Photographs by Mike Heydon
Flying in the face of popular opinion, in a tiny niche in a difficult industry, Julia Marshall’s Gecko Press has proven the naysayers wrong. By Nicky Chapman
Julia Marshall has written herself a success story with an opportunity so small no one else could see it.
While living in Europe a few years ago, Marshall started nosying around the international book fairs at Frankfurt and Bologna with an idea of starting a children’s book publishing company in New Zealand. At Bologna she was told that anyone could buy the rights to books and that would be a good way to begin, so she did.
“When I went to buy the rights to Can You Whistle, Johanna? [by Swedish writer Ulf Stark] I discovered this internationally award-winning book was translated into 25 languages but not English. I said ‘That’s weird’ and they said ‘That’s normal’.”
The germ of an idea was formed, and today Gecko Press publishes English versions of foreign-sourced children’s books with a focus on strong stories and quality illustration.
Marshall “is doing something very unusual for publishers in English-speaking countries”, says Swedish publisher Lena Andersson. “Only about three percent of the children’s books published in the UK are translations.” And breaking into the US market is even harder.
At first, most thought Marshall was chasing the gleam of fool’s gold. Margaret Mahy’s Swedish publisher told Marshall that either she was an idiot, or it was a brilliant niche. New Zealand booksellers were dubious. “Julia came to us before Gecko Press,” says John MacIntyre of the Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington. “She brought [Austrian picture book] Donkeys in the untranslated version. She explained the plot and I thought that a book like that would have a very small New Zealand market. I couldn’t see how she would survive.”
“Many thought Marshall was chasing the gleam of fool’s gold. Margaret Mahy’s Swedish publisher said either she was an idiot, or it was a brilliant niche. “I figured I had nothing to lose by trying”
Despite the cagey reactions, Marshall started her company in Wellington in 2005 with the English-language rights to a bagful of European children’s books that no one else wanted. “I figured I had nothing to lose by trying. I have never got to the stage where I owe more money than I can pay back if I decided to stop the whole thing tomorrow. I was also convinced that the time was right for New Zealand and Australia to read books from other countries, as we each now have a really strong local children’s literature—which we didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago.”
Marshall also uncovered some of those Kiwi gems. She contacted Joy Cowley, one of New Zealand’s most beloved and internationally successful children’s writers. “Joy said she had this little book that had languished at the back of an educational list in the US ... At that stage we had four books, and I thought if I do nothing else, we’ll turn this skinny little book into something really nice, as I loved the stories.”
That skinny little book was Snake and Lizard. When Cowley suggested a collaboration with Gavin Bishop, an internationally acclaimed illustrator, it turned into something special. “It’s just extraordinary what the clothing of a book does to it,” says Marshall.
Last year, Snake and Lizard won the New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year and a White Raven, which is awarded annually to only 250 children’s books worldwide. Overseas publishers have already bought the rights, and more snake and lizard stories are in the hatching.
Snake and Lizard may be Gecko’s breakthrough book, but it is the whole Gecko package that has overcome the sceptism of the market. “She has a very sure touch ... she has an uphill battle but has done such good marketing people are coming in and asking for her brand,” says MacIntyre. He’s not the only impressed bookseller. Last year, the New Zealand Booksellers’ Association named its top publishers: industry giant Random House and little Gecko Press.
Gecko’s rapid success reads like a bright fantasy, but there’s a lot of hard slog behind the magic. For starters, publishing books is a tough way to make money. “Publishing has low margins, you put all this money into books years before you get a return, and traipsing overseas to book fairs is expensive,” says Marshall. Publishing is getting tougher as books compete with other media, and there are growing demands from writers and powerful retailers. Globally, says Marshall, seven out of ten newly launched books fail to reach profitability. Despite this, Gecko’s profits are already shooting well into the black (a far cry from the 90 percent loss in 2005).
Gecko, like only a few other publishers such as Mallinson Rendell (a children’s book publisher with around half of its market overseas), has been export-focused from the start. The plan has always been to sell English translations and fine New Zealand books around the world. Marshall’s background is in starting up and editing multi-language corporate magazines in Sweden. “I knew how to get a good translation, and after living overseas for such a long time, it was natural to want to be international.”
To get book publishing experience, Marshall spent two years in Wellington working for Bridget Williams Books, an independent publisher that focuses on New Zealand history. But she wasn’t yet ready to step out on her own. “I went back to Sweden because I got offered the job of running a regional office and I figured I didn’t know enough about business. So I did three years—my ‘active MBA’.” Fitting in a children’s writing course at Victoria University with award-winning writer Kate De Goldi also deepened her lifelong love of children’s literature.
Marshall has always had an original approach. As De Goldi observes, she began Gecko Press “blissfully unburdened by preconceptions that are often wrong”.
First, Marshall set firm criteria for her books: they would encourage children to love reading, created by internationally award-winning authors and illustrators with an established body of work, and have a big “heart factor”. Choosing only award-winning authors and illustrators means Gecko knows it has quality. “I follow authors and illustrators,” says Marshall, “and then suddenly there will be the one book that for me has that special factor.”
Unlike nearly every publisher on the planet, Marshall is not hunting for the next JK Rowling. She has ignored what she describes as the “decline in importance of the back catalogue and growing emphasis on new books in search of a ‘hit’ that may launch a series or an author”.
So what does she look for then? “The under-the-radar, really good writers who don’t have that same marketing budget behind them, and their books are often ones that last a really long time. I try to choose books that you can read again and again—definitely not elite books, but ones at the commercial end of good.”
European sensibilities can challenge anglophone sensitivities, however. “These stories are written in a culture where there’s a strong tradition of storytelling and myth making,” says Barbara Larson of Longacre Press. One of Gecko’s latest, Duck, Death and the Tulip by German author Wolf Erlbruch, is a beautiful, sombre yet funny book about a duck and her friend Death. Not your usual topic for picture books, and one that is causing a bit of angst among the adults, but De Goldi revels in the cultural impact. “Already Gecko’s influence has been profound.”
“Speak to any bookseller, librarian or publisher about a Gecko book and they’ll rave about production values. “The books give the impression of ‘here is something to treasure’, even before the book is read,” says Barbara Larson of Longacre Press”
Another strategy is Gecko’s level of investment in well-made books. Speak to any bookseller, librarian or publisher about a Gecko book and they’ll rave about production values. “The books give the impression of ‘here is something to treasure’, even before the book is read,” says Larson.
Such joy in quality is shared by those who have worked with Marshall. “Working with Julia is terrific,” says Bishop. “She doesn’t say ‘you can’t do that’. She actually investigates everything.” Kim Dovey, senior designer at Book Design, pleaded with Marshall to let her work on Snake and Lizard. “I loved the other books. Snake and Lizard is really special all the way through, it’s an argument to do the best of what you can do.”
For Snake and Lizard, Gecko indulged in beautiful paper, French flaps, a dust cover and illustrated endpapers. The attention to detail seems to pay: as prominent US reviewer Elizabeth Bird says, the endpapers “are practically worth the price of the book alone”.
A major part of Marshall’s success is the support she and her books inspire. Among her champions are at least a couple of fairy godmothers—Kim Hill and De Goldi have been sprinkling National Radio listeners with glitter-dust every time De Goldi reviews a Gecko book. Business incubator Creative HQ and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise have both helped to provide structure and advice. Michael Elwood-Smith at Creative HQ sees part of its role as connecting entrepreneurs with mentors who can give different perspectives. “Currently Gecko’s key challenge is around partnership for growth,” he says. Marshall agrees: “Publishing is a volatile area and very relationship-based and I believe firmly in partnerships of different sorts.”
Another challenge is to embrace technological change while retaining Gecko’s boutique branding. ”I love the feel of books,” says Marshall, “but we’ve got our heads in the sand if we think that that is the only way that we are going to be looking at story. Like many other small publishers, we are not intending to be market leaders in developing new technology. But we are … looking at alternative formats, and learning. I like the idea of different formats for different purposes—it seems natural to me.”
Professor Mark Ahn, professor and chair of Science and Technology Entrepreneurship at Victoria University, is a mentor (and fan) of Marshall’s. He relishes the Gecko story. “Julia had the courage to enter a crowded market with a vision and passion. She approached her business model in a totally different way to create a profitable niche. Also, she’s not settling for only bringing award-winning books to New Zealand children, but taking her unique brand and approach to children around the world.”
Or as Marshall puts it: “I do like a bit of adventure.”