High school English assignments aside, Americans have always loved to read. A good book can be a lesson, an adventure, and an escape rolled into one. The authors on this list have soothed, instructed and entertained generations of Americans with their stories of romance, horror, success, and adventure. Some may be familiar, some may not, but one or two may have already changed your life. Exact sales figures are impossible to verify, but according to various sources, here are the top 10 best-selling American authors of all time.
10. Louis L’Amour
When he was young, Louis L’Amour wanted to be a poet, but poetry doesn’t pay the bills. So he decided to become one of America’s most prolific novelists instead. L’Amour wrote Western novels, drawing on the experiences of his travels as a young man in the American West, where he met a surreal collection of colorful characters while working odd jobs. He published his first short story in 1937. By the time of his death in 1988 at age 80, L’Amour had written more than 100 novels. His novels have now sold more than 300 million copies and have been translated into 20 languages.
9. Sidney Sheldon
Sidney Sheldon was a prolific and popular novelist, but that was only part of his legacy. He spent much of his writing career in Hollywood, where he wrote 25 major screenplays, including Annie Get Your Gun and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, for which he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1947. He wrote hundreds of television scripts for TV programs and was the creator of shows such as The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie and Hart to Hart.
Although Sheldon didn’t write his first novel until he was in his 50s, he eventually produced 18 novels and a memoir, The Other Side of Me, detailing his struggle with bipolar disorder. Sheldon’s heroines were always beautiful, his heroes handsome, and his plots action-packed. His books have been translated into 51 languages and have sold more than 300 million copies.
8. Stephen King
In 1973, Stephen King was working as an English teacher in Hampden, Maine, and selling short stories on the side to make ends meet. Later that year, he accepted a $2,500 advance for his first novel, Carrie, to Doubleday — but only after his wife, Tabitha, fished the manuscript out of the trash and insisted he submit it to publishers. Within weeks, Doubleday had sold the reprint rights to Carrie, netting King an unheard-of $200,000 royalty check. By decade’s end, he had written several other horror novels that remain among his most popular works: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone and The Stand. He hasn’t slowed down since, publishing almost 50 novels and over 200 short stories, including several works under the pen name Richard Bachman. As of 2011, total sales for King’s books were estimated to be between 300 and 350 million copies.
7. Dean Koontz
Like most of the authors on this list, Dean Koontz gives the word “prolific” a whole new meaning. He has written more than 100 books, and sold more than 400 million copies. According to Koontz’s website, his books sell an estimated 17 million copies per year. Koontz endured an unhappy childhood at the mercy of his violent, alcoholic father. His characters typically struggle with pasts marred by abuse and face forces of unspeakable evil. Some critics knock the formulaic approach, but his fans don’t care. Koontz’s plots mimic his own life, however, in that they always have a happy ending.
6. R.L. Stine
Robert Lawrence Stine has written more than 300 books for children and young adults. His best-selling Goosebumps series has sold more than 300 million copies. Stine’s other series include Fear Street and Dangerous Girls. Stine doesn’t just scare kids; he also makes them laugh. Before he published his first young-adult horror novel, Blind Date, in 1986, Stine made his living writing children’s humor. When not writing, Stine actively promotes children’s literacy at special events across the United States.
5. Horatio Alger Jr.
Unless you’re a literary scholar, you’ve probably never read any of the books Horatio Alger Jr. wrote in the late 19th century. Alger’s works went out of vogue in the 1920s, but his name remains synonymous with rags-to-riches stories in which the hero overcomes poverty through sheer strength of character and will. Alger’s most popular novel was also one of his first; Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks, which was published in 1868. Alger’s estimated book sales range between 100 million and 400 million copies.
4. Gilbert Patten
Like Horatio Alger Jr., Gilbert Patten (1886-1945) is mostly unknown to readers today, as his best work came early in the 20th century. And like Alger, Patten wrote popular pulp-fiction novels for young men and boys. Patten, who often wrote under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish, liked to write about upstanding, athletic young men. His most famous character was Frank Merriwell, who was handsome, intelligent, virtuous and solidly middle class. Patten’s Frank Merriwell stories are believed to have sold more than 500,000 copies a week during their heyday. Scholars estimate that Patten’s total sales range between 125 and 500 million copies.
3. Dr. Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel wasn’t really a doctor. He dropped out of his doctorate program at Oxford and went on a tour of Europe, much to his father’s consternation. But everything turned out OK, because he could be the reason you’re able to read these words at all. In the 1950s, the United States faced a literacy crisis, as American children weren’t learning to read. Contemporary authors, editors and publishers blamed the spread of childhood illiteracy on the low quality of children’s reading primers at the time. These were the days of Dick and Jane books. Dick saw Jane. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.
The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957, changed all that. Using only 250 words deemed suitable for first-graders, Dr. Seuss crafted a thrilling tale of feline mayhem and absentee parenting that — and here was the revolutionary part — made reading fun for young children. Before he died in 1991, Dr. Seuss published 44 children’s books, translated into 21 languages. His total sales are estimated at well above 500 million copies.
2. Danielle Steel
Danielle Steel mostly writes romance novels, a subject she ought to know pretty well, since she’s been married five times. She published her first book, Going Home, when she was 26. She has since published more than 100 others, including some children’s books and at least two nonfiction efforts. More than 20 of Steel’s books have been adapted for the small screen. Depending upon the source, Steel’s novels have sold between 600 million and 800 million copies. She holds the Guinness World Record for most consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List.
1. Harold Robbins
Legend has it that Harold Robbins was an orphan who escaped from the foster-care system at 15 and worked a series of odd jobs before becoming a shipping clerk at Universal Studios and working his way up. He also supposedly became a self-made millionaire as a teen by playing the stock market. Though the part about the shipping-clerk job is true, the rest isn’t. Harold Robbins was born Harold Rubin, and he was raised by his parents. His father was a pharmacist who made a good living. Robbins himself was the source of those legendary tales, showing that he had a vivid imagination even at a young age.
Robbins published his first book in 1948 and was able to write full time by 1957. Though some critics have compared his work to the graffiti found in public toilets, with their graphic sex and decadent lifestyles, Robbins always brushed off the criticism and pressed on at a prolific pace, writing more than 30 novels. His personal life mirrored that of his characters, as he was a larger-than-life figure who owned luxury homes around the world, an expensive art collection, yachts and a fleet of Rolls Royces. Robbins’ estimated book sales top 750 million copies, making him one of the top five best-selling authors in the world.