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Literary mysteries: The best-selling books of all time

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Some of the bestselling books of all time
From "Don Quixote" to "Harry Potter": epics and fantasy stories rule the bestsellers list.
Courtesy of publishers

For Literary Mysteries, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: What are the best-selling books of all time?

Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" has been flying off the shelves, and Harper Collins announced that more than 1.1 million copies sold in just the first week. While that might have set a one-day sales record for retailers, the book still has a long way to go to crack the all-time bestsellers list.

At the top of the list, unsurprisingly, is the Bible. The Guinness Book of World Records estimates that more than 5 billion copies of the Bible have been printed.

Other religious texts are also high on the list: the Quran with 800 million copies, the Book of Mormon with 120 million. China's "Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong" has several hundred million copies in print, as well.

There's no definitive reporting system for book sales, so these numbers come from historical records and a variety of other sources. When you look past the religious and political texts, however, you find history's best-selling literature.

 Fiction bestsellers

• "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes — "Don Quixote" had a head start: The Spanish novel was published in 1605. Exact numbers are fuzzy, due to time and the novel's many translations, but some figure it could be as high as 500 million copies.

• "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens — Dickens has a healthy lead with his 1859 novel. Again, no exact numbers exist, but some estimates say the book has sold more than 200 million copies. Being on hundreds of high school reading lists probably helps.

• "The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien — Counting gets tricky with Tolkien's trilogy, but The Toronto Star estimated that 150 million complete sets of the trilogy — either published in three volumes or as a single book — have been sold. (Half of those sales came after the movies were released.) If you add on the roughly 140 million copies of "The Hobbit" that have sold, Tolkien's pushing 300 million books in print.

• "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery — This is the little children's book that could. The French phenomenon from 1943 has reportedly sold 140 million copies in 260 different languages. Saint-Exupery, however, never lived to see his book's wild success. His plane disappeared and he was presumed dead just after the first edition was released.

• "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling — Who's surprised to see Harry on this list? The first book in Rowling's fantasy series was published in 1997 and has sold more than 107 million copies to date. If you total up sales of all seven books in the series, J.K. Rowling clocks in at a cool 440 million copies.

• "And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie — After her death in 1976, Christie's estate claimed that the mystery writer had sold more than 4 billion copies of her books, putting her "behind only Shakespeare and The Bible." The Guinness Book of World Records put it at a more modest 2 billion copies, among which "And Then There Were None" was the bestseller.

That's just a taste of the books that have cracked the 100 million club.

Books that have sold 50 million copies or more include "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger and "Anne of Green Gables" by L.M. Montgomery. It's a mix of recent thrillers, high school favorites and childhood classics.

There are also some wild cards, like "She: A History of Adventure" by H. Rider Haggard, a once-popular adventure author who has largely slipped into obscurity. The tearjerker "The Bridges of Madison County" by Robert James Waller has sold more than 50 million copies, as has Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." 

The rise of e-books may change the sales record landscape as people download books instantly rather than trek to a bookstore. E-books played a big role in "Go Set a Watchman" shattering the one-day sales record for Barnes & Noble, a record that had been previously held by Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol."

Still, "Watchman" has work to do. It will have to sell roughly 39 million more copies to catch up with Harper Lee's classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." 

Past Literary Mysteries