Some book series began with the sales of the first book in the series being high enough to support the idea of a sequel featuring the same main characters. Others were designed from the outset by the publisher to produce a series targeting a specific demographic, such as young adults, known in the publishing business as YA, or children. It’s no coincidence that seven of the top ten bestselling book series were written for those two markets.
All but one of the series are available in English. In fact, all but one originated in English and have been translated into other languages for an international audience. Most of them have been adapted for other media, including film, television, radio, and animation, as well as toys and games. One has been cited in well over 200 court decisions in American courtrooms. The list here is based on the top ten bestselling book series as listed in World Atlas. Here are the top 10 best-selling book series of all time.
For the uninitiated, Noddy is a wooden toy. Made by a woodcarver in a toy store, Noddy ran away, to be rescued by a brownie named Big Ears. He lives in Toyland, where his adventures include him rescuing other toys, driving his car as a taxi, and interacting with characters such as Tessie Bear and Bumpy Dog. Noddy must be wary of goblins, though when they cause him trouble Big Ears often scares them off. Big Ears is also capable of defeating wizards.
As may be perceived, the series was written for young children, with the first book appearing in 1949. The work was the creation of Enid Blyton, an English writer of children’s books whose work overall has sold over 600 million copies worldwide. The Noddy series was among her most popular during the 1950s, with the final book of the series, Noddy and the Aeroplane, appearing in 1963.
There have been numerous television and film adaptations of Noddy and his friends, as well as stage productions for live theater. According to World Atlas, the 24 books of the original Noddy series continue to sell well enough to rank them as the tenth bestselling book series of all time, with over 200 million books sold since 1949.
9. The Nancy Drew Mysteries
According to the books’ jackets and title pages, all of the Nancy Drew books were written by Carolyn Keene. Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, used collectively for a number of ghostwriters who produced books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The Syndicate was also responsible for a number of series of young adult books, including the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins, to name just a few.
Nancy Drew first appeared in 1930. A teenage amateur detective, Nancy shares the attributes of several of the main characters in Stratemeyer books. She is a gifted housekeeper for her lawyer father, having lost her mother before the series began. She is a driver of consummate skill of both cars and boats, a talented dancer, fluent in French, has plenty of money, and somehow retains a sense of humility and reticence. As with other Stratemeyer series, the early books were rewritten beginning in the late 1950s, to address changes in public sensibilities.
The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories ended in 2003, though several spinoffs continued, including crossovers with the Hardy Boys, and others featuring a more mature Nancy. Her books have been translated into over two dozen languages, and she has appeared in film and television series. The original series includes 175 books. She has also appeared in graphic novels, comic books, and in video games. Several of the original books continue to sell well, including the first of the series, The Secret of the Old Clock.
8. The Railway Series
The 42 books which comprise The Railway Series, written between 1945 and 2011, introduced Thomas the Tank Engine and his many friends on the fictional island of Sodor. The series and its characters originated in the mind of Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who authored the books until 1972. At that time he retired, and ten years later his son, Christopher Awdry, began publishing the final 16 books of the series. The final book of the series, Thomas and his Friends, closes with the words “The End”.
Both Awdry’s were railroad enthusiasts, and both used the series to depict problems with British railroads in the post-war era, and later modernization. From the beginning the books were published in a format accessible to small children, and featured fully colorized illustrations, an unusual expense for publishers in postwar Britain. Several different illustrators drew Thomas and his many friends over the years, and the full-color illustrations undoubtedly added to the series success.
By the time of the final book in the series, Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends had become a media franchise. Toys, games, and electric toy train sets all feature Thomas and his many friends. Ringo Starr served a stint as the narrator on the Thomas and Friends spinoff television program, Shining Time Station. So did comedian George Carlin. The popularity of The Railway Series has not waned, and it now ranks as the eighth bestselling book series in the world.
What makes it so amazing the San-Antonio series ranks so highly in total sales is that few of the books are available in English, lessening their appeal in North America, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. The books tell the adventures of Antoine San-Antonio, officially a Police Commissioner, who becomes involved in James Bond like adventures, though without the exotic locales and interesting gadgets provided to assist him.
In all, author Frèdèric Dard wrote 175 San-Antonio adventures. Less than a dozen are available in English translations, though many have been translated from French into Spanish, Italian, and Russian. San-Antonio also served as the pen name for the books featuring him as a character, and Dard was known to have used at least 17 pen names. Over his career he wrote between 250-300 books.
The San-Antonio series is known to have sold over 200 million copies in France alone, with additional sales in French speaking countries adding annually to that total. Though virtually unknown in the United States, and for the most part ignored in Great Britain, it ranks as the seventh best-selling book series in the world. Which leaves it open to speculation how many copies of its many books would sell annually, should English translations appear.
6. Robert Langdon
Dan Brown’s character first appeared in Angels & Demons in 2000. Langdon is a fictional character who teaches a fictional subject, symbology, at Harvard University. In the books of the series, Langdon explores secrets and conspiracies within the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Vatican, Freemasonry, and other organizations of mysterious natures.
Thus far, Robert Langdon has appeared in five books, though Dan Brown has written other novels which do not feature the character. Each of the Langdon books has generated controversy. They have been called anti-Christianity, anti-Catholic, blasphemous, and worse, mostly by evangelical conservatives. The speculation over Jesus Christ being married is just one of the controversies generated by the series.
In spite of, or maybe to some extent because of the controversies the books have sold well enough in just over two decades to make the five-book series the sixth best selling in the world. Four of the books have been made into films (starring Tom Hanks), and another adapted to serial television. In 2017 Dan Brown announced he was taking a break from the Robert Langdon character, though he did not say he was abandoning his bestselling character entirely.
5. Sweet Valley High
Writer Francine Pascal introduced the twin girls Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in 1983. The girls remained in Sweet Valley High School for the ensuing 20 years appearing in 181 books. The sisters live in the fictional Sweet Valley, a Los Angeles suburb, and deal with issues encountered by suburban high school students. The series generated several spinoffs and continuation series, nearly all of them written by ghostwriters under Pascal’s name.
Besides the issues of dating, meeting new students, appearance, and other areas of teenage angst, the girls and their many friends go off on several adventures, including treasure hunts, encountering strange mysteries, and so forth. In one book Jessica is accused of cheating on her SAT exams. In another, the sisters intern in London, England. In yet another Elizabeth is charged with manslaughter after an automobile accident in which a friend is killed.
Throughout the series the twins find themselves at odds with each other, then reunited, only to be torn apart yet again. The series was adapted for television beginning in 1994, running for four seasons, mostly in syndication. Another series is in development. Though lightly regarded by most critics, Sweet Water High is the fifth bestselling book series in the world, having sold nearly 300 million copies of its many titles and spinoffs.
4. The Berenstain Bears
Husband and wife Stan and Jan Berenstain introduced the anthropomorphic grizzlies named the Berenstain Bears in The Big Honey Hunt in 1962. After six decades it is a media franchise including toys, books, games, television programs, and books. Stan Berenstain died in 2005, after which their son Mike took over, assisting his mother until her death in 2012. After her death Mike Berenstain continued to produce new books.
The bear family faces problems encountered in most families, particularly with the children, and Mama and Papa Berenstain use them as teaching opportunities with the youngsters. To some critics, the stories are too sugary, the stories too pat. In one, written by Kathryn Olney in Salon, it’s pointed out that often Papa Bear “…has to learn the lesson at hand as badly as the kids do”. In 2015 an internet debate flourished in which the Berenstain Bears were cited as evidence of a parallel universe.
Like them or not, Berenstain Bears books, television programs, and over 150 franchised products are big business. More than 300 books have been published, and they’ve been translated into two dozen or so languages. The series shows no signs of slowing down, as each new generation of children finds the bears entertaining, and parents turn to them for bedtime reading. Only three book series have outsold the Berenstain Bears series as of 2022.
3. Perry Mason
Perry Mason first appeared in 1933, in The Case of the Velvet Claws, written by Erle Stanley Gardner. The author was a practicing attorney of over 20 years courtroom experience. The series eventually ran to 82 novels, the last two of which were completed by Gardner before his death, but published posthumously in 1972. There were also four short stories. Eventually, the Perry Mason character introduced Americans to their criminal justice system and its workings.
From that seed grew 270 television episodes starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, thirty television movies starring Burr in the role, a second series with Monte Markham as Mason, and a third television series in 2020. Many of the books in the series had been out of print for decades before the American Bar Association began issuing Gardner’s Perry Mason novels in 2015, through their Ankerwycke imprint.
Despite being out of print for years, in some cases for decades, the Perry Mason series is the third bestselling book series in the world, selling well over 300 million copies, and the enduring popularity of the character indicates its likely to continue to sell books. It is the highest ranked book series in terms of sales for books targeted to an adult audience.
Author R. L. Stine produced 62 books in the Goosebumps series from 1992 through 1997. During those years several of the books which comprise the series appeared in bestseller lists, including in the all-important New York Times Bestselling lists. Stine produced several spinoffs, and the books have been adapted to television and film. They also generated controversy among some, given the nature of their themes. They were written as horror stories for children. Some disapproved of the concept.
The American Library Association defines a challenged book as one in which a person or group attempts to force the removal of a book from a library or curriculum. During the 1990s, the ALA reported Goosebumps books were the 15th most challenged book in the United States. Most of the challenges came from the books containing references to the occult, witches, and demons. Nonetheless, sales continued to grow, and the series spawned a media franchise, as other successful book series have done.
To date, only one book series has outperformed Goosebumps in sales. The books have been translated in over 30 languages, including as diverse as Hebrew and Mandarin. Goosebumps continues to sell nearly 2 million books annually and has accounted for over 400 million books sold. Clearly a lot of kids in a lot of countries like a little scare in their reading.
1. Harry Potter
Surely this stands as no surprise. The success of the Harry Potter series of books and films is hardly newsworthy. But it appears here because it is the unquestioned bestselling book series in the world. The Harry Potter book series includes seven novels, and three companion books as its canon. Harry Potter and his world first appeared in 1997, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Since then the series has generated book sales of over half a billion copies.
In 2019 a Catholic school in Nashville banned the books, because spells in the books could, “…when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text”. Evidently there is no concern for non-human readers, wherever they may be found. Controversies of a similar nature dogged the books throughout their publication history, and still arise on a fairly frequent basis.
The books, films, and licensing created a franchise which was estimated to exceed $25 billion by money.com in 2016. Originally intended to be children’s literature, the Harry Potter books attracted an audience among children, young adults, and mature adults. It also made, and continues to make, a very great deal of money.