is digging.
The prince going about his daily routine in his tiny planet. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

A classic from 1943 with a dash of social critique. Written by French noble and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

The Little Prince is a short story about a prince that comes from outer space. He meets a man in the desert and tells him all about his life, about his little planet where he takes care of a haughty but kind rose that he loves, about his daily routine back home, and the planets he visited before landing on Earth. Somewhat like in the Pilgrim’s Progress or The Alchemist, albeit in an abridged version, this novella is about re-finding innocence and wisdom. In his journey, the little prince learns to appreciate all the blessings he had all along.

6. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. 135 million copies.

Color drawing of a humbly dressed girl surrounded by birds. She sits in a rundown room next to a broom and a pumpkin.
Cinderella was one of the folktales popularized by the Brothers Grimm. Illustration by Jenny Nystrøm, 1890. (Photo: National Library of Norway/Public domain)

The book is a collection of German folktales gathered and rewritten by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm -known to the world as the Brothers Grimm. The intellectual siblings originally published 86 tales in 1812, while they were attending university in their native Germany. Since the stories were well received, the number of folktales grew in the subsequent editions, reaching 211 in 1857.

Some of the tales have become quite popular thanks to Disney. And, fortunately for kids, Disney sweetened them and changed the endings. In Snow White, for example, in the original version the stepmother is tortured in the end until she dies, whereas the Disney version skips that part. The Brothers themselves had already revised the original folktales in order to make them more child-friendly. Folktale Rapunzel was pregnant because of the prince’s visits to her tower. The brothers censored that.

Some of the other stories that appear in Grimm’s Fairy Tales are Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Fisherman and His Wife, The Golden Goose, and The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces.

7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 120 million copies.

Picture of a theme park with a gothic castle in the background and people in the foreground.
Hogwarts Castle. Harry Potter’s theme park at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. (Photo: The Conmunity/CCBY2.0)

Famously, the British author J.K. Rowling went from being a single mom living on welfare to earning a billion dollars with her Harry Potter books. These fantasy novels for children are so popular that Universal Studios has a section in their theme parks that recreate Harry’s world.

The plot: Harry’s parents were wizards. They died when Harry was a baby, so he is raised by his aunt and uncle, who are normal humans without magic powers. When he is eleven years old he finds out about the true identity of his parents and starts attending Hogwarts, a school for wizards. The books narrate the adventures of Harry and his group of friends as they grow and learn to use their magic.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997, and it is the first book of a series. The seven books of the series combined have sold 500 million copies worldwide. The Philosopher’s Stone remains the best-selling of the bunch with 120 million copies to its name. (See also: Wealthiest self-made female billionaires.)

8. The Hobbit. 100 million copies.

Small dwelling with a round entrance door. It is built against the side of a hill and its roof is covered with grass.
Hobbit house in the set in New Zealand where the movie The Hobbit was filmed. It is now a tourist attraction. (Photo: Pr.su00/CCBYSA4.0)

Another best-selling novel by the author of the Lord of the Rings, Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien. Both books, the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, take place in the fictitious Middle-earth and share plenty of characters. The Hobbit was written first. Tolkien penned it for his children, and it was published in 1937. After its immense success, the publisher asked Tolkien for a sequel, so he produced The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit’s main character is Bilbo Baggins, a, well, hobbit, that leads a quiet and boring life in his shire. His friend, the human and worldly wizard Gandalf, decides that Bilbo needs a little action, so they set off in an adventure that takes them across the Middle-earth. They travel in the company of 13 dwarfs and visit Rivendell, the beautiful city of the elves. Their mission is to help the dwarfs recapture a mountain that once belonged to their forefathers and has enormous treasures -and that is guarded by a dragon.

9. And Then There Were None. 100 million copies.

Black and white picture. Six men stand or sit in a living room discussing something.
A scene from the movie And Then There Were None based on Agatha Christie’s mystery novel. 1945. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

A mystery novel written by Agatha Christie. Eight people are invited to an island by an unknown couple that has offered to make their wishes come true. But. When they arrive they find out they are trapped in the island, the hosts are nowhere in sight, and they are being accused of murder by a gramophone. Soon, the guests start dying one by one.

The British author published And Then There Were None in 1939. Agatha wrote dozens of books, which have sold 2 billion copies, making Agatha the best-selling novelist of all time. (See also: Great female writers from back in the day.)

10. Dream of the Read Chamber. 100 million copies.

Chinese painting. Interior of a house. Two rooms filled with people in kimonos.
A scene from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Illustration by Sun Wen, 19th century. (Photo: Wikimedia/Public domain)

Dream of the Red Chamber shows the dynamics of a well-to-do Chinese family. The long novel follows young Baoyu and his relationships, both with the world and with his relatives and acquaintances.

Aside from being one of China’s literary masterpieces, it is also, for the modern reader, a window into the life and society of China during the Qing dynasty.

Chinese author Cao Xueqin wrote The Read Chamber in the mid-eighteen century. And most critics believe it to be based, at least partly, on his own life.

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