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A passage to India: how Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter became an unlikely best-seller

Secret Daughter, a debut novel by an untested author, went supernova after just four days on the shelves at Costco

It’s amazing what a little support from Costco can do for a writer’s career. When HarperCollins Canada published Toronto-born Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s debut novel, Secret Daughter, last March, its prospects were not good: the advertising budget was nil, and booksellers greeted it with shrugs. But then HarperCollins asked Costco’s book buyer, Catherine Bergeron, to look past the store’s best-seller bias and give the novel a shot. That was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, it was one of the top-selling titles in the country. Since then, the book—about an Indian woman forced to give up her daughter and the American couple that adopts the child—has been anointed a Heather’s Pick by Indigo, gone through more than a dozen printings, and sold 200,000-plus copies in Canada alone.

All this is doubly curious when you consider that the 40-year-old Gowda has been a U.S. citizen for the past five years. (She lives with her husband and two children in San Diego.) She sold the novel not to HarperCollins Canada, but to HarperCollins U.S. The Canadian arm initially intended to distribute the American edition, but when the Toronto sales office noticed Gowda’s Canadian roots, a paperback version was created for the domestic market. (Paperbacks are Costco’s preferred format and a factor in its decision to carry Secret Daughter before it went supernova.) In the much larger U.S. market, where the book has been available only as an expensive hardcover, sales have been comparatively modest: 10,000-odd copies to date.

Before writing Secret Daughter, Gowda—who has an MBA from Stanford—worked in business strategy. She now runs her own marketing consultancy, and that background has contributed in a big way to the Canadian sales momentum. Not only has she taken part in the usual readings, festivals and media appearances, she also personally responds to readers’ e‑mails and Facebook messages, and has participated in more than 100 book club gatherings via phone or Skype. (Try to imagine Jonathan Franzen doing that.) All told, she spends up to 10 hours a week promoting herself via the Web.

Self-promotion is quickly becoming the new normal for up-and-coming authors. With marketing resources increasingly being devoted to a handful of name-brand authors each season, publishers won’t take a chance on unknown authors unless they vow to do everything in their power to sell books. And no form of promotion is too undignified. Recently, Gowda hosted book signings in two Toronto Costcos, where she was stationed at a booth like the ladies giving out free Swiffer samples. Few people were there specifically to see her that day—she was more of an impulse buy on the way to the checkout counter—but she made a slew of new fans.

Costco doesn’t make any particular effort to promote itself as a book-selling destination, and yet its reach in Canada is enormous. In terms of volume, it is second only to Indigo, which has 247 locations to Costco’s 77. From a curatorial point of view, Costco wields more influence than Indigo. It has a smaller, more juried selection of 300 to 600 titles at any given time; because offerings are limited, individual works stand out more sharply. Simply put, publishers will trample their own grandmothers to catch Costco’s fancy.

There’s another reason Secret Daughter is a hit in Canada: for non-Indian readers, it offers an immersion in the culture of the subcontinent. “People keep telling me it has helped them better understand their Indian neighbours, friends, co-workers,” says Gowda. When the grown-up daughter, Asha, goes to visit her adopted father’s family in Mumbai midway through the book, the novel turns into a visitor’s guide, plunging the reader into the smells and tastes and sounds of India with constant talk of garam masala, chai, mehndi, karma, saris, Diwali and so on. And who else is offering readers of mass-market fiction a glimpse into Indian culture? While highbrow readers have long had the likes of Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul and Jhumpa Lahiri, mainstream readers haven’t had much of anything beyond cheesy exotica like The Mistress of Spices. Gowda may not prove a critics’ darling, but she’s fostering more cross-cultural understanding than most literary authors could ever hope to.

The story itself is also key. While hardly in the same league as Rohinton Mistry or Vikram Seth, two of Gowda’s favourites, she knows how to put together a light, enjoyable page-turner. The chapters are short (many topping out at four pages), the language is unfussy, and the various emotional arcs are clearly drawn and reassuringly predictable. Asha, given away for the crime of not being a boy, hopes to reconnect with her birth mother and her homeland. Kavita, the birth mother, longs only to know that her abandoned child is OK. And Somer, the white Californian mom, wants to be accepted as Asha’s true mother. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that all three women get what they want, though not necessarily in the manner they expect.

If the book lacks sophistication, it at least avoids the sentimentality of a Nicholas Sparks novel. It focuses instead on being relatable. The majority of Gowda’s readers are women, and the younger ones always tell her they want to pass the book on to their mothers, while the older ones always tell her they want to pass it on to their daught­ers. In short, it’s a mother-daughter book, and have sweeter words ever been uttered to a publisher?

Secret Daughter
Shilpi Somaya Gowda
On shelves now

  • Lisa E

    Bravo to any author who understands the ongoing partnership of pr/marketing with their publisher. I look forward to reading Secret Daughter, but take issue with the articles author calling Mistress of Spices “cheesey exotica.” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a talented, evocative writer. Her words are spell-binding and I recommend each and every one of her books.

  • Carolyn C

    This article explains everything. I have just finished reading the Secret Daughter and I am dumbfounded by its popularity. I chose the book because the premise of the story seemed very interesting. I still think the idea could have made a great read but the fact is that it is simply awful writing. The phrasing is clumsy and amateurish, the events are predictable and the characters have no depth. I would be embarrassed to pass it on to anyone so I shall take it to the second hand book store and try to recoup some of my losses. There are so many good books out there. How can I sort the wheat from the chaff? I shall start by checking if my next choice is a Costco best seller or a book store best seller.

  • Mary Samara-Wickrama

    This book touched me deeply as my family has been affected by adoption (by choice, not infertility)My younger son was adopted from Vietnam and is clearly part African-American. My daughter and her husband welcomed a daughter and son from Vietnam before a son by birth. My late husband was from Sri Lanka which we visited several times, where I was warmly welcomed by a wonderful family.Asha’s experiences with her father’s family and life in India rang a bell for me.Congratulations on a moving book about a complex family situation. I look forward to the next.

  • Judy Miller

    I am mere pages from the ending of this marvelous book. I have enjoyed the two totally different parallel lives and the earthy simplistic descriptions by Gowda. It was a learning tutorial of India for me and I truly look forward to her next book with her strong characters. Well done indeed.