Fifty Shades Fever

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Credits: Kara Kohn, Plainfield Public Library & ILA Reporter


No question, the hottest book at the moment is E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (Vintage, 2012). As I write this, there are 140 holds for the print edition, 20 holds for the audiobook, and 69 holds for the e-book at my southwest suburban library serving a population of approximately 75,000.

This is the most holds I have ever seen on a single title — more than a new Janet Evanovich or James Patterson and more than the The Help (Amy Einhorn, 2009) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), both of which benefited from blockbuster movie releases. Fifty Shades and its sequels have surprisingly exceeded the demand for The Hunger Games and Twilight trilogies, books that appeal to a broad range of ages, compared to Fifty Shades’ more mature audience. The phenomenon of this trilogy is unprecedented and like nothing I have seen before.

According to Robert Haddock, a representative for Random House, Fifty Shades has become “the biggest-selling title in the history of Random House publishing, surpassing The Da Vinci Code.” Haddock also claims Fifty “has sold 12 million copies. That is 50,000 books a day, 1.2 books every second. If you took the book apart and put the pages end to end, 12 million copies would circle the earth 13 times.” These statistics were current as of June; I can only imagine what the sales are now, and what they will be in the future when Fifty Shades arrives on the big screen. One wonders how an unheard-of author who started out writing this title as Twilight-fan fiction is able to take the top three spots on the New York Times trade bestseller list. According to the Examiner, we can attribute the popularity to “its pushing of sexual boundaries in its appeal to middle-aged women. Experts have recently revealed that the source of success behind the spicy novels is its strong fan base. Not teens dressing up as the Boy Who Lived or young female audiences wishing for a vampire to whisk them away, but women over age twenty-five looking for that ‘fantasy romance,’ as E. L. James has called it.”

It should be no surprise that we will see a deluge of erotic romance publishing in the coming year as writers move to cash in on this reading trend, just as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did for Swedish crime fiction. In addition to viral marketing and word of mouth promotion, the proliferation of e-books and their inherent discreetness has made it all the more manageable for many readers who perhaps would have been embarrassed for others to see what they are reading.


There was the recent Brevard County Library System (Florida) debacle in which the director removed copies, claiming the book did not meet the library’s collection criteria, only to then later restock all nineteen copies in response to community outcry. Someone from that library initially purchased the books with their collection stipulation in mind, so to state that as the reason for the ban doesn’t seem entirely accurate. I interpret their actions as simply being afraid of the response to a racy book and a regrettable decision to nip any challenges in the bud by deaccession.

It is harrowing to think that any library would consciously participate in the banning of books, simply due to potentially objectionable subject matter. Materials with horrendous violence stay on the shelf, no questions asked, but it seems that items containing consensual sex are scrutinized. Fortunately there are other reactions to report besides the one from Brevard County. When patrons from the Town and Country Public Library in Elburn were asked what they thought about their library carrying these books, one responded that “most of them [bestsellers] have as much sexual content as Grey and at least it is consensual sex, not rape or horrific violence against women.”

What have other Illinois libraries had to say about the demand, and how are they reacting to the hype? After polling 161 Illinois libraries serving urban, suburban, and rural communities, 94 percent stated that they have been asked by their patrons for the book even though 12 percent of libraries confessed that they still don’t own a copy, despite its popularity. The main reason cited for not purchasing is that they simply don’t collect in this genre. In cases where individuals have asked for the item, I would hope libraries would allow patron demand to be the driving force behind acquisitions and trump any previous decisions about what genres are and are not collected.

Libraries are also responding to the craze by supplementing the demand with attractive programming and creative displays. One library mentioned a display entitled “Still Waiting for Mr. Grey,” featuring romance-type books to entertain patrons while they wait for their hold or guide others seeking more of the same. Another library has taken photos of staff members reading the book and posted them on Facebook as a way to demonstrate that they aren’t afraid of controversy and that they support the freedom to read.

Despite arguments that there is a lack of substance and bad writing, there certainly is plenty here to get people talking and make this book a natural for discussion groups. Both the Deerfield Public Library and the Bessie Coleman Branch of Chicago Public Library have hosted book discussions on Fifty Shades. Furthermore, “the Library of Congress is providing the trilogy on one-book cartridges so that patrons can have access to all three at a time” says the Illinois State Library Talking Book and Braille Service, which anticipates that clients will want to read the entire series.

On a personal note, I am absolutely thrilled at how this is getting people excited about reading. We should cheer on and defend any work that does so, and if it takes some hot sex to entice readers, so be it.

 “After polling 161 Illinois libraries serving urban, suburban, and rural communities, 94 percent stated that they have been asked by their patrons for the book.