Looking back over the lifetime of BookScan

While it’s hard to imagine a time when the book industry didn’t have BookScan, it was actually 30 years ago, 1993, that BookScan development in the UK began. We’ve come a long way since then, expanding our coverage of the UK market and adding eleven more countries (and counting) to our roster, with the current line-up, from oldest to newest, including the UK, Ireland, Australia, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Brazil, Mexico, Poland and Colombia. With decades of data, I could fill a whole book on the trends and bestsellers that have come and gone in the BookScan era, both home and abroad, but let’s keep this more manageable and focus in on the UK’s lifetime bestsellers.

The lifetime data goes back to 1998, and as of summer 2023, 80 individual ISBNs have sold more than 1m copies in the UK: 34 adult fiction, 28 children’s & young adult and 18 adult non-fiction. For the most part, those are all distinct titles, but a few Harry Potter books have managed 1m+ copies across multiple editions, with two different hardbacks of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, two paperbacks of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and one of either format of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire all above that threshold. That gives J.K. Rowling the largest number of million-copy books, at 12, followed by five for Dan Brown and four each for Stephenie Meyer, David Walliams and E.L. James.

With all those million-copy editions, it’s no surprise that J.K. Rowling ranks as the bestselling author on record for the UK, but she can’t claim the overall number one book. That goes to E.L. James and the 4.7m copies sold of Fifty Shades of Grey. The trilogy takes three of the top five spots, although not in sequential order, with The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown holding onto the runner-up position. The thriller writer also has the number nine spot with Angels and Demons, while Harry Potter books fill out the rest of the top ten, shown below. To see how the top titles have changed over the years (and how Fifty Shades of Grey came out of nowhere in 2012), click here for an animated graph.

We can examine those lifetime bestsellers in numerous interesting ways, so how about by publication year? That shines the light on some massive bestsellers of the past, like The Island by Victoria Hislop, the highest selling book released in 2006, and The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson, the paperback of which hit shelves in 2009 but garnered its highest sales in 2010. Julia Donaldson (who is second only to J.K. Rowling in sales since 1998) has the bestseller published in 2002 with Room on the Broom, the only picture book featured, although her overall lifetime bestseller remains The Gruffalo, published in 1999. One young adult book makes the list: Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, with the highest sales of books released in 2008, as well as the highest sales of YA books on record. And finally a book that defies categorisation, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy ranks at the top of books published in 2019.

That covers the unique entries, so now for the multiples by author or category. Similar to the overall bestsellers, Harry Potter once again takes the most spots, with nine, followed by three for Richard Osman (but just two titles, as that includes two editions of The Thursday Murder Club) and two for each David Walliams and Jamie Oliver. Two more cookbooks appear, with Delia’s How To Cook Book One by Delia Smith the highest selling book published in 1998 and Lean in 15 by Joe Wicks claiming 2015. And finally, two memoirs rank first for their respective years; the paperback of This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay tops the list for books released in 2018, while Spare by Prince Harry is the bestseller of books published in 2023 so far, and already the tenth highest autobiography on record.

Just listing the top book per year does of course leave out many other notable bestsellers, but there’s only so much space here. I’ll end with another fun stat: 2004 has produced the highest number of 1m+ editions, with seven. Three of those are Dan Brown books, with Deception Point and Digital Fortress joining The Da Vinci Code, but the year also saw the publication of paperbacks of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and You Are What You Eat by Gillian McKeith. Watch this space for more stats from the past as BookScan turns 30!