Although most of the authors currently on the bestseller list at Magrudy's, the Middle East bookstore chain, are also fixtures on lists throughout the world (Paulo Coelho, Stieg Larsson, Sophie Kinsella), the name in Magrudy's top spot is a local author published by an American house, who isn't known outside the United Arab Emirates. Dubai native Maha Gargash, a documentary filmmaker and media personality, held the #1 spot on Magrudy's list with her first novel, The Sand Fish, a Harper (U.S.) paperback original, for 23 weeks before dropping to fourth spot last week. The book has been one of Harper's top-selling titles in the Middle East this year, with 20% of the book's total sales coming from the region, and 25,000 copies in print worldwide. The unusual hit grew out of a group that's often overlooked at publishing houses: the international sales division.
Gargash, who has degrees from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Goldsmiths' College, London, wanted to publish her book, a literary novel PW called “an exciting, passion-filled read that illuminates an intriguing culture through the eyes and experience of a feisty heroine,” with a house in New York or London, not Dubai. Her friend Emile Khoury, who runs the Middle East wholesaler Ciel, shared her manuscript with a few publishers, including David Wolfson, who runs Harper's international sales group, at the London Book Fair two years ago. “Maha's manuscript for The Sand Fish caught our attention... because we felt the subject matter would have an immediate appeal in the Middle East as well as a significant audience in the U.S., Canada, and other markets,” Wolfson told PW. Carrie Kania heard about the book from Wolfson and jumped on it. The house published the book in October 2009 simultaneously in the U.S., the U.A.E., and throughout the Middle East, and Gargash became one of the only (if not the first) Dubai women to ever publish with a U.S. house.
In the U.S., The Sand Fish received trade reviews and coverage in the New York Post and was selected for Target's Emerging Authors program. While it has done modestly well in the States, Sand Fish is much more of a success in the Middle East, thanks to Harper's international publicity manager, Eryn Kalavsky, who works in New York. She got coverage for the novel—set in the 1950s in what is today Dubai—in publications ranging from the news-oriented Gulf News and the National to Qatar Air's in-flight magazine, Harper's Bazaar Dubai, and Time Out Beirut and Time Out Dubai. Gargash was a featured author at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature last month, and has been speaking at Dubai schools and society book groups. She is also working on a second novel, though rights have not yet been sold.