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70 Years of Best Sellers

I ran across this book, by Alice Payne Hackett, in the library last month: it lists the bestselling fiction and nonfiction books for every year from 1895 through 1965 (the year the book was written) and also the books that have sold the most total copies during that period. The nonfiction lists start in 1917. It’s fun to read these, but the classifications confuse me a bit: apparently Charlie Brown, Pogo, and the Bible are considered nonfiction. You could maybe make an argument for one or two of these, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone could put all three of them in the nonfiction category!

Hackett writes:

The authors who have had the most titles on the seventy annual ists are Mary Roberts Rinehart with eleven, Sinclair Lewis with ten, Zane Grey and Booth Tarkington with nine each, and Louis Bromfield, Winston Churchill (the American novelist), George Barr McCutcheon, Gene Stratton Porter, Frank Yerby, Edna Ferber, Daphne du Maurier, and John Steinbeck with eight each.

And here are the top selling books in the United States during 1895-1965:

The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care (The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care), by Benjamin Spock, 1946 . . . 19 million copies sold
Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book, 1930 . . . 11 million
Pocket Atlas, 1917 . . . 11 million
Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, 1956 . . . 10 million
In His Steps, by Charles Monroe Sheldon, 1897 . . . 8 million
God’s Little Acre, by Erskine Caldwell, 1933 . . . 8 million
Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook, 1950 . . . 7 million
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, 1937 . . . 7 million
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, 1937 . . . 6.5 million
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, 1932 . . . 6.5 million
101 Famous Poems, compiled by R. J. Cook, 1916 . . . 6 million
English-Spanish, Spanish-English Dictionary, compiled by Carlos Castillo and Otto F. Bond, 1948 . . . 6 million
The Carpetbaggers, by Harold Robins, 1961 . . . 5.5 million
Profiles in Courage, by John F. Kennedy, 1956 . . . 5.5 million
Exodus, by Leon Uris, 1958 . . . 5.5 million
Roget’s Pocket Thesaurous, 1923 . . . 5.5 million
I, the Jury, by Mickey Spillane, 1947 . . . 5.5 million
To Kill a Mockingbird,. by Harper Lee, 1960 . . . 5.5 million
The Big Kill, by MIckey Spillane, 1951 . . . 5 million
Modern World Atlas, 1922 . . . 5 million
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, 1900 . . . 5 million
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, 1951 . . . 5 million
My Gun is Quick, by Mickey Spillane, 1950 . . . 5 million
One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane, 1951 . . . 5 million
The Long Wait, by Mickey Spillane, 1951 . . . 5 million
Kiss Me, Deadly, by Mickey Spillane, 1952 , , , 5 million
Tragic Ground, by Erskine Caldwell, 1944 . . . 5 millon
30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred J. Funk and Norman Lewis, 1942 . . . 4.5 million
Vengeance is Mine, by MIckey Spillane, 1950 . . . 4.5 million
The Pocket Cook Book, by Elizabeth Woody, 1942 . . . 4.5 million
Return to Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious, 1959 . . . 4.5 million
Never Love a Stranger, by Harold Robbins, 1948 . . . 4.5 million
Thunderball, by Ian Fleming, 1965 . . . 4 million
1984, by George Orwell, 1949 . . . 4 million
The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick, 1958 . . . 4 million
A Message to Garcia, by Elbert Hubbard, 1898 , . . 4 million
Hawaii, by James A. Michener, 1959 . . . 4 million

This is so much fun, just typing these in. I hardly know when to stop. OK, here are the next few:

Journeyman, by Erskine Caldwell, 1935 . . . .4 million
The Greatest Story Ever Told, by Fulton Oursler, 1949 . . . 4 million
Kids Say the Darndest Things!, by Art Linkletter, 1957 . . . 4 million
The Radio Amateur’s Handbook, 1926 . . . 4 million
Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, 1952 . . . 3.5 million
From Here to Eternity, by James Jones, 1951 . . . 3.5 million
Goldfinger, by Ian Fleming, 1959 . . . 3.5 million
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1958 . . . 3.5 million
Trouble in July, by Erskine Caldwell, 1940 . . . 3.5 million
Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, 1935 . . . 3.5 million
Butterfield 8, by John O’Hara, 1935 . . . 3.5 million
The American Woman’s Cook Book, ed. by Ruth Berolzhemier, 1939 . . . 3.5 million
Duel in the Sun, by Niven Busch, 1944 . . . 3.5 million
Georgia Boy, by Erskine Caldwell, 1943 . . . 3.5 million
Four Days, by American Heritage and U.P.I., 1964, 3.5 millon

And those are all the ones that, as of 1965, had at last 3.5 million recorded sales. (Hackett, annoyingly, reports sales figures to the last digit (for example, 19,076,822 for Dr. Spock), but I’ve rounded, following the rules of good taste.) Of all these, I’d say that five would or could be considered great literature (Chatterley, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, From Here to Eternity, and Lolita). Not such a bad total, considering all the possibilities. I’ve read ten of the books on the above list (not counting the Betty Crocker cookbook, which is where I got my recipe for biscuits), with From Here to Eternity being my favorite. I once tried to read Mockingbird but with no success. Of all the books above that I haven’t read, I’d guess that I’d enjoy the John O’Hara the most. Also, Kids Say the Darndest Things, which someone (Phil?) once told me actually is very funny. Most of the books on the list sound vaguely familiar, but many only vaguely. For example, I recall the name “Erskine Caldwell” but know nothing about his books beyond what I can imagine from the titles. Maybe I once read something on his work in a compilation of reviews by Edmund Wilson ,or something like that? “Duel in the Sun” was made into a movie, Mickey Spillane was famous for suspense thrillers where the hero shot the girl, Kennedy “authored” rather than wrote Profiles in Courage. And so on.

I had a great time just going through the titles and authors. Here’s the end of the list, all the books that are listed as having sold a (meaninglessly precise) 1,000,000 copies:

Anthony Adverse, by Harvey Allen, 1933
Brave Men, by Ernie Pyle, 1944
Etiquette, by Emily Post, 1922
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, 1963
A Heap O’Livin’, by Edgar Guest, 1916
Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman, 1999
The Moneyman, by Thomas B. Costain, 1947
Pollyanna Grows Up, by Eleanor H. Porter, 1915
Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine, 1958
The Simple Life, by Charles Wagner, 1901
Stiletto, by Harold Robbins, 1960
Twixt Twelve and Twenty, by Pat Boone, 1957
The Web of Days, by Edna L. Lee, 1947
Will Rogers, by Patrick J. O’Brien, 1935
Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk, 1962

These really are obscure; most of them I’d never heard of before. Seeing that Pat Boone title reminds me of “Pimples and Other Problems, by Mary Robinson,” a title which I made up for an assignment in high school in which we were supposed to list and summarize 20 books that we had read. For some reason, my friends and I were getting bored as we got near the end, and so we filled out our lists with made-up books. Fictional fiction, as it were. Although I seem to recall that the Robinson book was more of a book of nonfictional reminisces, in the manner of Erma Bombeck but with an adolescent focus. We all thought it was funny that we padded our lists, but now that I’m a teacher myself, I realize what a pain it is to grade papers. Our teacher probably flipped through our assignments at lightspeed.

The writer with the most titles on the combined list (of all books selling at least a million copies, in all editions) was Erle Stanley Gardner, with 91 (!). It’s funny, I don’t remember seeing any of these in the public library when I was a kid. I wonder if the librarians considered them too hard-boiled for public consumption. His bestseller was The Case of the Lucky Legs, which came out in 1934 and, through 1965, had sold 3,499,948 copies. The Case of the Sulky Girl, from 1933, had sold 3.2 million copies, and it continues from there.

This is just so much fun. The analogy, I suppose, is with the weekly movie grosses that I’ve been told are now a national obsession (maybe not anymore?) or the TV ratings, which I remember reading about regularly in the newspaper thirty years ago. Back in 1965, books had some of the central position that movies (and video games?) have now in our culture. (TV seems to have come in and gone out; lots and lots of people watch TV, but I don’t get a sense that people care too much anymore what are the top 10 shows in the Nielsens.) Movies are OK, but I’m still much more interested in books, which is one reason I so much enjoyed flipping through 70 Years of Best Sellers. (A sequel, “80 Years . . .,” came out 10 years later, but that seems to be the end of the line.) The book concludes with a list of references, various books and articles about bestsellers, many of which look like they’d be fun to read.

P.S. This list is fun too. The numbers are much larger (it has A Tale of Two Cities, at 200 million copies, as the bestselling book not published by the government or a religious group, with the Boy Scout Handbook, Lord of the Rings, and one of the Harry Potter books following up). The numbers on this Wikipedia list come from all different sources and I’m sure that some are overestimates; beyond this, I guess that lots and lots of books have been sold in the forty years since 1965. The Wikipedia list is admittedly incomplete; for example, it doesn’t include the aforementioned Perry Mason in its list of bestselling series. It does, however, note that “the Perry Rhodan series has sold more than 1 billion copies.” I’d never heard of this one at all, but, following the link, I see that it’s some sort of German serial, which I guess puts it in the same category as Mexican comic books and other things that I’ve vaguely heard about but have never seen. Once you start thinking about things like that–books that blur the boundary between literature and pop entertainment–I guess you can pile up some big numbers.

P.P.S. What are the bestselling statistics books? (Not counting introductory textbooks, which don’t quite count, since students don’t quite choose to by them.) The first two I can think of are Statistical Methods for Research Workers, Snedecor and Cochran, and Feller volume 1 (counting all editions in each case), but all these were published long ago and probably had most of their sales back in the days before book sales were so high (sales for all books are continuing to increase, in advance of the big crash that’s coming some day soon). When thinking of total sales, maybe I should be thinking of books that have come out more recently. Exploratory Data Analysis? The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (yes, that’s a statistics book)? I wouldn’t quite count Freakonomics or Supercrunchers or Fooled by Randomness or the collected works of Malcolm Gladwell (or, for that matter, Red State, Blue State); these books are all about statistics but I wouldn’t quite call them “statistics books.” Generalized Linear Models, maybe? Everybody has that one, but in lifetime sales maybe it’s not in the Snedecor and Cochran class. I’d hate to think that the all-time #1 is How to Lie with Statistics (or, worse, Statistics for Dummies), but maybe so. Or maybe there’s something huge and obvious that I’m forgetting?

And the all-time #1 political science book is, what, Machiavelli? Or Hobbes, maybe? At least until Sarah Palin’s memoir comes out.


  1. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Spock at the top – Unfortunately the _Common Sense_ of Spock was not evidence based and some like Ian Chalmers have tried to get some good estimates of the damage done (avoidable deaths)…

    Perhaps a bit unfair to some one writing in 1946, bit very scary if these are still being read.

    > Machiavelli? – I think may be so and that definitely was his intention or in his words – his virtue.


  2. Phil says:

    Nope, it wasn't me who recommended "Kids say the darndest things." I could imagine enjoying a page or two of a book like that, but I think it would grow tiresome — hey, we all know kids say the darnest things. I'd be much more interested in "Presidents say the darnest things," or "Scientists say the darndest things."

    My favorite Presidential quote of all time: "I know that human beings and fish can coexist peacefully." (George W Bush). The word "peacefully" puts it over the top.

  3. agnostic says:

    It'd be neat to dig up data on how many books are published each year (I know some of the older editions of the Stat Ab have this, maybe up through the '80s). Then you could estimate the success rate of books released in a certain year as # best-sellers / # total books.

  4. xi'an says:

    Quite interesting! I read several Caldwell's, including God's Little Acre, and they are truly worth reading, actually! Not Faulkner's class, but definitely above Steinbeck's… I did not know he was such a bestselling author…

  5. Phil says:

    Along the lines agnostic mentioned, it would be nice to see some kind of normalization for population. 11 million people bought the 1917 pocket atlas…makes sense, obviously…that's about 1 for every 10 people in the U.S. You'd have to sell more than 30 million to match that now. Hmm, actually quite a few books have sold more than 30 million copies, according to Wikipedia.

  6. Nameless says:

    Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks used to mention in the preface that Gardner is "the only author who outsells Agatha Christie, Harold Robbins, Barbara Cartland, and Louis L'Amour combined!". Which was probably never true with regard to worldwide sales, but may have been the case up until the early 70's with regard to the United States (Cartland and Christie were British and therefore not that popular in the U.S., and Robbins and L'Amour were both a generation younger than Gardner.)

    It is curious that there's no mention of Agatha Christie in your book. Her most famous work "And then there were none" apparently sold in 115 million copies worldwide by now, so I'd guess at least 30 million by 1965 … but less than 4 million of those in the United States?

  7. zbicyclist says:

    In terms of statistics books, I'd guess it would be "How to Lie with Statistics" followed by "Statistics" by Murray Spiegel (with various editions and co-authors).

  8. Andrew Gelman says:

    Nameless: And Then There Were None is listed at 1.3 million in U.S. total sales as of 1965. I guess lots have sold since then. Also, maybe the "115 million" claim is false. It could very well be a number made up by a publisher, for example by taking sales in the last few years and then extrapolating back to 1940 in some way.

    Zbicyclist: I'd be interested in what you get after excluding intro textbooks and fluffy stuff in the "How to Lie" vein.

  9. dino says:

    Does anybody know anything about some kind of "worst selling" list? I know, generally speaking, this doesn't make much sense. However, given a, say, "best author" list, it could be interesting/fun browsing through their respective worst selling books.

  10. doug says:

    These lists are more fun when, as here, there's some data. However, I'm not aware of any source for sales of serious statistics, so here's a list of statistics best sellers, unconstrained by any data at all:

    Fisher, Statistical Methods for Research Workers
    Fisher, Design of Experiments
    Snedecor & Cochran, Statistical Methods
    Cramer, Mathematical Methods of Statistics
    Cochran, Sampling Techniques
    Scheffe, Analysis of Variance
    Feller, An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, vol. 1
    Anderson, Introduction to Multivariate Statistical Analysis
    Lehmann, Testing Statistical Hypotheses
    Luce and Raiffa, Games and Decisions
    Box and Jenkins, Time Series Analysis
    Tukey, Exploratory Data Analysis
    Cox and Hinckley, Theoretical Statistics
    Efron, The Jacknife, the Bootstrap, and Other Resampling Plans
    McCullagh and Nelder, Generalized Linear Models
    Tufte, Visual Display of Quantitative Data
    Little and Rubin, Statistical Analysis of Missing Data
    Silverman, Kernel Density Estimation for Statistics and Data Analysis
    Venables and Ripley, Modern Applied Statistics with S
    Gelman, Carlin, Stern and Rubin, Bayesian Data Analysis
    Hastie, Tibshirani and Friedman, Elements of Statistical Learning

    Obviously, it helps to be usable as a text book. I'm guessing that books that had multiple editions sold more copies, though this is a fairly low bar (and subject to lots of measurement error!)

  11. Sebastian says:

    @great literature: I do think that Wizard of Oz is truly great literature – there is a certain bias against children's literature in what is considered great, but for me the great classics of the genre are definitely up there.

    @statistics bestsellers: I see Friedman, Pisani and Purves _Statistics_ in eds. 1-4 everywhere – is that a bias? It's also on rank 4000 of the book sales, which seems extremely high for a stats book. Does it fall under the "intro book" rule?
    Every economist I've ever met has the Wooldridge panel book in his bookshelf, as do many political scientists – considering sheer force of numbers that should matter.

    @political science: I don't think Hobbes, Macchiavelli and the likes should count. I would guess that Clash of Civilizations is probably the No. 1 post-war polisci book (when defined as book about politics written by serious academic political scientist).

  12. jb says:

    re: how books hold up over time, here's a look at the results of a 1929 survey by a british newspaper asking readers which authors would still be read a century later. so it's a bit early to judge, but you get the idea.

    personally, i would nominate to kill a mockingbird for the "great literature" shortlist.

  13. Megan Pledger says:

    I remember reading Exodus by Leon Uris as a teenager and going on to read his others. I recommend reading Trinity (especially if you have Irish heritage) and Armageddon (for the American connection)as well as Exodus. The latter revolves mostly around post-war Berlin.

    They are not works of great literature and they have a slanted viewpoint (which time has accentuated) but they put the people aspect into great historical events – events that are slowly fading from group conciousness as time moves on.

  14. Andrew Gelman says:

    I still want to know what they were thinking, listing Charlie Brown, Pogo, and the Bible as nonfiction!