What “Bestseller” Really Means (& Why It’s Bogus)
Have you ever wondered why Amazon, the New York Times, and USA Today have wildly different bestseller lists? How can a book be the #1 NY Times bestseller and not even make the top 10 on USA Today’s list? Shouldn’t it be the same no matter which outlet is publishing the list?
In a perfect world, maybe it would.
The reality is everyone has their own method for compiling a bestseller list. Big outlets like the New York Times and USA Today pull sales data from various bookstores around the country. Not every bookstore. Not even close. They handpick certain bookstores and then weight the numbers from those bookstores into their own formulas to determine their lists.
Worse, sales numbers reflect the number of copies a bookstore ordered. Not the number of copies sold to actual book buyers. Ponder for a moment how many bestsellers you see remaindered in the bargain section of Barnes and Noble. Those were books that made various bestseller lists…but the books didn’t actually sell to consumers. Hence the reason they are now on the bargain rack.
But let’s say you could create a Perfect Bestseller List. One that reflected all sales of a new book in every bookstore in America.
You’d still be way off the mark. Because secondhand books aren’t sold that way. Secondhand stores don’t scan the barcode for used books. Hence there’s no record of the sale. And what about library booksales? Or checkouts at the library? Or books sold in yard sales? Or books read and passed along to friends?
You get the idea.
If we want to understand what books and writers are truly the most popular, relying on bestseller lists is a terrible way to do it.
Luckily, there’s a better way.
Why Search Volume Gives a Better Picture
I’m a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) specialist. My job is to optimize websites so that they rank better when someone searches for something on Google or Bing or wherever.
SEO is founded upon keyword targeting. What does someone type in when they search for something on Google? What specific words and phrases do they use? Do people search for New York City subway or NYC subway? President of the United States or American president?
In my work, I utilize software programs that analyze and track what people actually search for every day. These programs allow SEO experts to see trends in searches and identify what people are truly looking for online.
How does this apply to books and writers?
These tools allow us to enter searches like JK Rowling, Anna Karenina, and Dracula to see how often people search for them. We can also see where those searches occur, and we can generate lists of thousands of related searches (Where does JK Rowling live? What year was Anna Karenina written?) that help us understand what people are thinking when surfing the net.
Consider this: when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed. For months, it became a bestseller again. But sales eventually declined. If we were only looking at bestseller lists, we would conclude people were not reading 1984 all that much six years later.
But keyword research tells a different story.
It shows us that in 2022, 1984 is the single most popular novel in the world (not associated with a popular movie franchise like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones). Orwell’s novel is still very relevant, but you wouldn’t know it if you were looking at bestseller lists.
The Most Famous Authors in the World
To identify the most famous authors in the world, we calculated the estimated number of searches per month worldwide for each author’s name using keyword research tools such as SEMRush and Moz, both leaders in search engine optimization analytics software.
Once the top 50 most famous authors were determined, those same writers were analyzed for individual countries in order to see how they ranked in the following countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, India, France, Germany and Brazil.
In some cases, data was not available for particular writers in a given country.
The 50 Most Famous Authors in the World
Who is the most famous author in the world?
Stephen King is the most famous author in the world with 1.1 million searches per month. He is the only author with more than one million searches per month.
King is also distinct within the Top 10. He is not a classic writer, such as Poe or Shakespeare. Nor is he associated primarily with a hugely successful series, such as Rowling and Harry Potter. The only other writer in the Top 10 who resembles King is Roald Dahl, although he is widely considered a classic children’s writer.
The Top 10 Most Famous Writers by Searches Per Month:
- Stephen King: 1,100,000
- JK Rowling: 996,500
- William Shakespeare: 945,400
- Victor Hugo: 785,000
- Agatha Christie: 667,900
- Oscar Wilde: 603,100
- Edgar Allan Poe: 598,300
- Roald Dahl: 569,700
- Dante Alighieri: 566,100
- Jane Austen: 543,100
Who is the most famous children’s author in the world?
The most famous children’s author in the world is JK Rowling, with 996,500 searches per month. She is also the second most famous writer of any kind in the world.
Who are the most famous female authors?
The most famous female authors in the world are:
- JK Rowling: 996,500 searches per month
- Agatha Christie: 667,900 searches per month
- Jane Austen: 543,100 searches per month
- Virginia Woolf: 358,100 searches per month
- Ayn Rand: 268,400 searches per month
- Mary Shelley: 264,100 searches per month
Mary Shelley has the distinction of having written the second most popular single book of any kind, Frankenstein (649,800 searches per month), while JK Rowling has written the most popular series of any writer (9.7 million searches per month).
Who are the most famous American authors?
The most famous American writers are Stephen King (1.1 million), Edgar Allan Poe (598,300) and Ernest Hemingway (527,800). King is the most famous author in the world, with almost as many searches per month as Poe and Hemingway combined.
The Most Famous Authors by Country
For the charts below, the authors from the 50 Most Famous Authors were broken down by their popularity around the world. While this gives us insight into where those authors are popular, it unfortunately overlooks writers who may be incredibly popular in a certain country but who are not on the 50 Most Famous list.
The Most Famous Authors in the United States
The Most Famous Authors in the United Kingdom
The Most Famous Authors in Japan
The Most Famous Authors in India
The Most Famous Authors in Germany
The Most Famous Authors in France
The Most Famous Authors in Brazil
The Most Popular Books in the World
Determining the most popular books in the world presents a real challenge. If someone searches for Harry Potter, are they looking for the book or the movie? SEO analytics tools can help by providing insight into the most common questions associated with a particular search, and Google’s search results are a strong indication as to what people are looking for.
However, ultimately we don’t know.
For our purposes here, we analyzed books written primarily by authors on the most famous list above and supplemented that with popular classics (such as Crime and Punishment).
If a book was associated with a popular modern movie, then it was removed from the list. Clearly certain books connected to major movie franchises (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games) are enormously popular, but for our purposes here we wanted a list we could say with a high degree of certainty was focused on books.
The Most Popular Books in the World
What is the most popular book in the world?
George Orwell’s 1984 is the most popular book in the world with 789,500 searches per month.
What are the most popular books right now?
The most popular standalone books in the world right now are 1984, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Stand and Don Quixote.
The Top 10 Most Popular Books by Searches Per Month:
- 1984 by George Orwell: 789,500
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 649,800
- Dracula by Bram Stoker: 632,600
- The Stand by Stephen King: 559,700
- Don Quixote by Cervantes: 507,300
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare: 481,800
- Animal Farm by George Orwell: 468,900
- Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 444,300
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho:431,800
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 414,000
What is the most popular book series?
The most popular book series in the world is the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling with 9.7 million total searches per month for the keyword Harry Potter.
A popular book series is often connected to a popular movie franchise, making it difficult to determine if a user is searching for either the book or the movie online. Analytics shows far more volume for movie-related searches (Game of Thrones cast, How many Percy Jackson movies are there?). But clearly a fair number of people searching for Sherlock Holmes are looking for books.
Narrowing the search criteria to Hunger Games books or Narnia books makes the intent of the user more certain, but it fails to reveal the true scope of the popularity of a series. In the chart below, we chose to include raw numbers for the main series title, even though a significant portion of these searches are no doubt for people who want to watch the movies rather than read the books.
The Most Popular Book Series
The Most Popular Books By Country
The Most Popular Books in the United States
The Most Popular Books in the United Kingdom
The Most Popular Books in Spain
The Most Popular Books in Russia
The Most Popular Books in Mexico
The Most Popular Books in Japan
The Most Popular Books in India
The Most Popular Books in Germany
The Most Popular Books in France
Individual Book Studies
Zooming in on particular books gives us a glimpse of how well a particular work travels. It can reveal the kind of story that appeals to people in specific nations, and it can reveal much about our own beliefs about our literature and ourselves.
Mostly though, zooming in raises interesting questions.
What does it mean that Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is vastly more popular in Poland, India and Japan than it is in the United Kingdom, a country that speaks English and is most closely aligned with the US?
What are we to make of the fact that 1984, Frankenstein and The Count of Monte Cristo, all foreign novels, are far more popular in Brazil than 100 Years of Solitude, even though Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s home country, Colombia, is right next door?
The data doesn’t provide any answers, but the questions are fascinating.
How Popular is The Old Man and the Sea?
How Popular is The Count of Monte Cristo?
How Popular is Frankenstein?
How Popular is Fahrenheit 451?
How Popular is 1984?
How Popular is One Hundred Years of Solitude?
What We Learned
Keyword analytics can tell you what people search for and how often and where, but it can’t really tell you what people are thinking. SEO experts are not mindreaders. However, our job is to analyze the data, look at related searches, examine what search engines like Google deliver in search results, and try to determine what people want.
Looking over the data, there are a number of conclusions that we reasonably drew.
The US is Full of Readers
Despite popular opinion, the United States is a nation of readers. Consider the most popular novel in the world, 1984. Here is the breakdown for the countries where Orwell’s masterpiece is most popular:
- United States: 165,000 (.0005 percent of population)
- Brazil: 65,000 (.00029 percent of the population)
- France: 40,500 (.0006 percent of the population)
- Russia: 40,500 (.0006 percent of the population)
- UK: 40,500 (.0006 percent of the population)
There is a higher percentage of people reading 1984 in the US than in Brazil, and the US trails France, Russia and the UK by a fraction of a percent. The percentage of the American population reading 1984 is roughly equal or ahead of many other countries.
But are Americans just buying whatever’s popular at the moment? What about hard-to-read classics? Isn’t that a better measure of the literacy of a population?
Let’s consider the Spanish classic Don Quixote.
Of the total global volume of searches (507,300), a third come from the US alone (165,500). And there is a higher percentage of the population searching Cervantes’ classic (.0005) in the US than in Spain itself (.00046).
The data is fairly clear on this point. It is time to put to bed the notion that America is a land of illiterate boob-tubers who never pick up a book. It simply isn’t true.
Classic Horror is All the Rage
Of the top five most popular novels, two are classic horror novels: Frankenstein and Dracula, at spots #2 and #3 respectively. Edgar Allan Poe is 7th most famous writer in the world, beating out Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss.
In fact, the only other American writer in the top 10 is another horror writer, Stephen King.
Consider Poe’s staying power. Here’s how he ranks against other 19th Century authors:
- Poe: 598,300
- Jane Austen: 543,100
- Mark Twain: 439,700
- Charles Dickens: 420,100
- Mary Shelley: 264,100
- Jules Verne: 201,400
- Jack London: 151,100
Also on the list of most famous writers is HP Lovecraft, who is one of the rare authors on the list known almost exclusively for their short stories (the other three: Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ray Bradbury, who is also known for his horror work).
English Language Novels Are Widely Popular Around the World
This isn’t intended as a declaration of superiority, but rather an interesting starting point for discussion. Consider that of the top 5 most popular books in the world, four were written by English language authors (three from England).
Of the 10 most famous writers, eight are either English or American.
While the reasons for this are no doubt myriad and debatable, it is clear that we are living in a world in which English language writers (classic and modern) are better known and more widely read than writers in any other language.
This can be seen as both a testament to the tremendous skill of English language writers and also the practical effects of political, economic and military power, which has shaped the global landscape for better and for worse.
The Classics Dominate
Another myth the data does not support is the idea that modern readers care little for the classics. Not so.
Of the top 10 most popular books in the world, all are either traditional classics (Frankenstein, Dracula, Don Quixote) or widely considered modern classics (The Stand, Fahrenheit 451).
In fact, the only books likely to edge out the popularity of the classics are those tied to mega movie franchises, such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones.
Among the most famous authors on the planet, classic writers far outrank their modern brethren. James Patterson, generally acknowledged as the bestselling author in the world, barely makes the list of most famous authors (#44 with 141,000 searches per month). Compare him to, say, Oscar Wilde (#6 with 603,100 searches per month) or Virginia Woolf (#18 with 358,100 searches per month).
The Spanish Knight Still Tilts Windmills in the 21st Century
Of all the works and authors on the list, perhaps the most surprising is Don Quixote. Cervantes has been popular for hundreds of years, but the level of the Spanish knight’s current popularity is unparalleled.
Consider this: there is no major successful film adaptation of Don Quixote, no Netflix miniseries. A loose adaptation on Broadway (Man of La Mancha) was performed in 2019 but had its greatest success in the 1970s. There are no spinoff shows or origin story films.
Nor is Quixote a staple in high school classrooms or even college courses (it is taught at university, of course, but almost exclusively to upper-level English majors).
Cervantes is not a world celebrity (in fact, he failed to make the list of Most Famous Authors). He is not a cultural meme, nor is he widely searched for to uncover literary quotes (Cervantes quotes generates 510 searches per month worldwide; compare that to Virginia Woolf quotes, which generates 15,100).
And Quixote’s popularity is not due to an overwhelming number of searches within a single nation. True, it is the most popular novel in Spain, but it is the #2 most popular book in Japan, the #6 most popular in Mexico, the #3 most popular in the US, and the #1 most popular in France.
Indeed, accounting for Don Quixote’s popularity is challenging. It is a long, dense novel over 400 years old that most of the world must read in translation. The only other work of similar age on the list is Hamlet, and while the Bard’s masterpiece is enormously popular, it is clearly edged out by Don Quixote again and again (and this in spite of the fact that there are numerous Hamlet films and Shakespeare is taught in nearly every high school in the industrialized world).
Agatha Christie Remains the Undisputed Queen of Mystery
Surprisingly, there are very few mystery writers on the list of most famous authors. Agatha Christie is the only mystery writer in the top 10 (#5 with 667,900 searches per month). Her closest rival is Arthur Conan Doyle (#45 with 143,000 searches per month).
In spite of the wide appeal of the modern mystery thriller (Jo Nesbo, Lee Child) and the domestic thriller (Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins), it is the dame of the cozy mystery who reigns supreme. No other mystery writer is even remotely close to Agatha Christie’s appeal, a testament to her enduring staying power.
All Hail the King
Stephen King is the most famous writer in the world, and by a wide margin. The only other modern writers in the top 10 are JK Rowling (#2) and Roald Dahl (#8).
While some of King’s novels are considered modern classics (The Stand, The Shining, IT), the status of Classic Writer is often denied him by literary critics. This means he is the only writer in the top 10 who is neither a “classic” writer or tied to a mega movie franchise (there are many movies made from King’s work, but as of yet no true franchises comparable to, say, The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games).
Nor is he primarily known for work in a particular series like JK Rowling or Agatha Christie (#5).
Discluding JK Rowling, the next five living novelists on the list are:
- Neil Gaiman: 277,900
- George RR Martin: 268,600
- Dan Brown: 260,800
- Margaret Atwood: 187,200
- Toni Morrison: 177,400
King is roughly as popular as all of them combined.
King is sometimes called the Dickens of the 20th Century, but given the widespread popularity of King in every corner of the globe, comparing him to Dickens may underestimate his actual appeal. It is quite possible that King is the most popular novelist in history.