July 31, 1965: Who is the Most Successful Female Author of All Time?

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A Brief History

On July 31, 1965, Joanne Rowling, aka J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith, was born in Yale, Gloucestershire, England in the United Kingdom. Joanne would become a writer of fiction and pen the most successful book series of all time, the Harry Potter stories. In fact, Rowling has sold as many as 500 million of her books, an astounding number, but NOT the most ever sold by a female author!

Digging Deeper

The answer to the question asked in the title of the article is Agatha Christie, born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on September 15, 1890, in Torquay, Devon, England in the United Kingdom. Christie wrote mostly mystery and “who dunnit” type novels, often with the central character of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Her books have sold an astounding 2 to 4 billion (with a “B”) copies, making her not only the best selling female author in history, but the best selling author of fiction, period. (Note: We are not going to debate if the Torah, Bible, or Quran are works of fiction. Thanks for asking!) William Shakespeare is the best selling male author, with perhaps as many as 4 billion copies of his plays and poems sold, but that sort of writing is not really the same as writing books.

The Chandos portrait (held by the National Portrait Gallery, London) of William Shakespeare

What you may be surprised to know is that J.K. Rowling is not the second most prolific female writer of fiction. In fact, this self-made billionaire (profiting enormously from her screenwriting and her books being adapted as movies) is only the #5 best selling female author of fiction! Women are certainly well represented in the top ranks of fiction writers, with women holding 5 of the top 8 spots on the list of best selling fiction authors.

The second most prolific female writer of fiction is Barbara Cartland, born Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland in 1901, in, you guessed it, England! Cartland was a writer of romance novels (738 of them!) and also used the noms de plume Marcus Belfry and Barbara McCorquodale. Cartland’s books have sold close to a billion copies. Cartland’s personal love life was somewhat convoluted, with her reportedly breaking off an engagement when she learned of the existence of sexual intercourse! She did marry, though a different guy, whom she divorced and married her husband’s cousin with the same last name (McCorquodale). Her first marriage was marred by charges and counter-charges of infidelity.

Barbara Cartland in 1925

The next best selling female author is Danielle Steele, seemingly a slacker after writing “only” 165 books (141 of them novels) compared to the 738 written by Barbara Cartland. Still, Steele’s books have sold as many as 800 million copies (which is about 800 million more than the author of this article!). Steele was not born in England! In fact, she is an American, born in New York City in 1947 as Danielle Fernandes Dominique Schuelein-Steel. Steele has mostly written about rich families and their travails, trials and loves, while she has also delved into children’s books and poetry. Not considered high-brow writing, her books have nonetheless virtually all been best sellers.

We return to England to find our fourth best selling female author of fiction, Enid Blyton, a writer of children’s books. Her books have been translated into a staggering 90 languages and have sold about 600 million copies. She has also used the nom de plume Mary Pollock. Surprisingly, considering her marketing success, her books have been labeled “elitist, sexist, racist, xenophobic” and have not received critical acclaim. During the 1950’s many of her works were banned in the UK. Despite criticism from the liberal wing of society, her books have continued to sell well. She was born in South London, England, in 1897, and died in 1968. In 2009 the BBC ran a made for television movie called Enid, with Helena Bonham Carter in the title role.

Film poster

Finally, we come back to where we started, with J.K. Rowling as the fifth best selling female author of fiction with a half billion copies of her books sold. A graduate of the University of Exeter, Rowling, like the other women in this article, is much more than merely a fantastic and successful author, and is well known as a philanthropist and activist, ranking among the most influential women (people) in the world.

Who is your favorite female fiction writer? Anne Rice? Jackie Collins? Nora Roberts? Or is there some other great woman out there writing right up your alley?

Nora Roberts, 2007

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cunningham, Anne. The Most Influential Female Writers (Breaking the Glass Ceiling: The Most Influential Women). Rosen Young Adult, 2018.

Quadrille. The Pen is Mightier than the Penis: Words for the Wise from the World’s Greatest Female Writers. Quadrille Publishing, 2018.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.