Harry Potter Bigger than Mao Zedong?

I’m not sure how many of the 64 languages any Harry Potter has been translated into are just now getting an edition of Deathly Hallows, but you can check Hindi off the list. It will be a few years before we get the Latin, Attic Greek, and Welsh versions; it’s a relief to know, though, that our Indus Valley Elvindork friends can now read the series finale in their own language.

Reading the article Hindi Edition of Seventh Harry Potter Book Released (from IANS, Posted: 9:30p.m IST, June 27, 2008), I stumbled on an obvious error which led to my learning of an error of my own. Make that “two errors” I had made. The article claims:

Children all over the world waited with baited breath to grab their copies [of Deathly Hallows], forming serpentine queues outside bookstores when the English edition was released in July 2007.

The last English volume smashed all sales records set by earlier volumes and has sold around 11 million copies worldwide. The sales of all Harry Potter books combined together have crossed 40 million copies.

That had to be wrong, I thought. And a quick check at Wickipedia’s List of Best Selling Books revealed that I was right — and wrong.

First, the Harry Potter series owns the “Best Selling Series” category by a significant margin with estimated sales of more than 400 million copies. Only Chairman Mao is in Ms. Rowling’s “over 300 million” league. (Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are counted as individual titles rather than serial works; if counted together, their sales, according to these estimates, would “only” be 250 million.) The IANS report of “40 million copies” for “all Harry Potter books combined” is a tenth of the most current tally.

Second, the Deathly Hallows sales are also under reported. The seventh book sold more copies in the US and UK in the first 24 hours than the Bhopal paper credits for its sales to date. But here is where I learned about my mistakes.

I had read that sales of Deathly Hallows were over 70 million and shared that number publicly. Whoops. In the small print on the same Wikipedia page I learned:

An early press report claimed that more than 72 million copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” had been sold within the first 48 hours of publication (see linked citation below). However, there has never been any evidence provided for this claim beyond the original source and it is almost certainly an error. All follow-up sales figures (for instance, those discussed on the separate entry for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) are consistent with total sales figures well below 30 million during the first month of publication. For example, according to Scholastic publishers, there are only 14 million copies of the American edition currently in print, and not all have been sold. At the same time, sales of the American edition were originally reported to be comparable to or greater than the number of copies sold of the British edition. As of September 18, 2007, fewer than 4 million copies of the British edition had been sold in the UK along with a comparable number sold in other countries (reference below). Thus the total number of copies sold as of September 2007 appears to have been approximately 20-25 million. Translations into other languages began appearing in late September 2007, substantially increasing the estimated number of copies sold worldwide. In June 2008, Forbes magazine reported sales had reached 44 million.

Apologies all around to those people at talks I have given on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which I have said the books have sold more than 70 million copies. Even with legendary sales of the Hindi translation, sales of Deathly Hallows won’t hit 50 million by the time of the Book Publication’s First Anniversary.

The second and perhaps bigger mistake?

Deathly Hallows is the only individual volume of the Harry Potter series listed on the Wickipedia List of Best Selling Books. It comes in at a stunning #25 all-time for books of any kind (behind Mao’s poetry, a Chinese Dictionary, Christian, Islamic, and Mormon scriptures, the Boy Scout Guidebook, the Hite Report, etc.) and #15 as a work of fiction. Only The Da Vinci Code has outstripped it as a 21st Century Best Seller and Dan Brown’s bizarre Catholic-bashing silliness has been out for five years, done its paperback run, enjoyed a blockbuster movie for promotion, and has sold who knows how many copies to Hindi readers already. I’m guessing Deathly Hallows will catch the spent Da Vinci franchise at 57 million copies after the Theme Park opens but before the Deathly Hallows‘ two movies reach DVD.

My second mistake, though, was in thinking that Deathly Hallows is the best selling book of the series. If it had sold 70 million copies and the series was at 400 million copies that made sense. But with only seven books in the series (and two ancillary titles that have not sold anywhere near the copies the series books have), Deathly Hallows‘ 44 million in sales mean that it almost certainly isn’t the best selling novel of the series, yet. One, maybe several, possibly even all the other books may have outsold Deathly Hallows at this time. Which is logical; you’d think that few people would buy the last book if they hadn’t read the other six books first.

But think about what that means for a second.

If my third grade math skills aren’t failing me, this means, if counted individually rather than as a series, seven of the top 30 books of all time and of the top 20 published novels would be books by Joanne Rowling. If tallied together as one book, as The Lord of the Rings has been, its “more than 400 million copies” makes it second only to the Bible’s estimated 6 billion copies at the top of the chart.

I was wrong on the 70 million number. I am probably wrong in thinking that Deathly Hallows is the best selling book of the series (common sense suggests that Philosopher’s Stone holds that position).

I am not mistaken, however, in thinking that understanding these books in themselves, as “shared text,” and as counter-cultural event is important work.

Your comments and corrections, please.


  1. Red Rocker says

    So I Googled “best selling books of all time” and got some interesting results.

    The Wikipedia site lists the HP series as the best selling series of all time, at 400 million copies, as you cite, John. And the only book in the series they list is DH, coming in at 44 million. How about all the others?

    I went to another site, HowStuffWorks, with its list of the 21 top selling books of all time, and this is what I found:

    #6: SS/PS 107M (you were right about its being the top seller)
    #9: HBP 65M
    #11: CoS 60M
    #13: GoF 55M
    #14: OotP 55M
    #15: PoA 55M

    DH at 44M didn’t even make it onto their list. A quick calculation, adding up all the sales, does give us 441M, which is close to the overall figure of 400M. It is however off by about 41M.

    There are some similarities between the two lists (the Bible, Chairman Mao, the Qu’ran and a Chinese dictionary take up the top four spots in each), but then they vary. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None at 100M is #11 on the Wikipedia list and #7 on the HowStuffWorks list. LOTR, on the other hand, at 100M copies sold, is #8 on both lists.

  2. The curious thing about the HowStuffWorks ranking is the position of Half-Blood Prince. Given the tie between Books 3, 4, and 5 at 55 million, and Books 1 and 2 being ranked 1 and 2 among Harry Potter titles on the list except for Book 6, the question is “why without even a movie to boost it has HBP leapfrogged four books in the series?” HP1 has its expected place at the top with nearly twice any of the others because of its brevity, its length of time in publication, and its being the first in a series that every library is obliged to own and every one has to read to see if they like the series.

    [Of course, there may be something way out of whack with the WayStuffWorks list. Check out their Top 20 Children’s Books of all Time. Is it really just for 2001? How else could Goblet of Fire be the best selling Potter novel and as far down as it is?]

    I’d like to read what you all think before sharing my ideas about why HBP is the second best-selling Harry Potter title. Before that, I’m obliged to note that the point of my original post stands. Harry Potter isn’t “bigger than Jesus” in publication history but he can go toe-to-toe with Chairman Mao — and I suspect Harry’s influence, as an echo of the former, will exceed the latter’s, without the agonies of a Long March or Cultural Revolution.

    6 of the top 15 books ever published… Would you have guessed?

  3. revgeorge says

    Here’s a guess as to why HBP makes it up to the second of the HP books on the list. HBP, while not the best of the books & more transitional, came after OOTP, a very intense book wherein we have the death of Harry’s Godfather. There were two years between OOTP & HBP, so the expectation for HBP was pretty high & had time to build. There was also the expectation that another major character would die.

    Plus, HBP is the 2nd to the last book. There was another two year hiatus between HBP & DH. So, perhaps people thought HBP was the place to most seriously examine for clues to how things would go in DH.

    And HBP was again the 6th book of a series that had pretty well proven itself as a literary giant & thus had a proven track record.

    Just guesses. Heck, even the shipping debates may have driven some of the sales.

  4. Red Rocker says

    I suspect that there are many forces at work in determining book sales.

    The Bible probably owes its #1 standing at least in part to the fact that it is distributed free of charge by religious groups – it’s not too long ago that every hotel/motel room in the US and Canada had its copy of Gideon’s Bible. I conjecture a similar approach to the distribution of the Qu’ran in Islamic contries. I would also conjecture that Mao’s sayings were also mass distributed to every man, woman and school age child in China. And the Chinese dictionary, at the #4 position, was probably also an institutional distribution.

    So we need to distinguish between books which people go out to buy, and those which are made available to them through governments, schools, or Churches and religious institutions.

    Going by the HowStuffWorks list, in the top 21 the “free-choice” authors are JKR, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, Dan Brown, J.D. Salinger, Lew Wallace (Ben-Hur), Johanna Spyri (Heidi), Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), Dr. Benjamin Spock, St-Exupery (Little Prince) and Johnston McCulley (The Mark of Zorro).

    Of these, I suspect that Salinger owes his status to the fact that The Catcher in the Rye was taught in schools, thus it’s not free-choice. And I would place Dr. Spock in a different category.

    The remainder are JKR’s peers in the realm of popular fiction.

    The questions I have are these: what kind of influence did these best-sellers have on public values, beliefs and attitudes? Did they in fact have any impact? Or were they more like light entertainment, easily digested and quickly forgotten? And if so, why were they, of all the published light entertainment, so popular? Do they have anything in common? Do they all touch upon some deep archetypes or tropes which cut across cultures? Or are they all popular for different reasons – did they in fact achieve popularity through different paths, perhaps even appealing to different generation of readers, different groups of readers or the same readers at different points in their growth?

    Put more baldly, as much as I love And Then There Were None, I can’t make too much of a case for its cultural impact. What I would say however is that its popularity puts it in a position where it could have a strong cultural impact, if it was the kind of book that could have cultural impact.

    JUmping to HP, I don’t think the popularity of the series says anything about its influence per se. Just that a lot of people read it. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think it will have an impact, btw. Just that we can’t automatically assume it will based on its sales.

    As for HBP, I think that the reasons for its unexpected popularity have more to do with extra-textual reasons than what is between the covers. I think that it may have “jumped the line” because it came along at the moment of HP’s peak popularity. In order to test the theory, one would have to chart several things over time: books sales, box-office receipts and DVD sales. HBP was released in July 2005. Was there a confluence of factors around that time that increased the profile of HP so that even people who had not read books 1-5 were prompted to buy the new HP book?

  5. Arabella Figg says

    Well, are these websites accurate? Wikipedia is notorious for anonymous contributors, some with agendas. So I discount them, unless there are verifiable stat citations. Might Scholastic and Bloomsbury have such statistics available?

    Perhaps HBP sold so highly because OotP was a terrific launching pad (readers were hooked as to where Rowling would go with all the setups) and interest was growing to new hights. I believe this period saw the most high-profile raging controversy over the books. And the Goblet of Fire film, released around the same time, was a big hit. It could be people “caught up with” the first books from the library and then bought HBP.

    Also, you had been speaking, John, this site was humming and you had two books out, heigtening reader interest. So people were seeing more in the books than they had.

    It could be the content of the books (value), but people wouldn’t know that without reading them. Possibly leaks from friends about Dumbledore’s death sent readers rushing to slap Visa cards down. Or, maybe because (haha) the book was thinner than the two previous?

    I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic hypothesis, Professor.

    There goes Thudders, squashing the cushions again…

  6. Red Rocker says

    55M people bought each of the previous three books. If the numbers can be believed, then 10M more people bought HBP than did OotP (or GoF or PoA)

    Where did those 10M people come from? How likely is it that they all borrowed the previous three books from a library? I suspect that a substantial part of the 10M were either new to the series, or drop-outs who returned.

    HBP was released in July 2005. The movie of GoF was released in Nov 2005. So perhaps the movie of book 4 did spark interest in book 6.

    I am actually kind of an example of a HP “drop-out” who returned to the series at HBP. I never stopped buying the books, but I confess that I did not initially find GoF very enthralling, and skipped over large parts of OotP. I bought HBP, and didn’t really read it for the longest time. Then something – I wish I could remember what – captured my attention. It was early in 2007. I started reading the posts at SoG (now The Hog’s Head) and I was suddenly fully engaged. I went back and read OotP, HBP and eventually, GoF. And then did the count-down to DH along with the rest of you.

  7. schmalchemy says

    Perhaps the reason of the higher numbers is just as simple as what happened in my family. Instead of buying only one and sharing it, my family moved away (ie, grew up) and I had to buy one for my son who lived 180 miles away, one for my adopted daughter who lived 100 miles away (in another direction), and one, of course, for my husband and me. Wanting a copy of my own (and also wanting copies for my family members who are also ‘hooked on Harry’) I purchased more than I had previously. If those who started reading Harry Potter when they were 11 and 12 (typical ages for those who started reading Harry first), then they are now adults now and may be out on their own as mine are.

    All of the other reasons cited above seem equally valid and are, but I think that my reason may have tipped the scale, too.

    Just my two cents….

  8. Here’s a list that puts Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, The Book of Common Prayer, and Pilgrim’s Progress in the top 10. 100 million Anglo-Protestants? Who knew?

  9. Red Rocker says

    It seems that the matter of best selling books is not as clear cut as I originally assumed. wiseGEEK What are the Top Selling Books of All Time? states:

    “Listing the top selling books of all times is a bit challenging. For example, some might list the top selling novels of all time, or include all types of writing as a book. Several reputable list makers, including Amazon, mark the two top selling books of all time as The Bible and as Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

    Most agree that both books belong on the list of top selling books. Neither book has data that can be precisely verified. It is estimated that the Bible has sold about six billion copies, and Chairman Mao’s book about a billion copies.

    The American Spelling Book is listed as a top selling book in some lists. While one can still purchase this book, it is not currently a frequently purchased book. Some tie this book with the series The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Other lists include these as children’s books. What can be said of these books is that they have each sold in excess of 100 million copies.

    Other lists show the Harry Potter series as third of the top selling books with 400 million copies. The debate about whether a series constitutes a book in terms of listing the best selling books is still raging.

    Book lists for the top-selling books have included the following books:

    Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung
    The Harry Potter series
    The Lord of the Rings
    The Chronicles of Narnia series
    The Guinness Book of World Records
    The World Almanac
    The Da Vinci Code
    The McGuffey Readers
    American Spelling Book
    A Message to Garcia
    Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care
    Valley of the Dolls
    In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?

    wiseGEEK concludes by saying:

    “The top selling books list is thus imperfect and debatable. Without a time machine, it may be impossible to verify actual counts of books.”


  10. Marmee March says

    John, The Books of Common Prayer, or modern alternatives, in their various national editions and revisions would have been purchased by parish churches, mostly, similar to many evangelical churches providing “pew Bibles.” A few Anglican parishes have both, in addition to hymnals, believe it or not. And then, every time a revision is made, churches have to buy all new stock. It is not now common for the average Episcopalian to own a prayer book, although it’s more likely for a convert or a lifelong attender. It used to be more common, I suspect, when churchgoing was practiced by more of the American population as a whole. I own a once-lovely, now fragile, small edition of the 1928 BCP covered in white leather, originally carried down the aisle by a bride — sold to me at a backyard estate sale. The pages themselves show no evidence of wear by usage.

    Alan Jacobs once commented to the Mars Hill audio journal that in Louisa May Alcott’s day that Pilgrim’s Progress was probably the single best known novel, and that was probably one of the reasons Alcott used it in her most famous novel, Little Women. He noted also that all or almost all references to it were removed from the Winona Ryder movie, a decade or so ago now.

    So while all three of those books had undeniable cultural impact while they were commonly read, I would argue their impact has diminished greatly, and is now negligible, among Americans or even all English-speaking Westerners. How much do people think about, talk about, see reflections of in other writings or arts, and notice outside connections pointing to a particular book or series? I think that’s what really determines cultural impact, but even that may be fleeting.

  11. revgeorge says

    Speaking of Tolstoy,

    has anyone ever actually read War & Peace? 🙂

    Well, I did, once. Now if I could just work my way through Augustine’s City of God, I could consider my life complete.

    Reminds me of the MASH episode where Radar’s trying to study up on classics to impress a nurse he’s interested in. Hawkeye gives him War & Peace & Radar says incredously, “War AND Peace?”

  12. How about the books that should be on these lists but which aren’t? Wikipedia and the others seem to have done due diligence in finding sources for their sales figures to create this list. Their failings must be largely those texts for which they could not find an official count.

    I assume Tale of Two Cities and Catcher in the Rye are here because of school assignments. I’d suggest, too, that Ben Hur, The Mark of Zorro, and The Da Vinci Code, as popular as they have been are on this list because of the boost they received from Hollywood. Are there other books that are always used in secondary school education that aren’t here? Books or plays which have had big movie versions made? That every library and private collection has on the shelf?

    And if “The Bible” in its myriad translations is qualified as one book for this count (as it should be), though this means there is no way to guesstimate within the billion (!) copies that have been published, there must be other classics and religious texts that have been produced by anyone and everyone for ages. The example of the Book of Common Prayer and Protestant devotionals was just mentioned above.

    And ‘The Little Prince’ being on the list makes me wonder where the “learn to read” books are. McGuffey’s is great (I own a set, believe it or not) but what my children broke their reading teeth on was ‘Hop on Pop’ and ‘The Cat in the Hat.’ And ‘Dick and Jane’? Where are they?

    Here are my top ten books, in no particular order and listed with a friend for company as often as not, that I think might have a claim to be on this list because of their use in classrooms, simple longevity, requirement for serious readers and libraries, or movie blockbuster. Your comments, corrections, and suggestions are coveted, as always:

    1. Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth
    2. Cat in the Hat or Goodnight, Moon
    3. Aeneid or Caesar’s Gallic Wars
    4. Les Miserables or Count of Monte Cristo
    5. Iliad or Odyssey
    6. Comedia or just The Inferno
    7. War and Peace or Crime and Punishment
    8. Jaws
    9. Robin Hood or Snow White
    10. Frankenstein or Dracula

  13. Red Rocker says

    It gets really confusing when you start thinking historically or internationally or institutionally.

    How about the school texts that are used in China or India? Wouldn’t they show up on such a list?

    Of the ones you’ve listed, I’d agree with #2 and #8. Benchley’s book spent 44 weeks at the top of the best-sellers list when it was initially released.

    Were the Iliad and Odyssey and Aenid used as school books? And if so, was it in large numbers? I know they’re classics, but were they studied outside of Greek or Latin classes? And how many kids actually took Greek and Latin? Not so much recently, I dare say.

    How many people studied Dante? If Dante, then why not Cervantes?

    Is there a definitive text of Robin Hood? I think there were ballads and poems, and of course, Ivanhoe. Would that merit a place? And wouldn’t Snow White appear in the Brothers Grimm or the Red Fairy Tale Book or the Fables of LaFontaine, rather than as a text in itself?

    How many people actually read Frankenstein or Dracula? Back when they (and the works of Scott and Stevenson and Hugo and Dumas and Byron) were in vogue, weren’t there fewer readers and fewer people in general? The same argument applies for Richardson and Fielding and Austen and Dickens and Eliot (George) and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and O Henry and Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain? I know that Austen is still popular, but the snob in me wonders how many people actually read the books.

    How about Arthur Conan Doyle? And wouldn’t Agatha Christie be up there for more than And Then There Were None? And Edgar Rice Burroughs? Rider Haggard? Or Travis’s man, Lovecraft? How about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books? I’ve noticed Enid Blyton’s name on more than one list. How about Stephen King? Tom Clancy? Robert Ludlum? Ian Fleming?
    Surely they’ve sold more books than most of the ones you’ve listed?

    BTW, The Little Prince is not really a book for children. The ending has more than a few parallels to Harry’s walk in the Forest.

  14. And if this weren’t confusing enough, how about those translations? Check out the “authors most translated list” from UNESCO. The full version is here. Hats off to Disney and the Rat that Roared (see “Sleeping Beauty” on my list).

    My bet, if we were betting, would be with Red Rocker here. Between under-represented countries and nationalities, best-selling authors in a globalized economy (or in Dickens’ case, well before) whose books have been pirated in violation of copyright, and the great unknown of the uncounted classics from eras we cannot be sure how many people there were, not to say how literate the population was (if 19th century UK and US figures, I recall, are as high or higher than 20th century numbers) make these lists “best guesses” at best. I’m afraid they show where we’re looking and none of the blind-spots.

    That being said, Ms. Rowling’s sales are sui generis. Enid Blyton is in the 400 million range according to one source with her 800 titles translated into 90 languages in >80 years – Rowling’s sales in 10 years with seven titles is simply mind boggling. They merit our attention both for their quality and their quantity.

  15. Red Rocker says

    The more lists I study, the more confused I get. I fear we’re comparing apples and oranges and grapes and kiwifruit.

    Just about the only thing I am sure of at this point is how much I love A Tale of Two Cities, The Little Prince and Deathly Hallows, and how each of these books speaks to the transcendant power of love over fear of death. And how they each broke my heart. Those three books deserve to be at-or-near the top.

  16. Arabella Figg says

    I would add Huckleberry Finn, considered one of the greats and a staple of school literature until recently banned. Internationally read and loved since its publishing…I mean. almost everyone above 25 has read it and millions precede them.

    And what about the perpetually-selling eternal favorite, Little Women, which has enchanted people, especially girls, since its inception. Interestingly, the four March girls seem to fit the four humors/elements: Meg (phlegmatic/earth), Jo (choleric/fire), Beth (melancholic/water) and Amy (sanguine/air)–at least in my estimation. Marmee could be possibly be the center (if not quntessence) who keeps the girls in harmony in which the family functions best.

    Both of these books which have permeated literature deal with transcendance and continue to have lively lives of their own.

    Fullatricks wants some nighttime play, but I’m “marching” off to bed…

  17. John this is how I got into the Harry as Christian reading and got your book. I wrote an editorial for my local newspaper that was published about this very topic. Should the Potter series be on school reading lists and if so which book. That is a good question. In my opinion the 6th book was my personal favorite, but which book or books could go on any reading list. The first three would probably make sense and then folks could read more if they want to, but what about future generations that have not grown up with this craze. This is the most important question I believe in our time conserning education and culture.

    My list goes like this:

    1. Philospher’s stone
    2. Dickens’ Tale of two cities
    3. The idiot
    4. the hobbit
    5. lion witch and wordrobe
    6. anything shakespeare
    7. Dracula
    8. count of monte cristo
    9. animal farm
    10. 1984

  18. And, following the Hindi version and just under the one year mark, Deathly Hallows is published in Japanese…

  19. Sharla Efird says

    Thanks for providing such information. njvgojkgf

Speak Your Mind