The other day I came across this Wikipedia article listing best-selling books, and as I scrolled through the list (which is based on estimated number of copies sold), it struck me that many of the titles listed – including the top 4 – are fantasy novels. And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings… these two series undoubtedly dominate the top of the lists, but there are other fantasy books in the mix too.
So this got me to thinking, what are the most popular fantasy books and series of all time, in terms of book sales? I thought I’d use the list to answer this question, compiling those fantasies that are estimated to have sold 50 million copies or more:
(Bear in mind that the Wikipedia list I am drawing from will likely change in future, so this is a snapshot as at June 2016. Some books have also been excluded from the list – see footnote at the bottom of this post)
1. Harry Potter Series
by J.K. Rowling, first book published 1997
While Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone only takes fourth place for best-selling single volume at an estimated 107 million copies, the Harry Potter series as a whole tops the series list, with a whopping 450 million copies sold, making it the best-selling book series of all time. The children’s horror series Goosebumps follows it in second place with an estimated 350 million copies sold of its 62 instalments.
Harry Potter books 2 through 7 also rank highly, with estimated sales of between 50 and 65 million each. This places them between 11 and 18 on the best-selling books list.
2. The Lord of the Rings
by J. R. R. Tolkien, first published 1954–1955
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (counted on the Wikipedia list as one book rather than a series as “it was written by Tolkien as a single book”) comes out at the top of the best-selling single volumes list, with approximately 150 million books sold. No surprises here, given its initial and enduring popularity, its status as a fantasy classic, and the recent resurgence in popularity due to the Peter Jackson films.
Although it is first on the list of best-selling single volumes, some older books and religious texts have been excluded due to unreliable sales figures (see footnote at the bottom of this post) so it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best-selling book ever published. Additionally, many would dub it a series rather than a single volume, as that is how it is now sold.
3. The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien, first published 1937
The Hobbit sits in second place for best-selling single volume with an estimated 142 million copies sold. This is pretty impressive for one book, given that less than 20 book series have sold more than that, and some of those series have hundreds of instalments.
4. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, first published 1943
I’d classify this French novella as a fantasy, albeit a slightly absurdist, magical realist and philosophical one. The Little Prince clocks in at 140 million, not bad at all, especially for a single volume.
5. The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis, first book published 1950
C.S. Lewis’s classic fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia is listed as having sold a total of 120 million copies, but ranks 23rd on the series list, surpassed by various children’s book series, picture book series, and book series from other genres.
However, the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, makes it to 7th place on the list of best-selling single volumes, with an estimated 85 million copies sold.
by Stephenie Meyer, first book published 2005
Although none of the individual Twilight books make it into the list of best-selling single volumes, the series as a whole comes in 25th on the best-selling series list with 120 million copies sold. It’s an impressive ranking given the first book was only released a little over 10 years ago, and it’s the youngest series on this list.
7. The Vampire Chronicles
by Anne Rice, first book published 1976
While the first and most famous book in this classic series, Interview with the Vampire, doesn’t rank on the list of best-selling single volumes, the overall series of 13 books has sold an estimated 80 million copies total, making it one of the best-selling horror/gothic fantasy series of all time.
8. The Wheel of Time
by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, first book published 1990
The classic fantasy series Wheel of Time comes in at a respectable 80 million. Once again, the first volume The Eye of the World doesn’t make the single volume list, but the 15-book series ranks among the most popular fantasy series ever written.
by Terry Pratchett, first book published 1983
Terry Pratchett’s 41-book comedic fantasy series, set on the amusing, absurd and magical Discworld, is estimated to have sold 70 million copies. Pratchett may no longer be with us, but his books have left a lasting mark, earning him a place amongst the top-selling fantasy authors of all time.
10. A Song of Ice and Fire
by George R. R. Martin, first published 1996
It had to be in the list, didn’t it? While not ranking as highly as the current hype might suggest it should, this series has still sold an estimated total of 60 million copies – which is massive, considering it’s the only series on this list that is not yet complete.
I’m guessing that in light of the TV show and the forthcoming novels, that sales figure is only going to climb.
11. Watership Down
by Richard Adams, first published 1972
Although this is often described as an adventure novel, it is just as often labelled a fantasy, and given it centres on a group of talking rabbits going on an epic quest in an invented society, I’m going to classify it as such. It sits at 50 million.
What About Alice in Wonderland?
You might notice Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is missing from this list. This is because, as the Wikipedia entry mentions, this is one of many books for which there are no reliable sales figures… so even though it is often labelled as a best-seller, there is no estimate given for how many copies have been sold.
It’s worth nothing that other fantasy works make an appearance in the “between 30 and 50 million copies sold” category:
- The Shadowhunter Chronicles by Cassandra Clare
– 36 million
- The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
– 33 million
- The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
– 30 million
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
– 25 million
- Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
– 25 million
- The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind
– 25 million
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
– 20 million
- Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
– 21 million
- Shannara series by Terry Brooks
– 21 million
- Redwall series by Brian Jacques
– 20 million
- Dragonlance series by various authors
– 20 million
- Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
– 20 million
I haven’t included any science fiction novels or series in my list as I was sticking to fantasy, but it’s worth noting that some sci-fi works do make an appearance:
- The Star Wars books rank highly on the series list, with an estimate of 160 million copies sold
- The Hunger Games series also ranks highly, with a total of 65 million copies sold
- 1984 and Dune rank on the single-volume list, and the Divergent trilogy and The Foundation trilogy rank on the series list, but all four have sold less than 50 million copies (between 20 and 30 million each)
The Wikipedia list I’ve drawn from for this post is based on the “estimated number of copies sold of each book [or series of books]” in any language. It excludes religious texts, as well as some other books for which there are no reliable sales figures (for example Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities, The Three Musketeers, Pride and Prejudice, and the Odyssey). A such it is an incomplete list, and it is also crowd-sourced so it’s hard to verify the accuracy of all the statistics – but it at least provides a rough guide.
I have chosen to exclude children’s picture books from my list above (though they are included in the Wikipedia list). Although classics like Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, The Magic Tree House and Where the Wild Things Are could be in some ways seen as works of fantasy, I think most people don’t have these in mind when they talk about ‘fantasy books’ or ‘fantasy novels’ due to their length and format. They also appear to sell a lot of copies, so would fill up the list if I were to include them!
When I look through the above list, I notice I own and have read all of the books listed except for 2 – The Vampire Chronicles and Watership Down. Some of the ones I’ve read are favourites, some aren’t, and some I actively dislike… but in each case I can see why they are ranking amongst the most popular fantasy books of all time.
Have you read any of these books? If so, do you think they deserve their popularity? And are there any books you would have expected to see on this list that are missing?
If you’re after more fantasy sales stats, why not check out this extensive list of top sales by fantasy author on the Wertzone, or this list that takes into account per-book sales figures for fantasy series on Best Fantasy Books HQ.