These are some of the questions that people have asked Julia Marshall about Gecko Press
Why did you decide to start Gecko Press?
“I can look back to a particular moment when I visited the Bologna Book Fair to try to make sense of it, when I decided not to go with my friend to buy shoes. Instead I walked once more round the halls—and I met a kind publisher who told me he would answer all my questions because someone had done the same for him 25 years before. He told me how you could buy rights to books—I had no idea of what that meant. We don’t normally know which particular moments are decisive in our lives, but that was one for me.”
What attracted you to the children’s market, as opposed to the adults?
“There has never been any question for me—I like children’s books and always have.”
A Gecko Press book can often be spotted before the little lizard is seen—can you quantify the very apparent taste that makes this so?
“I am not really sure what it is, but I can see that it is there. We try to choose books that are not predictable, but even then a pile of Gecko Press books always seems to make quite a nice pile. Sometimes I see books where I think: ‘That would be a good Gecko Press book!'”
Do you have a favourite among the Gecko Press books catalogue?
“I have quite a few favourites, and definitely there are some key books, which have led to change, and I am especially fond of those. I am very fond of Donkeys because it was the first, and Snake and Lizard by Joy Cowley, because that was really the beginning of Gecko Press as a serious publisher, and once I get to there I can’t stop, so I will. But there are some books that are favourites because I have never met a child who doesn’t like them. I have some other favourites that are favourites because they are more specific to a particular type of child. I will be friends with anyone who likes My Friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes, for example. All the dear little animals is another book that I am fond of, because a particular sort of reader really takes it to heart.”
What is the single best experience Gecko Press has given you?
“It is the feeling that Gecko Press has now become greater than the sum of its parts, and that, somehow, if it were to cease now, it would leave a hole.”
Is it possible to sum up the New Zealand juvenile market sensibility in contrast with any strain of the European one?
“I don’t think so. In general I think the Anglo Saxon tradition is a little sweeter than the European one, but a good story is a good story, and there are fewer of them around than we think. But I do think that Anglo Saxons prefer to protect children, rather than challenge children, perhaps.”
Did you have books as a child?
“I grew up in a reading family. We all read our books at lunch after we had been working in the orchard, and at breakfast, and sometimes at dinner, which I understand is not technically being very well brought up.
We often give each other books for Christmas, and that’s a good thing because it provides a home library for the summer and the rest of the year too. Summer is pretty much the only time of the year that I read any adult books.
We have lots of family stories and the whole family notices words and the way people use them—I think it is to do with enjoying the little things that make a story.
My grandmother always read the books she gave us first, and I think that is a great thing, although she used to still give them even if she didn’t like them herself. I don’t, even though I like that she did, as she implied that I might think otherwise and that would be fine too!”
What first attracted you to a career in publishing and to publishing children’s books in particular?
“I always wanted to work in publishing, right from when I was at school. It just took me a long time to get there, as we didn’t have a publishing course in New Zealand then. I became a magazine journalist instead, which I liked—people, stories and pictures. But I always loved children’s books and that is what I wanted to work with.”
85% of the titles you publish are translations. What do you think are the ingredients to your success in an area other publishers shy away from?
“When I started publishing, people in English markets thought that publishing books in translation was a complete non-starter. In other countries, they thought it was odd to want to draw attention to the books being in translation. I think Gecko Press has survived because we only publish curiously good books: and also because we are happy to publish good books by other publishers, rather than create them ourselves. We just want to publish good books.”
Why do you think there is so little translated children’s fiction published in the UK?
“There is a bit more now than when I started in 2005, when 1% of books published in the UK were in translation. (And when I told that figure to Dag Hernried, the publisher of Margaret Mahy in Sweden, he said: ‘I’m surprised that figure is so high.’) There are many reasons why publishers are loathe to publish translations—the risks are a bit higher than they are for a local author, for example, particularly now that everyone wants to meet the authors. And most publishers want to publish their own stories, perhaps?”
You launched your list into the UK market in 2009. Which titles do you concentrate on for the UK?
“We now publish everything on our list in the UK—the sales of Gecko Press are fairly evenly spread across New Zealand, Australia, the US and the UK—so every one of these is an important market for us.”
You have a special connection with Sweden and have translated books by Ulf Stark, Ulf Nilsson, Sven Nordkvist and Lena Landström. What do you see as the most exciting developments in Swedish children’s literature?
“I think Swedish children’s literature is very good, sometimes a little rebellious, and often a lovely mixture of funny and serious, very warm, and taking children very seriously and treating them as intelligent beings, which I like—and there are very good writers in Sweden.”
What were your favourite books as a child?
“I loved Borka, the goose with no feathers, and Pippi Longstocking, of course, and Mrs Pepperpot, and I am David, and Ping… As a family we read a lot of Winnie the Pooh and he has a special place for us still.”
What do you think makes a children’s book work?
“I think a good children’s book has a very good story that you want to read hundreds of times, with a hero we relate to, and that lovely feeling of ‘Ah’ when you get to the end—when everything has been perfect, words, pace, and pictures. Really good picture books are like novels packed into thirty-two pages, with character development, plot, humour, drama…
A good picture book is a little like a good joke or a good family story—it is fun to hear no matter how often you hear it and it might grow better with every reading. Good does not necessarily mean literary—I am an omnivore in my reading, and like a good read as much as anybody.”
And how do you choose which books to translate?
“I go to Bologna and Frankfurt book fairs, and listen to what the publishers tell me about the book and the writer, and I look at the pictures—and then I have a good long sleep. Then I show the book to the others in our office and we wait to see whether we feel the ‘Ah’ feeling when we get to the end. I also look to see how the book has done in other countries, as that can give me an idea of whether a book will travel well. Basically we have to love the story and the pictures, if it is a picture book. I have a weakness for books that I find funny.”
In ten years your company has grown from publishing four books a year to sixteen. What is next for Gecko Press?
“Sixteen books seems a good number, and we have made a conscious choice to publish just a small number of good books. I think there are far too many books in the world.”