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:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
Isaac Asimov 1920–1992 29.6% Foundation 7.6% 1901
Orson Scott Card 1951– 23.8% Ender’s Game 20.8% 340
Anne McCaffrey 1926–2011 23.7% Dragonflight 4.1% 262
Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007 22.2% Slaughterhouse-Five 23.7% 227
George Orwell 1903–1950 21.4% 1984 43.3% 266
Douglas Adams 1952–2001 21.4% The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 20.9% 110
Robert A. Heinlein 1907–1988 20.2% Starship Troopers 7.1% 341
Margaret Atwood 1939– 19.0% The Handmaid’s Tale 22.7% 187
Ray Bradbury 1920–2012 16.2% Fahrenheit 451 35.6% 803
Ursula K. Le Guin 1929–2018 14.9% A Wizard of Earthsea 10.8% 397
Philip K. Dick 1928–1982 14.7% Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 14.1% 525
Frank Herbert 1920–1986 13.4% Dune 31.0% 178
Arthur C. Clarke 1917–2008 13.4% 2001: A Space Odyssey 10.7% 482
Neal Stephenson 1959– 13.0% Snow Crash 18.5% 70
Larry Niven 1938– 11.0% Ringworld 10.1% 299
Aldous Huxley 1894–1963 10.6% Brave New World 59.1% 234
William Gibson 1948– 10.6% Neuromancer 25.8% 51
Iain M. Banks 1954–2013 10.2% Consider Phlebas 7.8% 54
H. G. Wells 1866–1946 9.8% The Time Machine 19.7% 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:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
J. K. Rowling 1965– 100.0% Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone 14.9% 177
Stephen King 1947– 77.6% The Gunslinger 3.3% 664
Terry Pratchett 1948–2015 61.1% Good Omens 6.3% 312
J. R. R. Tolkien 1892–1973 48.3% The Hobbit 21.5% 620
C. S. Lewis 1898–1963 46.1% The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 10.1% 618
Neil Gaiman 1960– 45.9% American Gods 9.1% 575
Stephenie Meyer 1973– 28.2% Twilight 26.1% 72
Dan Brown 1964– 23.8% The Da Vinci Code 38.3% 35
Dean Koontz 1945– 22.7% Odd Thomas 4.2% 342
Mercedes Lackey 1950– 21.3% Arrows of the Queen 2.3% 295
George R. R. Martin 1948– 21.0% A Game of Thrones 21.4% 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:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
William Shakespeare 1564–1616 40.8% The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 9.0% 4336
Agatha Christie 1890–1976 36.8% And Then There Were None 5.2% 1502
Jane Austen 1775–1817 30.6% Pride and Prejudice 29.8% 705
Charles Dickens 1812–1870 29.3% Great Expectations 14.2% 1841
Mark Twain 1835–1910 19.2% Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 24.2% 2040
Ernest Hemingway 1899–1961 17.4% The Old Man and The Sea 19.3% 501
Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821–1881 16.6% Crime and Punishment 29.8% 952
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1927–2014 15.0% One Hundred Years of Solitude 35.1% 289
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859–1930 14.4% The Hound of the Baskervilles 10.0% 2350
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896–1940 14.1% The Great Gatsby 58.0% 425

Big Bill is way up there, and blows away those lightweights with 4336 works.  Even Dostoevsky and Marquez do well by this measure.

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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