Culture  /  Timeline

Here are the Biggest Fiction Bestsellers of the Last 100 Years

(And what everyone read instead.)
Cover of Orwell's "1984."

As the year draws to a close, some of us like to look forward, and some of us backward—and some way backward. Last month, while working on the not-at-all-controversial Books That Defined the Decades series, I was often surprised by the dissonance between the books that sold well in any given year and the books that we now consider relevant, important, or illustrative of the time. I repeatedly regaled my colleagues with fun and interesting facts like: “Did you know that in 1940 the best-selling book of the year was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn? That was also the year The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Native Son came out!” They made me stop eventually, and so I compiled all my comments into this very piece you are now reading.

The data below comes almost entirely from the Publisher’s Weekly lists of the biggest fiction bestsellers in the United States. Where possible, I looked at adult fiction only, but some earlier lists did not make that distinction, and for some later, combined lists, I cut out the YA and nonfiction myself to maintain relative consistency. These lists are subject to all of the flaws, faults, and inaccuracies of any best-seller lists, but they’re what we’ve got.

Then I compared the biggest bestseller lists to what I’d consider to be some of the most famous books published in each year—that is, the books we still read and talk about. Again, these picks are subject to the flaws, faults, and inaccuracies of any list of books made by a human with her own tastes and interests and awarenesses, but that’s pretty much the deal.

Some general takeaways:

1. The biggest bestsellers of any given year are not necessarily the books we remember 20, 30, 50, or 100 years later. (Something to remember when your own book goes on sale.)

2. Sometimes books take a little while to work themselves onto the bestseller list. Books suspiciously absent from the list of the year they were published sometimes show up in the next year, likely due to paperback releases and/or word of mouth (or they may have simply been published too late in the year to compete with the spring books).

3. People like to read the same authors year after year.

4. John Grisham owned the 90s.

5. There are so very many books, and we have forgotten almost all of them.

Here’s to remembering (the good ones, at least):  

The best-selling fiction of the year:


1. Zane Grey, The U. P. Trail

2. May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

3. Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Amazing Interlude

4. Edward Streeter, Dere Mable

5. Eleanor H. Porter, Oh, Money! Money!

6. Ethel M. Dell, Greatheart

7. Ralph Connor, The Major

8. E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Pawns Count

9. Gene Stratton Porter, A Daughter of the Land

10. Stephen McKenna, Sonia

Also published that year:

Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons

Willa Cather, My Antonia