Who Are the Best-Selling SF Authors?

There doesn’t seem to be a direct way to answer this.   Book sales data appears to be kept very private between authors and publishers, probably for the same reason that you never tell anyone your income.  In any case, books are a highly durable product and can last for centuries, so knowing modern sales figures wouldn’t say much about how many books were sold long ago.

But maybe we can answer this a different way.  The website LibraryThing lets you keep a catalog of your own library online.  It currently has 2.2M members, and 122M works cataloged, representing 11.7M unique titles.  I use it myself.   It can show the number of works held by its members by author.   This can tell us how popular authors are, at least among these bibliophilic and technophilic users.   They’re far from a random sample of readers, but they’re probably more similar to you, if you’re reading this blog post.

The most popular author by this standard is J. K. Rowling, who has 625,782 works in the collection as of this writing.  That’s 0.5% of all the books listed!   For other authors, let’s express their popularity as a percentage of hers, rather than by somewhat meaningless raw copy counts.   The webpages also show which individual book has the most copies, so let’s also look at whether that book dominates the author’s total.  It even shows the total number of works held, although that can include a lot of really minor stuff.

I sampled a lot of authors in this spreadsheet: LibraryThing Author Statistics.  Many of them write in multiple genres, but I assigned them to the genre of their biggest book. I did make an exception for Ursula K. Le Guin, because I’m a fan.   Below is how it looks for the top 20 SF authors.  Click on the link to see the author’s full list on LibraryThing:

AuthorLived% of Rowling copiesBook with Most Copies% of author’s total# works
Isaac Asimov 1920 –199229.6%Foundation7.6%1901
Orson Scott Card1951–23.8%Ender’s Game20.8%340
Anne McCaffrey 1926 –201123.7%Dragonflight4.1%262
Kurt Vonnegut 1922 –200722.2%Slaughter house-Five23.7%227
George Orwell 1903 –195021.4%198443.3%266
Douglas Adams 1952 –200121.4%The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy20.9%110
Robert A. Heinlein 1907 –198820.2%Starship Troopers7.1%341
Margaret Atwood1939–19.0%The Handmaid’s Tale22.7%187
Ray Bradbury 1920 –201216.2%Fahrenheit 45135.6%803
Ursula K. Le Guin 1929 –201814.9%A Wizard of Earthsea10.8%397
Philip K. Dick 1928 –198214.7%Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?14.1%525
Frank Herbert 1920 –198613.4%Dune31.0%178
Arthur C. Clarke 1917 –200813.4%2001: A Space Odyssey10.7%482
Neal Stephenson1959–13.0%Snow Crash18.5%70
Larry Niven1938–11.0%Ringworld10.1%299
Aldous Huxley 1894 –196310.6%Brave New World59.1%234
William Gibson 1948–10.6%Neuromancer25.8%51
Iain M. Banks 1954 –201310.2%Consider Phlebas7.8%54
H. G. Wells 1866 –19469.8%The Time Machine19.7%898

Asimov wins! And he’s not just known for Foundation. And there are an enormous number of works under his name, 1901, which is unsurprising given that he wrote over 500 full books.  The authors with the most works are him, Wells, Bradbury, Dick, and Le Guin, who all had long, productive careers.

Orson Scott Card and Ann McCaffrey come in at #2 and #3, which higher than I would have expected.  Likewise Heinlein at #6 and Clarke at #12 are lower.  I’m pleased that Iain M. Banks made it onto the list, and if you added in his non-SF work (published as just Iain Banks), that would add another 3%.

Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley are mainly known for one work, but those works are major.  McCaffrey, Heinlein, and Asimov had the lowest percentages for their biggest book, showing what diverse output they had.

There are only a few living authors (although we just lost Le Guin!), and only three women, so this represents an older view of the field.  This might well be an older audience, one that has had time to build up enough of a library to want to catalog.

For comparison, let’s look at the top 10 genre authors:

AuthorLived% of Rowling copiesBook with Most Copies% of author’s total# works
J. K. Rowling1965–100.0%Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone14.9%177
Stephen King 1947–77.6%The Gunslinger3.3%664
Terry Pratchett 1948 –201561.1%Good Omens6.3%312
J. R. R. Tolkien 1892 –197348.3%The Hobbit21.5%620
C. S. Lewis 1898 –196346.1%The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe10.1%618
Neil Gaiman1960–45.9%American Gods9.1%575
Stephenie Meyer1973–28.2%Twilight26.1%72
Dan Brown 1964–23.8%The Da Vinci Code38.3%35
Dean Koontz1945–22.7%Odd Thomas4.2%342
Mercedes Lackey1950–21.3%Arrows of the Queen2.3%295
George R. R. Martin1948–21.0%A Game of Thrones21.4%494

Fantasy sells a lot more than SF!  Six authors here are bigger than Asimov, including the youngster Neil Gaiman.  The youngest author in both these lists is Stephenie Meyer, followed by Rowling.

Are you dismayed that fantasy and SF seem to dominate people’s collections?   Don’t worry – classic authors do very well too:

AuthorLived% of Rowling copiesBook with Most Copies% of author’s total# works
William Shakespeare 1564 –161640.8%The Complete Works of William Shakespeare9.0%4336
Agatha Christie 1890 –197636.8%And Then There Were None5.2%1502
Jane Austen 1775 –181730.6%Pride and Prejudice29.8%705
Charles Dickens 1812 –187029.3%Great Expectations14.2%1841
Mark Twain 1835 –191019.2%Adventures of Huckleberry Finn24.2%2040
Ernest Hemingway 1899 –196117.4%The Old Man and The Sea19.3%501
Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821 –188116.6%Crime and Punishment29.8%952
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1927 –201415.0%One Hundred Years of Solitude35.1%289
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 –193014.4%The Hound of the Baskervilles10.0%2350
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 –194014.1%The Great Gatsby58.0%425

Big Bill is way up there, and blows away those lightweights with 4336 works.  Even the foreign language authors Dostoevsky and Marquez rate highly in terms of number of copies.

Is this a fair measure overall?  It’s certainly not a measure of overall influence – Austen and Dickens are clearly more important authors than Rowling or King.   It’s probably not a good measure of actual unit sales either, but that only matters to investors in publishing houses.  Maybe it’s best thought of as a sense of what people who care about books have actually read.    You’ve probably heard of all of these authors.   If not, give them a try!

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