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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s lingering taste for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is best served online

Robert Roose is the director of library support services at the Spokane Public Library. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rachel Alexander and Jun-Kai Teoh The Spokesman-Review

Like the rest of the nation, Spokane was obsessed with “Fifty Shades of Grey” a few years ago.

Spokane Public Library circulation records say the e-book was borrowed a total of 696 times in 2012 and the total number of checkouts for the trilogy was 1,677. No book has been borrowed more in a single year since.

Spokane County readers stayed on the “Fifty Shades” train a little longer: The trilogy occupies the top three e-book slots in 2013, with 1,397 checkouts, and all three volumes appear in 2014 as well, with 884 checkouts.

But if you look at checkout data on physical books, “Fifty Shades” had 511 checkouts in 2012, dropping it to 10th place. Is that because people were embarrassed to go to the library and check out a physical copy of the sexually explicit novel? There’s no way to know for sure, but Rob Roose, the city library’s director of support services, said he buys it.

“For the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ we’re talking about an issue of anonymity,” he said.

To celebrate the summer reading season, Know Spokane decided to take a look at what books people are borrowing and buying from local libraries and bookstores. We asked for the top circulating or selling adult and children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, from the Spokane Public Library, Spokane County Library District, Coeur d’Alene Public Library and Auntie’s Bookstore.

Overall, far more people check out physical books than e-books, Roose said. That’s, in part, because the print collection is larger and more diverse.

But the Fifty Shades phenomenon isn’t unique. At least in Spokane, readers seem more likely to check out bestselling mysteries and thrillers as e-books, while print books tend more towards popular literary fiction. The annual Spokane is Reading selection tends to do well on both lists.

Why the difference? The library has raw data on numbers of checkouts, but it’s hard to get at the why behind a trend, Roose said. E-books are checked out through a third-party system, and libraries don’t do much to track things like the demographics of who’s borrowing what because of privacy and technology challenges.

Part of it might be supply driven. E-books are far more expensive for libraries than for the general public: a single copy can cost $84 from many publishers, Roose said. Because of that, the library tends to only buy e-books for titles they expect to be popular, which are often bestsellers.

The library uses a holds ratio that looks at the number of hold requests on a book versus the number of copies the library has. When it hits 3:1 for print books or 6:1 for e-books, they buy another copy.

“It’s a way to be responsive to unknown demand when we buy it,” he said.

In general, the books Spokane is reading tend to mirror what’s popular nationally: “Gone Girl,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” all show up about where you’d expect them to. Books by local authors stand out, doing better in Spokane than they likely would elsewhere.

Roose recalled “Hot Cross Buns,” a book by local authors Judy Rogers and Sarah Porter set on the South Hill, was quite popular locally when it came out in 2012.

“I’m pretty sure it was more popular here than anywhere else,” he said.

A few local authors crop up in the top 10 lists for the library systems in the region.

Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” was the second most popular physical book in Spokane in 2013, with 782 checkouts. “Death Ride,” a book recounting the harrowing story of Spokane resident Larry Kuntz witnessing his parents’ double murder in 1937, made the county’s top 10 list for nonfiction in 2015, with 106 checkouts.

In Coeur d’Alene, Cindy Hval’s “War Bonds,” which tells love stories from the Greatest Generation, holds the No. 2 spot in 2015, with 20 checkouts.

Sherman Alexie usually does well in the library, Roose said. Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a young adult book, made the young adult list the year it was released. His recently-released memoir, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” already has 58 hold requests and will likely make 2017’s most-read list.

Where local authors really shine is at Auntie’s Bookstore. According to a list from owner John Waite, more than half of the store’s bestselling fiction books over the past five years have some from local authors or authors with local ties. Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” and Alexie’s “Blasphemy” both made the list, along with Shawn Vestal’s “Godforsaken Idaho” and Sharma Shields’ “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac.”

“Station Eleven,” the 2015 Spokane is Reading selection, also made the list.

The most popular book across library systems and Auntie’s was All the Light We Cannot See, the bestselling 2014 novel about the Nazi occupation of France by Boise author Anthony Doerr. It remains a popular read in Coeur d’Alene, where it was the second most checked-out book in both 2015 and 2016, and remains on the top 10 list so far this year.

If you’re looking to fit in with the crowd this summer, 2017’s most popular book so far in Spokane is “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman, the author of the popular “A Man Called Ove” (which holds the third spot on the list). If nonfiction is more your thing, “Hidden Figures,” which details the often-overlooked contributions of black female mathematicians at NASA, leads the list.

It’s worth noting that popularity is all relative: The number of times any individual book gets checked out pales in comparison to the popularity of People Magazine (842 checkouts so far this year) and Star Trek: Beyond, the most requested movie. But in Coeur d’Alene, the written word is still going strong. The city’s newspaper, the Coeur d’Alene Press, is the most circulated item in the library so far this year.

This article has been corrected toidentify Judy Rogers and Sarah Porter as local authors.

Know Spokane is The Spokesman-Review’s blog for data about Spokane, North Idaho and the surrounding communities.