Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Happy Tolkien Day

So, today is Tolkien's birthday.*

Which makes this a good occasion to share the following list of all-time best selling fantasy / science fiction / horror authors. Top honors go to J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, but JRRT is close behind in third place, and the list's compiler notes that Tolkien's total sales might be much higher than the numbers reported (350,000,000 copies).** Here's the link to the piece:


And here's the relevant paragraph about Tolkien:

3) JRR Tolkien (c. 350 million)Tolkien's sales are likewise incalculable: 100,000 copies of a pirated version of The Lord of the Rings were sold in the United States alone in under a year, so the figures for unauthorised versions of the book in other countries are completely unguessable. What remains certain is that The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the best-selling single novel of all time. More than 50 million copies of the book have been sold since 2001 alone. The 100+ million sales of The Hobbit alone have also been bolstered significantly by the new Peter Jackson movies. If anything, the above figure may well be the most conservative on the list and Tolkien's sales may be vastly more than King's.

It's unclear to me whether a three-volume set of THE LORD OF THE RINGS wd be counted as one book or three, but "possibly the best-selling . . .  novel of all time" has a nice ring to it. And it's interesting to note that had Tolkien written only THE HOBBIT, its sales alone wd be enough to make him tie with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, and Suzanne Collins for 7th/8th/9th place.***

As an old-time TSR employee, I was interested to see that shared-world authors get more respect here than they used to get from some bookstores and libraries back in the day: Bob Salvatore comes in at #28 (30,000,000 books) for his FORGOTTEN REALMS Drizzt books)**** and Hickman & Weis tie for #42/43 (22,000,0000) for the DRAGONLANCE Chronicles. And I'm happy to see that my friend Jim Lowder appears at #283 for an impressive half-a-million books.

TSR authors aside, I'm glad to see that some of the greats like Pratchett (#11; 85,000,000+) and Adams (#17; 50,000,000+) made it. Seeing all these names in a list like this calls out a lot of oddities: that Phillip Pullman's sales for THE GOLDEN COMPASS series are roughly double those of Rbt E. Howards' CONAN books; that Ursula Le Guin and Fritz Leiber are down in the four-million range (#122 & 113, respectively), roughly half their estimate for Ray Bradbury (#87), while Neil Gaiman has 40,000,000+ to his credit (#22; three quarters of this are the graphic novels).

Less easy to spot are the absences: I cd find no mention of Dunsany, or Eddison, or Hughart, or Morris, or McKillop. Which goes to show that some seminal authors sell in great numbers (e.g. Tolkien) while others are vastly influential but that's not reflected in their sales (e.g. Dunsany).

All in all, pretty impressive, given that the original print run for THE HOBBIT was, I think, 1250 copies. ***** The seeds of authors like Tolkien have grown into some pretty impressive trees.

Congrats to all the authors who made the list, and to the many many good authors who didn't.

current reading: THE BILLIONAIRE'S VINEGAR (moral: don't sell fake antiques to the Koch brothers; they're not the forgiving type)

* (125th, but who's counting?)
**for which thanks to Janice
***I'm sorry to see that BORED OF THE RINGS clocked in at #226, having sold more than a million copies; THE SODDIT (#320) accounts for another 150,000
****Ed Greenwood, creator of the Realms, comes in at #149 for around three million books.

*****my mistake: I see from checking the Hammond-Anderso DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY that the number shd be 1500


Hlaford said...

"And it's interesting to note that had Tolkien written only THE HOBBIT, its sales alone wd be enough to make him tie with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, and Suzanne Collins for 7th/8th/9th place." Would they? Had Tolkien not written TLotR there's no telling what might have happened to The Hobbit, because it was obviously boosted by its sequel. I might not have gone into oblivion, because no one denies it has intrinsic merit, but one cannot assume it would be as popular as it is today. A more realistic approach would be to project the Hobbit sales as they stood in 1954.
(Mind you, if JRRT hadn't written TLotR the list of SFF best sellers would be completely different.)

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Hlaf.

Fair enough.

--John R.