308) John Scalzi
December 17, 2018 11:05 AM   Subscribe

You already know who's number one, but here's Adam Whitehead's SFF All-Time Sales List (revised) anyway.
posted by MartinWisse (69 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
You already know who's number one

I was guessing Oprah
posted by thelonius at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I refuse to believe Cassandra Clare has outsold Anne McCaffrey.
posted by suelac at 11:15 AM on December 17, 2018 [9 favorites]




I was guessing Oprah

I was gonna say the Duke of New York
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:20 AM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


VanderMeer is much lower than I imagined given he seems to a be a store pick in every store.
Also no Murakami?
posted by Damienmce at 11:22 AM on December 17, 2018


I refuse to believe that Rowling has sold more than Stephen King. It it literally unbelievable.
posted by Automocar at 11:24 AM on December 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


I don't care where he ranks on this list, Sir Terry Pratchett will always be number 1 for me.

GNU Terry Pratchett
posted by Pendragon at 11:25 AM on December 17, 2018 [19 favorites]


The Handmaid's Tale has only sold 8 million copies? Huh. I thought it was a little farther reaching than that.
posted by ODiV at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2018


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the biggest first-release print run in history. I can believe she's outsold King.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I refuse to believe that Rowling has sold more than Stephen King. It it literally unbelievable.

I don't find this unbelievable at all, and in fact think King congratulated her on this many years ago.
posted by dobbs at 11:27 AM on December 17, 2018 [7 favorites]


The Handmaid's Tale has only sold 8 million copies? Huh. I thought it was a little farther reaching than that.

In Canada, one need only sell 5000 copies to be called a best seller.
posted by dobbs at 11:28 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Instead of lamenting how sad the top of the list looks, I'll express joy at discovering Cassandra Clare. I'm glad she sells so much (I had no idea).

I refuse to believe that Rowling has sold more than Stephen King. It it literally unbelievable.

Seconded. I think King has a long tail that isn't being counted accurately. The article suggests as much.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


It pains me that Piers Anthony is on this list at all and that he is in the top 200.

Also I'm really surprised by the number given for Andre Norton - that's a lot of books for someone who I think of as a golden age author who wrote back in the day when sales were a lot less.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on December 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm glad NK Jemisin has broken the 1 million mark! Do you know what? Many years ago I used to comment on a blog that she used to post on, back before she sold any books. So it's almost like I knew her before she was famous, except that I didn't actually know her at all and was by no means a prolific commenter . Because of the blog, she seems more of a real and less of a Very Great Author figure to me and for this reason I am always doubly stoked about her success.

Also, mainly this brings home how difficult it is to make a living as a writer, and how small the reading community is for many books. There are so many science fiction novels that I deeply, deeply admire and that obviously can't have sold more than ten thousand copies or so at the very most, since otherwise the writers' career output would have put them on this list. It's weird to think that perhaps only 10,000 people have read, eg, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe or The Winged Histories, when those are such wonderful books. (I mean, even assuming that people read them at the library or borrow copies.)

I saw some tweet the other day which said that it took until 2018 for Coltrane's Giant Steps album to top 500,000 in sales, which is just wild to me. How can only 500,000 people have bought that album in nearly sixty years? Sixty years for one of the most important jazz albums ever?
posted by Frowner at 11:34 AM on December 17, 2018 [12 favorites]


Oh my goodness, gave me a heart attack almost, headline looked like one of the memorial announcements, whew.
posted by sammyo at 11:35 AM on December 17, 2018 [11 favorites]


The article does note that the numbers listed are generally inaccurate, but in some cases, they are dramatically so. For example, the entry for L. Frank Baum could be an order of magnitude off or more:


108) L. Frank Baum (5 million+)
This figure is very inaccurate; the Oz books by themselves had sold 5 million copies by 1956. In the fifty-seven years since, the series has likely multiplied that several times. However, the early books in the series are now out of copyright, which makes tracking sales figures almost impossible.



So, I think the specific ranking probably isn’t all that useful. Instead, like mrgrimm, I’m finding the list useful as a list of whom to check out. (And more specifically, who may be underrepresented in my archives.)
posted by darkstar at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


ctrl-f ellison

0/0

posted by Halloween Jack at 11:43 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I’m finding the list useful as a list of whom to check out. (And more specifically, who may be underrepresented in my archives.)

Likewise: taking this as an inaccurate and unsorted list of 'very popular authors,' it's refreshing to have a view of the field that acknowledges non-American/British writers -- who, I think, tend to be erased in lists of this kind. A lot of people here who I'm finding myself shocked to be only now reading about.
posted by cjelli at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


This is a very entertaining list but I think everyone can acknowledge it is terribly inaccurate since sales figures are often not published, deliberately obfuscated when released, and somewhat flexible even then.

I suspect that Asimov's lifetime sales are many times what is recorded here - the dude was so prolific and active for so long that the Foundation series was only a fraction of his sales.

I wonder how much further up the list Brandon Sanderson would be if the ranking was calculated by total weight sold rather than units.
posted by AndrewStephens at 11:45 AM on December 17, 2018 [14 favorites]


Well...one thing to keep in mind is that between the peak of King's popularity and Rowling's the world population doubled, if not more.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:48 AM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I find it hard to believe that Christopher Priest's absence from this list is accurate.
posted by xigxag at 11:55 AM on December 17, 2018


Hmm.

I had almost succeeded in forgetting that John Norman ever existed.
posted by jamjam at 11:59 AM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Handmaid's Tale has only sold 8 million copies? Huh. I thought it was a little farther reaching than that.

Remember that more people lie about the books they read than about how often they had sex
posted by DreamerFi at 12:00 PM on December 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Well...one thing to keep in mind is that between the peak of King's popularity and Rowling's the world population doubled, if not more.

And Rowling is just going to appeal to a larger population - kids too young for Stephen King will be reading at least the first few of the Harry Potter books, and I bet that far more primarily Stephen King fans would also read Harry Potter than primarily Harry Potter fans would also read Stephen King, owing to the horror bit. You also have to wonder whether the language and references make it easier to sell around the world - Stephen King is a very American writer, whereas while the Harry Potter books are set in the UK, the setting is still basically Imaginary School Story Land.
posted by Frowner at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I’m just amused that Jin Yong has outsold George R R Martin. Wuxia forever!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:07 PM on December 17, 2018


The Handmaid's Tale has only sold 8 million copies? Huh. I thought it was a little farther reaching than that.

I've read it, but I bought a used copy. So, there's that.

I wonder if we know which authors are the most popular at libraries? That would boost the readership numbers without changing the sales numbers.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:08 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's true. It seems like the type of book that gets passed along or assigned for a course.
posted by ODiV at 12:10 PM on December 17, 2018


I’m surprised not to see Charles Stross anywhere on the list.
posted by tdismukes at 12:10 PM on December 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


The listing that most threw me off is Ray Bradbury at #90 with 8 million. Surely Fahrenheit 451 has sold more copies than that, from high school required reading copies alone...
posted by matrixclown at 12:16 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


I wonder how much further up the list Brandon Sanderson would be if the ranking was calculated by total weight sold rather than units

He'd be, at very best, a far distant second to James Michener. One of my favorite Simpsons blink-and-you-missed-it jokes was a bookstore that sold Michener for $1.99/lb.
posted by tclark at 12:17 PM on December 17, 2018 [14 favorites]


Having worked at a bookstore during the height of the Harry Potter craze, I find it not the least bit inconceivable that J.K. Rowling has sold more total books than Stephen King. While King has had some blockbusters in his day, I highly doubt hundreds of people were ever lined up for hours outside of bookstores waiting for the special midnight book release of the latest installment from The Dark Tower series. This was a regular occurrence at my store every time a new Potter book came down the pike.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:30 PM on December 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Surely Fahrenheit 451 has sold more copies than that, from high school required reading copies alone...

Until fairly recently, it was common for schools that had standard reading lists to buy enough books for the entire class(es), and reuse them year after year. Fiction books that don't get updated don't need to repurchased until they fall apart.

But also: Yeah, the numbers are screwy. They're likely pieced together from current publishers and miscellaneous older sources; there's no solid data for sales for books that changed publishing rights several times.

And I think they're doing some funny number-crunching:
130) Ursula K. Le Guin (4 million+ )
More than three million copies alone of the Earthsea series have been sold and another million for The Left Hand of Darkness

Wouldn't that be 10+ million, at 3m each for the Earthsea books in the trilogy?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:31 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I might forgive the omissions of Stevenson and Doyle, but missing Mary Shelley off a list of bestselling science fiction and fantasy authors seems a bit shortsighted.
posted by howfar at 12:39 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


So many things to quibble about, sure. So many books I will not have time to read. So many things to make me feel old - like, I remember when Cassandra Clare was a fanfic writer. I wasn't in her fandom, but seeing her name on movie posters is still surreal. Like somebody from the next town over hit the big time.

More than that, though, there are so many niches in these two (broad, overlapping) genres. It's dizzying, and I love it.
posted by cage and aquarium at 12:39 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


I highly doubt hundreds of people were ever lined up for hours outside of bookstores waiting for the special midnight book release of the latest installment from The Dark Tower series. This was a regular occurrence at my store every time a new Potter book came down the

I saw this in process at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square when I was in SF for a conference. I remember thinking, wow I'm glad I don't work in a bookstore anymore......I worked some big signings in my day, but this was another level.
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on December 17, 2018


60) Douglas Adams (16 million)
He may have published only a small number of novels (including the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) and suffered tremendously from writer's block, but Douglas Adams' sales remain impressive.


This seems low, as I have almost that many copies of Douglas Adams' books, and I'm certain other people have read them.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:59 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's interesting that Frank Herbert is only at 15, despite Dune being the best-selling sci-fit novel of all time.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:05 PM on December 17, 2018


I find it hard to believe that Christopher Priest's absence from this list is accurate.
He's there, but his entry is embedded in a reverse acrostic formed by the first letters of all the other entries.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:05 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


105) Bella Forrest (6 million+)
Bella Forrest is the author of the A Shade of Vampire series.


Fascinating to see this included. Bella Forrest is the pen name of someone who has self-published more than a book per month for years, not all of them in the same series. It is extremely unlikely that one person is writing these books (though I should say: not impossible; a book per month is not unheard of in romance) and is extremely likely that whoever is behind the pen name has a marketing background. The books themselves are the kinds of things that make me depressed about the world, but they are very well executed for what they are supposed to be. Like they hit the money shots.

That said, the vast majority of Bella Forrest's revenue likely comes from ebook sales and the Kindle Unlimited program, which s/he heavily leveraged from the beginning, and which are not included in this list. Bella Forrest easily -- EASILY -- makes seven figures per month, paid every month, sometimes probably mid-seven figures now, and has for years.

Goddamn impressive, honestly. I wish the actual content wasn't, you know. Bad for women.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:08 PM on December 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


Internet lists are bullshit.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:11 PM on December 17, 2018


I refuse to believe Cassandra Clare has outsold Anne McCaffrey.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:16 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


I wonder if we know which authors are the most popular at libraries?

We don't have complete information from every library in the world, but 'Library Journal,' with the help of cooperating libraries and library software vendors, collects 'Books Most Borrowed,' and some libraries publish their own data (modern integrated library system software makes this easy).
posted by box at 1:17 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Btw, I'm not plagiarizing suelac's comment, I'm playing a clever game of spot the reference.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:20 PM on December 17, 2018 [13 favorites]


No L. Ron Hubbard? he would easily place at 4 or 5 if not higher. He's written over 1,000 titles, and although probably only 1 or 2 million copies of Dianetics have been printed it has sold well over 20 million times. (Ask anyone who has ever worked in a bookstore)
posted by HappyHippo at 1:28 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


HappyHippo, did your store also get copies of _Dianetics_ shipped with your store's price stickers already affixed?
posted by hanov3r at 1:32 PM on December 17, 2018


*timidly raises hand*

Hi, I write a sci-fi series called Poor Man's Fight and if I haven't quite cracked 100k with my first novel individually I have definitely gone way past that mark if we're counting the whole series like this list does for a bunch of authors. (Link in my profile, not gonna post it here, god I feel like a dork already.)

This list seems to skip completely over authors who are published by Amazon's in-house imprints and most of the indie market in general. I fit into both. "Hybrid" is becoming more and more of a thing, but the word doesn't turn up in this article at all. I say this not to dump on the article, as it admits its flaws, but it kinda feels like the article doesn't even notice that as a flaw? Straight off the top of my head I'm thinking of authors who sell in bigger numbers than I do but aren't on this list at all.

That said: the lack of transparency in this business drives me batty. I will happily talk about sales numbers, about money, anything where there's interest. But there's so much pressure to not talk about it at all--because nobody ever talks in numbers--that it feels like there's some big reason why we shouldn't. And granted, I'm contractually barred from stating a couple of specific financial things, but on the whole it's not like there are gag orders on everything. So are we all assuming we're bragging if we talk numbers? Is it just tacky?

I am forever stuck between "I hate braggarts and I don't want to be one" and "oh god we need more transparency because nobody really knows anything."
posted by scaryblackdeath at 1:38 PM on December 17, 2018 [14 favorites]


I saw this in process at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square when I was in SF for a conference. I remember thinking, wow I'm glad I don't work in a bookstore anymore......I worked some big signings in my day, but this was another level.

Having worked three Harry Potter midnight sales at a bookstore... they were a blast, even if it meant working until about 2am. Very fond memories. I got off shift around 1:30am for the Deathly Hallows launch and didn't even go to bed until I'd finished reading it sometime in the afternoon.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 1:38 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Most Steven King books are self-contained, meaning when you finish the first volume, you're done with the story. By contrast if you commit to reading Harry Potter, you're in for seven books at a minimum. So there's some built-in churn there.

My only other thought is that the estimations of sales for each author are so hand-wavy that you could easily swap the positions of any two or three adjacent authors and be as accurate.
posted by ardgedee at 1:39 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I was wondering about the indies, too, since the only one I recognized on sight was Hugh Howey.

I am on Team Transparency, as long as TT is honest about the very, very, very long tail. I have about 100 organic (not driven by ads I paid for) sales of my books, over oh, five years? I make enough money to buy a weekly cup of coffee, and I give hives to "indie authors are all bazzzzzzillionaires" types. No gatekeeping means no gatekeeping.
posted by cage and aquarium at 1:59 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I might forgive the omissions of Stevenson and Doyle, but missing Mary Shelley off a list of bestselling science fiction and fantasy authors seems a bit shortsighted.

I suspect like it is mentioned with Frank L. Baum, Shelley's copyrights expired long ago, so keeping track of the various editions probably isn't feasible.

That said, a lot of these estimates seem to have a very back of the envelope after a few drinks while scrolling through wikipedia sort of feel to them.
posted by Badgermann at 2:07 PM on December 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


Btw, I'm not plagiarizing suelac's comment, I'm playing a clever game of spot the reference.

ISWYDT.
posted by suelac at 2:45 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Straight off the top of my head I'm thinking of authors who sell in bigger numbers than I do but aren't on this list at all.

I had this whole thing written up about print vs ebook sales, reportability, and whether Bella Forrest had a print only deal like Hugh Howey, but then I reread the thing, and it looks like this dude's methodology is just "self-reporting and what's publicly available."

In which case...

I know a bunch of romance and women's fiction authors who have sold a million+ books, but they definitely don't self-report it or publicize that fact. And now I'm wondering how skewed that list is if the only female authors / pen names on it are ones who are willing to self-report, or who have a publisher willing to brag about their sales numbers. That is...actually totally a gendered thing that I hadn't thought much about.

Like people use it for a marketing tactic, sure, but I don't know of many lady authors who celebrate it? Idk maybe I just haven't been paying attention.

But yeah, if the bottom of his list is...

20,000?

That's IT?

Lol, no. This list is....no. Literally countless UF indies have sold more than that per month for years. The list is missing a lot in very particular subgenres.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:03 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm also hmming at the number for Norton. She wrote a lot of books, true, but I don't know that I believe that they averaged anything like 300k sold per book. I'd like to think she's that highly ranked, mind you!
posted by tavella at 3:22 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I know a bunch of romance and women's fiction authors who have sold a million+ books, but they definitely don't self-report it or publicize that fact.

This seems like a good moment to point out for any who may not know it: romance is the real 800 lb. gorilla of the publishing world. More like a kaiju, really.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:35 PM on December 17, 2018 [13 favorites]


So are we all assuming we're bragging if we talk numbers? Is it just tacky?

It's probably just like talking about salaries with your co-workers - something you should do because it's smart, but socially frowned upon because capitalism means we're all competing.
posted by graventy at 4:15 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


More like a kaiju, really.


A shirtless kaiju, with perfect pecs and six-pack abs.
posted by darkstar at 4:24 PM on December 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


A shirtless kaiju, with perfect pecs and six-pack abs.
And a frequently unnerving insight into the inner emotional states of others.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:29 PM on December 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


Andre Norton's Witch World fantasy series is huge, has been since the first book was published in 1963. It spun off a new series of books co-authored with others, plus I'm sure a lot of titles written by others and authorized by her/her estate as part of the Witch World universe. She was a prolific writer, but it's a safe bet that this series accounted for the vast majority of her sales.
posted by Lunaloon at 4:39 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


The list is missing a lot in very particular subgenres.

It seems like it admits as much upfront? For one thing, it's SFF-specific, so if it's supernatural romance then it's probably considered out-of-bounds, even though there's barely daylight between supernatural romance and urban fantasy. And then basically everything under 1 million is admitted to be built on incomplete information and is probably not reliable.
posted by Merus at 5:37 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


No. Laurell K. Hamilton, Anita Blake, and Bella Forrest are all on it. If "Shades of Vampire" qualifies, a LOT of stuff is missing.

It's probably just like talking about salaries with your co-workers - something you should do because it's smart, but socially frowned upon because capitalism means we're all competing.

Eh. I knew someone who used to report her sales numbers when she was really taking off, and sure enough, like clockwork, every time she did she'd get clumps of one star reviews in what became a very noticeable pattern. And that's like...the mildest thing that could happen. Writers get insanely jealous. And society in general isn't super thrilled about women speaking; they get even less thrilled when they find out the women are making a shit ton of money doing it.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:42 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


For Seannan McGuire, it seems to count only her horror novels, not either of her urban fantasy or other works. That woman is incredibly prolific, I'd suspect her numbers are easily double, if not more than what they listed. And for (mefi's own) jscalzi, they counted exactly 6 books and ignored the one he won a Hugo for (which will boost sales quite a bit).

Anyway, yeah, this list is bullshit.
posted by Hactar at 6:07 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


A shirtless kaiju, with perfect pecs and six-pack abs.
And a frequently unnerving insight into the inner emotional states of others.


This brings up an additional noteworthy absence from the list, specifically national treasure Dr. Chuck Tingle.

Either you respect Space Raptor Butt Invasion as worthy SF, or your opinions count for nothing.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:37 PM on December 17, 2018 [6 favorites]


Andre Norton - that's a lot of books for someone who I think of as a golden age author...

* Alice Mary Norton wrote over 300 books.
* She was one helluva writer (I *never* forget a Norton story.)
* If I *had* to pick either Norton or (Clarke AND Asimov), Alice Mary would win.
My fav: The_Stars_Are_Ours!
posted by Twang at 3:01 AM on December 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


TO BEGIN LET'S BE ACCURATE HERE

I'm actually 309 on the list
posted by jscalzi at 5:14 AM on December 18, 2018 [17 favorites]


I was stunned to see Asimov so low on the list, dude published over 500 books in his life after all. Then I saw that they were, for some bizarre reason, only counting the Foundation series and totally ignoring the rest of his body of work.

So yeah, interesting list, but it should obviously be taken with a whole mountain of salt.
posted by sotonohito at 6:19 AM on December 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


I was stunned to see Asimov so low on the list, dude published over 500 books in his life after all.

This is supposed to be limited to SFF book sales, though, right? Asimov wrote a ton of popular non-fiction, but if you exclude his mysteries and the Norby books (none of which I expect sold in numbers big enough to affect these results), he only wrote 26 novels, most of which I'm sure sold well enough to SF fans, but weren't huge best-sellers:

1950 Pebble in the Sky
1951 The Stars, Like Dust
1952 David Starr, Space Ranger
1952 The Currents of Space
1953 Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids
1954 Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus
1954 The Caves of Steel
1955 The End of Eternity
1956 Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury
1957 Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter
1957 The Naked Sun
1958 Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn
1958 The Stars Like Dust
1966 Fantastic Voyage
1972 The Gods Themselves
1982 Foundation's Edge
1983 The Robots of Dawn
1985 Robots and Empire
1986 Foundation and Earth
1987 Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain
1988 Prelude to Foundation
1989 Nemesis
1990 Nightfall
1991 Child of Time
1992 The Positronic Man
1993 Forward the Foundation

(And I wonder how Clarke and Asimov would rank if you excluded from each author's count his One Big Movie Tie-in: 2001 for Clarke and Fantastic Voyage for Asimov.)
posted by The Tensor at 1:02 PM on December 18, 2018


> Until fairly recently, it was common for schools that had standard reading lists to buy enough books for the entire class(es), and reuse them year after year.

Is that not common in the US any more? My kids' schools do that, including Fahrenheit 451.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:29 PM on December 18, 2018


Asimov wrote a ton of popular non-fiction, but if you exclude his mysteries and the Norby books (none of which I expect sold in numbers big enough to affect these results), he only wrote 26 novels

His various short story collections -- I, Robot; Nightfall; etc -- probably add a fair bit more.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


Oh hey someone here writes Poor Man's Fight? That series is solid and a lot of fun and I am looking forward to how it turns out.

There's another series with a similar name that starts similarly and then slides towards Oh John Ringo No. Try this one instead.
posted by clew at 3:10 PM on December 20, 2018


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