Popular fiction has always been a thing. Even dating back to what we now deem as the classic era, there were works that were, shall we say, popular – the likes of Dickens and Austin – but this is in stark contrast to what we now consider popular by today’s standards.
So it should come as no surprise that, with the exceptions of tomes like Lord of the Rings or The Alchemist, a great many of the most popular pieces of fiction have arrived since the year 2000. So without further or do, we present to you, in descending order, a list of the top 10 most successful novels or series of the 21st Century.
- The Millennium Series – 30+ million units sold
The original Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson was a huge hit when it reached English speaking audiences, which is surprising considering just how populated the market for Scandinavian crime was at the time, with the likes of Wallander and the Harry Hole series proving immensely popular. However, there was something about Lisbeth Salander that struck a chord with readers. Larsson unfortunately passed away in 2004, however the series continues, with fellow Scandinavian David Lagercrantz having written three further novels with a fourth one the way.
- The Purpose Driven Life – 31+ million units sold
If The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins had a nemesis, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren would be it. The only piece of non-fiction on this list, its publication in 2002 was both lauded and heavily criticised in equal measure. Regardless of what you think of it, you cannot deny its intentions were admirable. Effectively a self-help book, the purpose of The Purpose Driven Life is to offer readers a 40 day spiritual journey through the teachings of the bible and through what Warren believes are the five main purposes for life on earth.
- The Kite Runner – 31.5+ million units sold
The last novel on this list that is not part of a series, The Kite Runner was a runaway success upon its 2003 release. Telling the story of a young boy and his best friend from 1970’s Afghanistan to present day, it covers historical moments such as the Russian invasion, the rise of the Taliban and the beginnings of the War on Terror, while also dealing with themes of loss, trauma and regret. It’s a harrowing read at times, not least due to its infamous scene of childhood sexual assault, yet its enduring popularity continues seventeen years since its first edition.
- The Divergent Series – 35+ million units sold
Young adult fiction is big and I mean REALLY big, so much so that there are three separate YA series on this list, and none of them are The Maze Runner. Considering Divergent is only 7th on this list and still remains absurdly popular is a testament to the ideas of Veronica Roth’s books. Set in a dystopian future (a familiar trope of YA fiction), the continental United States has been split into five separate factions, with each maintaining control to ensure there are no independent factions. Those that either switch factions, or attempt to become independent, are the divergent of the title. Its popularity spawned a successful film adaptation and a spin off book of short stories titled Four.
- A Song of Ice and Fire Series – 60+ million units sold
There’s no doubt that the tv adaptation Game of Thrones helped increase it success, but prior to 2010 George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga was already selling like hot cakes. Taking place in the world of Westeros, three separate stories intertwine, The Night’s Watch, the Westeros Civil war, and The Dragon Queen, all eventually lead to the Iron Throne in the capital of King’s Landing. There’s obviously much more to it, with five books in the series, each at roughly 900 pages a piece, and with hundreds of wild, hilarious, and evil characters aplenty, there is a wealth of material for high-fantasy fans to sink their teeth into. A sixth book, The Winds of Winter, is currently being written.
- The Hunger Games Trilogy – 65+ million units sold
Another YA dystopian series, The Hunger Games trilogy made waves for its surprisingly brutal subject matter. Two contestants, one male, one female, across the twelve districts of the former USA, now called Panam, must compete in a yearly fight to the death known as The Hunger Games, where only one can be victorious. If this seems similar to the Japanese novel Battle Royale, you’re not wrong, and much like that novel, The Hunger Games is not afraid to make stark comments about the haves and have-nots. What’s surprising, however, is how mature the series is in dealing with its themes. Despite being a YA property, it doesn’t treat its audience like children.
- Twilight – 120+ million units sold
Everyone knows about the Twilight series, and despite an overt amount of ridicule since release, the now five book saga – Midnight Sun was released earlier this year – shows no sign of slowing down. Tapping into the paranormal-love vein, a niche market until Twilight came along, the story of Bella and Edward captured the attention of the tween market and then some. Bolstered by the success of the movie franchise, love them or hate them, there’s no denying that Twilight will continue to be popular for generations to come.
- Fifty Shades Trilogy – 125+ million units sold
This one was a surprise to everyone, especially considering the critical drubbing it received, and continues to receive, since its release, yet there was something about the love affair between Anastasia and Christian that struck a nerve. Whether it was the nature of their relationship or just how explicit the stories were, the Fifty Shades trilogy sold like gangbusters. Not bad for a series that began life as self-published Twilight fan fiction. Probably the best example on this list of something being popular despite having some truly terrible prose.
- The Robert Langdon Series – 150+ million
Chalk this one up to The Da Vinci Code. That novel alone remains in the top ten single best-selling novels of all time and, despite criticism about the plot, quality of writing or accusations of plagiarism, author Dan Brown was laughing his way to the bank. In the years since, Brown has only released three other novels, The Lost Symbol, Inferno, and Origin, all featuring the character of Robert Langdon. Say what you want about his prose, you cannot argue that his works raise interesting philosophical conversations. The fact that he wraps these in tightly plotted conspiracy thrillers add to the enduring appeal.
- Harry Potter – 225+ million units sold
No series in history has been quite as successful as Harry Potter. While it began in the late 90’s, the bulk of the stories were published after the year 2000, with the final book, The Deathly Hallows, being released in 2007. What more is there to say about the tales of the boy wizard? Clearly starting as a series aimed at children, by book four, The Goblet of Fire, things became progressively more mature. Even now, some 23 years after the first book’s release, the name Harry Potter comfortably stands alongside Star Wars, The Avengers and James Bond as a piece of modern pop-culture iconography.