The Top 3 Best-Selling Books by Decade

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The Top 3 Best-Selling Books by Decade

Every year, according to a study by Bowker, the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information, over 1 million books are published in the United States. This is three times the number sold only a decade ago. While not all of these books are original works that make it to shelves (more than two-thirds were self-published, reprints of works in the public domain, and print-on-demand books), with so many books being published, how do only a few make it to the bestseller lists?

In an article on Writer’s Digest‘s website, book publicist Gretchen Crary said there isn’t a tried and true way to make it onto the bestseller lists. A writer can’t anticipate whether his or her work will be a bestselling book any more than a meteorologist can perfectly predict next month’s weather. Since it’s so monumentally difficult to rise to the top, writers, book lovers, and the librarians who serve them should be familiar with the precious few of history’s bestselling books. Librarians in particular are well-placed to communicate a period’s cultural values as shown in its literature by recommending such works to readers.

Here is an overview of the top three bestselling books by decade since the 1950s:

The 1950s

A person reads a book.
Image via Flickr by ZapTheDingbat

The 1950s saw a world reeling from a war that shook every continent. The writers during this decade of recovery and continued instability were able to produce works that continue to be prestigious today. J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was published, offering readers an escape into a world where good would vanquish evil. The 1950s also saw the publication of such legends as “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White.

The 1960s

The 1960s was the era of civil rights, as shown in the popular books of the period that dealt with related issues, especially in how they explored the human experience. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” got at the roots of human behavior and taught readers to consider life from the viewpoint of others. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey featured Randle Patrick McMurphy in his fight against authority for what he felt was right. Ponyboy, the main character of S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” learned that pain is universal, whether it be friend or foe.

The 1970s

In the 1970s, one could see a shift in popular storytelling. Previously, with the exception of “Lord of the Rings” and perhaps “Charlotte’s Web,” books dealt in rather realistic terms, took place in recognizable locales, and were often framed by the social issues of their time. The 1970s brought to the forefront new genres that would continue to expand in future decades. For example, Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was a quirky science fiction novel that illustrated that there was much more to explore in that genre than “War of the Worlds” and other popular books had done.

Stephen King’s “The Stand,” a dark tale following the death of 99 percent of Earth’s population, was also released in the 1970s. Its speculative and dystopian themes caught the attention of readers decades before “The Hunger Games” was even an idea. And while not necessarily science fiction or fantasy, Richard Adams’ “Watership Down,” a story told from the perspective of rabbits seeking refuge from man’s intrusion, proved that readers still enjoyed fables.

The 1980s

Following the 1970s, there was a continuation of similar themes of altered, unfamiliar futures in popular books, and the bestsellers of the 1980s reached a wide variety of readership. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood took some of the speculative and dystopian elements that made King’s “The Stand” so successful, but in a completely different context: an America governed by extremist Judeo-Christian values. Atwood’s success continues today; “The Handmaid’s Tale” has recently been adapted into a TV miniseries.

“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card is a science fiction must-read and further established science fiction as a popular commercial genre. Card’s book continues to have an impact, from being adapted to film in 2013 to being used by Forbes to teach leadership skills.

The third best-selling book of the 1980s, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” explored racial issues in a way that few other novels had done before or have since.

The 1990s

The 1990s was the decade of Harry Potter. While other popular books like George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” were also published then, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (or “Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S.) surpassed expectations and sales of all other books during the decade. Two more of Rowling’s books, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” made up the other two bestselling books of the 1990s.

What made a story about child wizards so powerful? In an interview with The Washington Post in 2007, series editor Arthur Levine discussed the relatability of the characters in the series, as well as Rowling’s capacity to make readers laugh and to engage them emotionally.

The 2000s

In the 2000s, the conquest of the Harry Potter series continued, with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” taking first place on bestseller lists and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” taking third. Tucked in between the concluding novels in Rowling’s series was the beginning of another popular series, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. Collins’ work would set off a trend of dystopian stories like never before.

The 2010s

As in the 1990s and 2000s, books normally aimed at “young adults” were reaching a far broader audience, and they’ve continued to do so in the current decade, with John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” making the highest sales, and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” and Suzanne Collins’ “Mockingjay” coming close behind.

The popular books of a period not only tell stories in themselves, but they also reveal the interests of the culture of the period. Students wishing to engage in the research and education surrounding such works of literature as well as learn more about the publishing business may be interested in pursuing an online library science degree from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. The Master of Management in Library and Information Science online degree equips students with unique leadership skills necessary to manage information from the cultural lexicon of the past, present and future.


Master of Management in Library and Information Science – USC Online

3 Most Popular Books from Each Decade: 1950-2010 – Factual Future

By Decade Book Lists – Good Reads

The 10 Awful Truth About Book Publishing – Out:think

5 Tips for Hitting Bestseller Lists – Writer’s Digest

Report from Bowker Shows Continuing Growth in Self-Publishing – Bowker

Four Leadership Lessons from Enders Game – Forbes

The Wizardly Editor who Caught the Golden Snitch – Washington Post