Authorial success: A highly skewed investigation

March 21, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 21, 2019

The other day, I wondered who was the most successful author of all time. So I did what people do in 2019: I consulted Wikipedia.

As of mid-March 2019, a regularly updated Wikipedia list of books sold ranked Stephen King as the 22nd most successful fiction author. The American horror scribe rises to 16th by excluding writers working in a language other than English — by name, Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon, Japanese manga artists Eiichiro Oda and Akira Toriyama, Spanish romance author Corin Tellado, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. And by removing five children’s and young-adult writers — Brits Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowling and Gilbert Patten and Americans Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine — King rises to 11th place.

Now, you might protest that this is cheating. After all, not all of Rowling’s books have been aimed at youngsters — see The Casual Vacancy and her trio of mysteries written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Moreover, there’s some debate over whether the Harry Potter series, which of course brought Rowling fame and fortune, is properly categorized as children’s literature. My qualms about classification extend to Stine, Blyton and Patten, with whose work I have zero familiarity. But who’s writing this post — me or you?

And yet.

Even knocking off the bard of Avon, who tops the list with an estimated minimum 2 billion in sales, only brings King into the top 10. (Shakespeare died in 1616; none of the others atop the rankings began publishing earlier than the 19th century.) And yet these machinations would still leave King as only the second-highest best-selling horror author, with King’s 300 million to 350 million in sales would trailing Dean Koontz’s 325 million to 400 million. (Koontz would be eighth on this heavily redacted list, with American romance writers Nora Roberts’ 145 million to 400 million in sales separating the two U.S.-born horror mavens.)

Granted, King’s 70 books is fewer than Koontz’s 91, so he’d be ahead if one calculated the number of volumes sold per separate title. But King is only the fifth most-prolific author in my adjusted top 10 — Agatha Christie wrote 85 titles, Horatio Alger 135 titles, Roberts “200+” and Barbara Cartland an amazing 723. So Christie, whose two billion to four billion in estimated sales are essentially even with Shakespeare’s numbers, still beats out the Maine writer using the metric of volumes sold per title.

(Incidentally, Cartland is hardly the most productive writer on the unadulterated list. Wikipedia credits Blyton with 800 separate publications and Tellado with an astonishing 4,000 titles.

(Oh, and while I’m referring to the original list: Several authors on it have written fewer than 30 volumes. Americans Jackie Collins is credited with 25 titles, Harold Robbins with 23 and Sidney Sheldon with 21; Pushkin produced 17 titles and Rowling has written a mere 15 thus far.)

However, if one wants to judge writing success by other measures, there is a system that makes King number one with a (silver) bullet. Almost exactly two years ago, Literary Hub senior editor Emily Temple sought to determine the writer with the most movie adaptations based on his or her books. After limiting her search to living English-language authors with theatrically released feature films, Temple found that King was the undisputed Hollywood champion of  literature.

The horror maven has generated a whopping 34 movie adaptations, beginning with Carrie in 1976 and ending with The Dark Tower and IT, both released in 2017. A sequel to the latter film is due in September, and an adaptation of Doctor Sleep, King’s 2013 sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, is also expected to come out this year. What’s more, an adaptation of The Talisman, a 1984 book that King wrote with Peter Straub, was recently announced.

It’s worth noting that the 1990 version of It is not on Temple’s list, as it was a TV miniseries. She also skipped filmic sequels that weren’t directly based on texts, which covers a follow-up to The Lawnmower Man, two sequels to both The Mangler and Sometimes They Come Back, and a jaw-dropping eight sequels to the 1977 version of Children of the Corn. (That last movie was remade in 2009, although it doesn’t seem to spawned any additional works.)

Who was second on Temple’s list? American romance writer Nicholas Sparks claimed that spot with just 11 adaptations. It doesn’t seem like much, given that King has engendered three times as many movies.

A caveat: As noted, Temple excluded deceased writers from her accounting. Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle and Christie have no doubt inspired two dozen movies apiece, if not more, and Jane Austen is likely near if not already in such rarified territory. I suspect that some of the other writers on Wikipedia’s list of top-selling scribblers may also have induced 20 or more films, particularly Simenon and Alger.

My hunch is that most of the other authors at the top of Wikipedia’s list — Cartland, Robbins, Sheldon, Seuss, Tolstoy, Collins and so on — have not sparked a large number of cinematic films. As for the number of movies based on the works of the astonishingly fecund Patten, Blyton and Tellado, well, that’s anybody’s guess. But hey, those three authors are dead.

So there you have it. By at least one metric, Stephen King is the world’s most successful living English-language writer. Take that, contentious reader!

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