While measuring all times sales is tricky there is an accurate way to measure contemporary book sales and it's Amazon. Here are the top 100 best sellers in what Amazon calls Photography Collections & Exhibitions, which is a (sometimes very) rough approximation of fine art photography titles.
Amazon sales have a natural bias toward recent titles, books still in print, and generally less expensive editions. Amazon also lists separate entries for multiple editions of the same title so the numbers for very popular books are diluted somewhat.
For all these reasons Amazon rankings do not reflect total historical sales. Nevertheless they're fun to peruse. Here are the Amazon rankings for many of the books mentioned in Avedon's post, as well as a few other noteworthy titles (as of 10 am, Pacific time, 11/20/10).
918. Tim Flach, Dogs (top selling fine-art photography title)
5,529. Robert Frank, The Americans
8,529. Lee Friedlander, America by Car
8,889. Susan Sontag, On Photography
10,930. Anne Geddes, Beginnings
14,052. Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places
20,485. William Eggleston's Guide
21,756. Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
26,494. John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye
38,149. The Family of Man
42,982. Larry Clark, Tulsa
45,188. Diane Arbus Monograph
46,161. John Szarkowski, Looking At Photographs
111,997. Newhall's History of Photography
407,319. Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi
512,655. Nan Goldin, Ballad of Sexual Dependency
577,045. Edward Weston, The Daybooks
595,021. Garry Winogrand, The Animals
949,287. Robert Frank, The Lines of My Hand
967,826. Joel Sternfeld, American Prospects
973,986. Robert Capa, Images of War
1,484,097. Joel Peter Witkin, Gods of Earth and Heaven
1,624,634. Richard Avedon, In the American West
2,353,814. Eliot Porter, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World
2,558,555. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment
5,716,330. Josef Koudelka, Exiles
7,274,943. Walker Evans, American Photographs
On the topic of book lists, there is one resource which I think stands head and shoulders above all others, and that is Building a Photographic Library published in 2001 by The Texas Photographic Society.
Despite the misleading title it's more of a research study than How-To guide. The authors polled 100 prominent people in the photo world asking
"We would like to know your six favorite photography books. Please list them and a brief description of each book and/or a statement on how the book has influenced you?"
The book is a compilation of answers received. It's fascinating reading but unfortunately like many photo-related books this one is out of print and difficult to find (Amazon ranking: #4,072,441).
Here are the books most commonly listed (with number of mentions) by those polled in 2001.
1. Robert Frank, The Americans (27)
2. John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs (17)
3. Edward Weston, Daybooks (13)
4. Szarkowski and Hambourg, The Work of Atget (10)
5. Diane Arbus Monograph (9)
6. Walker Evans, American Photographs (7)
7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (7)
8. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (6)
9. Ansel Adams, The Negative (6)
10. Michael Kenna, A Twenty Year Retrospective (6)
11. Josef Koudelka, Exiles (6)
With a few exceptions, this list looks a lot like Avedon's initial chart of suspected bestsellers. I'm not sure how well they've sold but they're all classics. I'd say at least the first 6 of these belong in every photographer's library (I've got Szarkowski's Atget (Amazon: #352,418) instead of the massive 4 volume set co-written with Hambourg (Amazon: #4,900,134)).
I'm going to make that my six. How about you? What are your six favorite photography books?