Everybody knows the tattooed girl who kicked a hornet's nest and played with fire: All summer long, Swedish author Stieg Larsson's hard-boiled heroine has dominated bookstore horse races throughout the English-speaking world. Everywhere except Canada, where Larsson's Girl is struggling to stay ahead of a fast-charging filly out of nowhere named Secret Daughter.
Published by HarperCollins in New York, the debut novel by San Francisco author Shilpi Somaya Gowda is barely findable in U.S. bookstores and currently ranks at No. 22,824 on Amazon.com's list of best-selling books.
But for the past nine weeks Gowda's Secret Daughter, the story of a mixed-race California couple who adopt a baby girl in India, has been No. 2 in Canada, just behind The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, and it has been near the top of the list for six months. With sales of about 6,000 copies a week and still climbing as the gift-giving season gets going, its surprise success is the juiciest mystery in Canadian publishing.
Speaking from her busy family home in San Francisco, author Gowda happily admits the experience of being No. 2 in Canada is "a little bit surreal," as mystifying to her as it is to her publishers. "But a royalty is a royalty," she said, preparing to crisscross Canada on a recently planned publicity tour. "I still have to pinch myself to really believe it's happening. It's very gratifying, it's very humbling."
Leo MacDonald, vice-president of sales and marketing at HarperCollins Canada, shares the feeling. "There was really no marketing push behind the book whatsoever" when it first appeared on head-office lists, he said. But his office noticed that Gowda, although she has lived most of her life in the United States, was born and raised in Toronto.
"The fact that she was Canadian was after the fact," MacDonald said. "There was no fanfare to celebrate a Canadian author."
Buoyed by the discovery, the Canadian branch decided to bring out Secret Daughter as a high-quality "trade paperback" rather than distributing the hard-cover edition produced by its U.S. parent, according to MacDonald, and to "pitch it as a uniquely Canadian book."
"If it was a hardcover we'd hardly get any books out the door - just a minimal amount," he added. "With a paperback we get out about four times that." And buyers like them: When his company published thriller writer James Rawlins, each novel sold about 2,500 copies, according to MacDonald. "And when we switched to paper he went up to 26,000."
"It's an interesting thing," he added. "You can have a hard cover and a trade paperback at the same price and people will still buy the trade paper."
Herself a former marketing consultant with an MBA from Stanford University, Gowda also credits the format for helping her book in Canada. "It's a different price point, it's a larger market, with different distribution," she said. "We're all really optimistic that when the paperback comes out here in about six months it will enjoy similar success. But the success in Canada has certainly extended the marketing chapter of this cycle for me."
But it wasn't just paper that turned Gowda into the shooting star of Canadian publishing. For the second stage of her ascent, a key boost came from an anonymous buyer at the Ottawa offices of the U.S. price club Costco, who decided to stock Secret Daughter despite a general store policy of offering only a limited number of books, almost all of which are bestsellers by the time they appear for sale in its warehouses.
"Quite simply, we only carry the bestsellers," Costco Canada spokesman Ron Damiani said. "Fast in, fast out and it's the bestsellers." But every so often, he added, an astute buyer will take a flyer on something new and unfamiliar.
Secret Daughter "wasn't really sticking anywhere till it went to Costco," MacDonald said. "They didn't do anything special, they just put it on a table. But in the first week we sold about 30 per cent of what we put out." The book proved popular with consumers despite the almost total absence of reviews in the mainstream media.
It was only then that the publishers pulled together a serious plan to market the book, building on its breakout success in the discount warehouse. Its emergence as a bestseller attracted the attention of other booksellers, ultimately earning Secret Daughter coveted status as a "Heather's Pick" at the Chapters-Indigo chain.
By mid-August, HarperCollins took out a full-page advertisement in this newspaper to celebrate the sale of 150,000 copies. "We're up to 12 or 13 printings at least, if not 15 or 16," MacDonald said.
All marketing aside, Secret Daughter is clearly connecting with Canadian readers, addressing the crucial issues of family loyalty, cultural identity and generational change that shape so much of the immigrant experience.
"I am the child of immigrants myself," said Gowda, whose father was an engineer for IBM Canada until retirement and whose mother worked as an economist with the Ontario government, "and I have always been fascinated by how the choices these people make on your behalf, generations before you, end up driving a great deal of what your life ends up being - whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not at the time."
As British belletrist Victoria Glendinning commented last year after reading several dozen Canadian novels in her capacity as judge for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize, "Canadians love their grannies." Even though there is nothing explicitly Canadian about it, Secret Daughter fits the type as a multi-generational family saga hinging on the conflicts and trauma of immigration.
Those same concerns animate her next novel, which will examine another cross-cultural experience involving India and the United States, according to Gowda. "I'm coming back to the themes of family and identity and culture," she said. And it now seems certain her loyal Canadians will greet her return with open wallets.
Gowda serves a classic of the type - even though there is nothing explicitly Canadian about it.