As someone who is an avid reader and who writes about books, I come across the phrase “bestseller” quite frequently. Writers, speakers, business owners all enjoy the increased credibility that putting “bestselling author” beside their names provides.

But what does the phrase really mean and, more importantly, is the phrase used so often in so many different ways that it has become meaningless?

By definition, according to Merriam-Webster’s’ online dictionary anyway, a bestseller is “an article (as a book) whose sales are among the highest of its class.” That paints a pretty wide picture, doesn’t it?

For many readers, The New York Times bestseller is the epitome of what makes a bestseller.  The New York Times bestseller list, which was first published in 1931 and originally included only New York-based books or authors, relies heavily on the number of books shipped to brick and mortar bookstores. Although the Times does not reveal its exact metric for the list, publishing industry insiders estimate it would take at least 20,000 books ordered during a week at certain bookstores for a book to have a shot at being on the influential list.

However, the Times list is by far not the only bestseller game in town. Here are some of the other popular and influential bestseller lists: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Publishers Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the American Booksellers Association, The Boston Globe, The Denver Post, The Los Angeles Times and even Walmart.

Each list draws from its own data or combination of data, but the formula is usually some variation of actual sales and/or anticipated sales from select bookstores or online vendors.

Scholars debate over what books should be on the bestselling book list of all time. While many of them place The Holy Bible at the top of the list – and for good reason – it is impossible to track sales of a book that has been published for so many centuries by so many different publishers and in so many different editions and translations.

The same is true for other ancient works – such as Shakespeare’s Folio or Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example — that are in the public domain. Since these works are usually published simultaneously by many different publishers throughout the works, it is impossible to accurately track overall sales figures.

Guinness World Records lists the Bible as the best-selling book of all time with over 5 billion copies sold or distributed. Other religious or political books with huge worldwide sales and distributions that can only be estimated include Quotations from Chairman Mao (The Little Red Book), The Qur’an and The Book of Mormon.

Determining what novels are the best-selling books of all time is also problematic. Don Quixote, for example was first published in 1605. Is it right to compare it with a book like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was first published four centuries later in 2002?

Bestseller – List Of The Top 25

If you Google bestselling books of all time, you can find different opinions and different numbers of books sold, especially when it comes to old books. Here, however, is one list of the top 25 bestsellers of all time along with an estimated number of books sold for each book.

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (500 million)
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (200 million)
  3. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (150 million)
  4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (140 million)
  5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (107 million)
  6. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (100 million)
  7. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (100 million)
  8. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (100 million)
  9. She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (100 million)
  10. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (85 million)
  11. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (80 million)
  12. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (70 million)
  13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (65 million)
  14. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (65 million)
  15. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (65 million)
  16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (60 million)
  17. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (55 million)
  18. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (55 million)
  19. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (55 million)
  20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (50 million)
  21. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (50 million)
  22. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (50 million)
  23. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (50 million)
  24. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (50 million)
  25. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (50 million)

Which entries surprise you and what books would be on your list?

What Does It Mean To Be A Bestseller?