Here’s an interesting collection of facts that might help you decide what kind of writer you want to be.
Today I found a breakdown of the best-selling authors of all time. The results are not what you might expect. Here are the top ten. Figures are estimations.
1. William Shakespeare 2-4 billion copies sold worldwide.
2. Agatha Christie 2-4 billion
3. Barbara Cartland 500 million – 1 billion
4. Danielle Steel (no relation, sadly) 500 million – 800 million
5. Harold Robbins 750 million
6. Georges Simenon 500-700 million
7. Corin Tellado 400 million
8. Sidney Sheldon 370-600 million
9. Dr. Seuss 100-500 million
10. Gilbert Patten 125-500 million
Now, if these figures are to be believed (and you can view the source here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors) you may be surprised at some of the names. Where is J K Rowling, the darling of YA fantasy lovers? And what about Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy? All best-selling authors.
So what connects these writers?
Agatha Christie wrote whodunnits. Cartland, Steel and Tellado are all romance writers. Harold Robbins wrote steamy pulp novels (one of them being the blueprint for the Elvis Presley movie King Creole). Georges Simenon created the detective Maigret. Dr. Seuss writes for pre-schoolers, and Gilbert Patten wrote Boys’-Own style adventure stories.
They were all also prolific (including Shakespeare, who wrote 38 plays, 142 Sonnets and two long poems). Corin Tellado, for example, wrote over 4000 novels.
And, with the exception of Shakespeare, none of them are renowned for producing “high art”.
The moral of this tale might be to produce as much as possible. “Never mind the quality, feel the width”, as the saying goes. Quantity certainly seems to earn more money than quality in publishing terms.
However, if we look just below these names, the figures tell a different story. Shakespeare was living in the 16th century. The others are all 20th century writers. They have the advantage of a modern publishing industry, media and advertising.
How surprising, then, to find that Leo Tolstoy is the 12th name on the list. The writer of two famously long “heavy” novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, has also sold hundreds of millions of copies. CS Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, has also sold between 1-200 million books. And Russian playwright and poet Alexander Pushkin may have sold up to 357 million copies of his works.
So what does this tell us? Certainly, in a mass-market media, churning out books helps. However, the public also seem to appreciate quality writing. Foreign markets are also a huge source of sales. So before you pick up your pen, decide whether you’d rather write romance or sci-fi, crank out thousands of books or perhaps write only one, as Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning writer Harper Lee did (until recently).
And then forget about ALL of this and just try to write something good.