A Life with Books: Julia Marshall of Gecko Press

If you love and value books, finding a way to work with them has to be the dream job. But what does that job look like? How do you find it, and what impact will it have?

Whether you’re actively looking for a new path, or simply appreciate knowing more about the world of books, there’s nothing like hearing from people who are directly involved in creating, promoting and interpreting children’s literature.

As the founder, CEO and publisher at Gecko Press based in Wellington, New Zealand, Julia has an eye for ‘children’s books with heart’ and devotes herself to titles that are the 'antidote to sameness' by translating and publishing a small but perfectly formed collection of books by some of the world's best writers and illustrators for children.  

Gecko Press describes its books as 'built for readers who are inquisitive and understand that life is full of absurdities and incongruities', and their list is distinctive, quirky and exciting.  

For this interview - the second in our series A Life with Books - Julia joins us from Wellington, New Zealand, to share publishing insights and her passion for 'curiously good books'.

 

Hi Julia, and a warm welcome to Cast of Thousands! I'm a big fan of Gecko's list - and ethos - so it's great to have the opportunity to talk. How would you describe Gecko Press, and what are its aims?Gecko Press is an independent publisher of children’s books from the best writers and illustrators in the world, translated into English. Our goal is to publish a small number of books excellent in story, illustration and design that parents and children will want to read over and over. We work to make them the best they can be, and to introduce them to as many readers as possible.   


I've heard that the inspiration for Gecko Press came from a visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. What impressed you about this experience, and what did you take from it into your own publishing venture? 

I met enormous generosity of spirit on my first visit to Bologna. One publisher said he would answer all my questions if I came back the next day, “because someone did that for me 25 years ago.” Generosity, openness and collegiality are all part of the world of children’s publishing and I hope they are also inherent to Gecko Press.   

Do you think it’s possible to keep that Bologna feeling all year round? How do you stay inspired and creative? I have missed going to Bologna in the last two years – I didn’t realize how important it is to me to be part of the international children’s book community, and zoom meetings are a poor substitute. It is much more efficient and a different experience to see a book in person, and to be able to talk directly to the agents and publishers.

Julia considering titles at the Bologna Children's Book Fair with Rachel Lawson, Gecko Press co-publisher

Away from Bologna, I love when people tell me that a child or a family loves a book – any book. Finding good books that make our collective Gecko Press hearts lift gives me energy, and so does seeing children’s response to them. I translate from Swedish as a treat for me – and I love it too when a book of ours whistles out the door!  What did you do before becoming a publisher, and how did those roles and experiences contribute to your decision (and ability) to found Gecko Press?   

That’s a nice question! I was a magazine journalist, because I liked the combination of words, pictures and people, and there was no publishing training in New Zealand at that time. I worked in Sweden for 12 years making international magazines translated in up to 22 languages, and that taught me about the art of translation, and the difference between a good translation and a bad one.  

I learned about production there also, and attention to detail. I also took on a management role – I hadn’t realized till then that running a business is such a creative and all-encompassing process. Gecko Press is now 17 years old. 
We like to think of things found in translation, not lost  
I love Gecko Press’s invitation to 'read bravely...' What does reading bravely mean to you? 

For me it means reading outside my comfort zone, maybe a book that requires a bit more of me, or just being open to change. I remember my mother suggesting I swap out yet another Jill Pony Book for National Velvet, for example. I also remember a visitor to our house suggesting I persevere with a book that I told him wasn’t a happy book. He suggested I keep reading, to get to the end. I think reading bravely is reading beyond what we know, outside our normal genre, maybe, trying a new writer, a new country of origin, something that isn’t a bestseller, sometimes persevering. Reading bravely and reading curiously are the same thing, I think. 


Which of Gecko Press’s books would you most like to send back in time and add to your own childhood bookcase? What would ‘little Julia’ have liked about Gecko Press’s books?   

A lovely question! I would have loved to be given any of the Gecko Press books, because I think the little Julia is alive and well and gets a lot of say in our choosing! Perhaps sometimes she should give way to the grown-up Julia, one more aware of risk and return. I try to strike a balance between these two selves. Actually, I think our most successful books are when these two are aligned, and that brings me back to a good Gecko Press book, one where adults and children are engaged equally. 

  

How do you choose the titles you will publish? What makes a book a 'Gecko Press book'?  We publish around 18 titles a year, 85 percent of them in translation. Two or three are original Gecko Press titles, mostly from New Zealand writers and illustrators. Each year we also translate one of our best-loved picture books into te reo M?ori, New Zealand’s indigenous language.  

For our translated books, we are looking for child-centred, original books by some of the best writers and illustrators in the world, excellent in story, illustration and design, with emotional substance – what I call a good heart. They need to be ‘curiously good’ – because most of our books are in translation, they have to stand out on the shelves, to offer something different.  

I like stories that look at the world from a different perspective, with real characters, depth, humour, honesty, intelligence, books parents won’t mind reading over and over.  

To find these books, the first port of call is a bookfair, like Bologna, where publishers might have 70 or so meetings, dinners and breakfasts as well as bump-into meetings in the aisles. Even then, we find books by word of mouth, the same way you get told about a good book from a friend.  
We look for perennials rather than annuals, and are playing the long game
What’s involved in bringing a book to publication? How do you get your books out there and being read?   I think the most important thing is to do the right things at the right time. Books don’t like being late, and if they are, they never seem to catch up. For us that means we are sometimes sending books to print a year before they will be sold. Every little thing about every book has to be the best it can be –translation, editing, production, print, marketing material, metadata, publicity – for a book to reach its greatest potential, which means the greatest possible number of readers. 

We are a small team at Gecko Press, but we have great partners in each of our direct sales markets – the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Their job is to get our books into bookshops, museums, schools, libraries. Our publicists in each of these countries work to get our books reviewed widely – although it is true that children’s books have lost review space in recent years. We work behind the scenes to support all this activity, as a hub. 

  
What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you as a publisher? The most moving? The most challenging? 
Most moving? I think listening to people tell me about the books they remember as a child, or the moments they were read to, or not read to – I think the dedication of parents and grandparents, teachers and librarians in encouraging children to read moves me.  Surprising? Anything to do with awards. Challenging is easy: that’s cash, when you need it. Publishing is unforgiving in terms of cashflow and there is an element of luck in a list as small as ours. 

I believe children are more intelligent and discerning than we give them credit for

In your experience, what do children enjoy about Gecko Press’s books? What have you learned from your readers?I believe children are more intelligent and discerning than we give them credit for; it’s the adults we sometimes have to worry about. Children also know the difference between a book and real life. They get the joke. They look and read more deeply than adults, they know when something is good, and funny. That’s what I think, anyway. 

 

Gecko Press sells its titles internationally. Do you think tastes and reading habits vary from one country to another?  This is curiously true. Sometimes there appears no rhyme nor reason, other than variables in what we do to promote and sell. It’s interesting and a lot of fun to see our books being sold in Barnes & Noble in the U.S. or being used by teachers in a U.K. classroom or to hear about early childhood centres stocking The Noisy Book in Australia.  

What we really love is when a book is loved in every one of our four main English-language markets, when we have a book guaranteed to be loved by every child and adult who comes in contact with it. These books are our bread and butter. Who’s Hiding?, That’s Not a Hippopotamus, Duck Death and the Tulip, Tickle My Ears, My Happy Life, Detective Gordon, Yours Sincerely Giraffe: we look for perennials rather than annuals, and are playing the long game. It is odd that two of our very bright yellow books have done particularly well in Australia (The Encyclopedia of Grannies, My Mother is a House).


What are the joys and challenges of working with translated texts? Are they a tough sell? I personally love translation and the idea that a good book can reach children everywhere. People sometimes have the idea that something translated is a lesser thing. We like to think of things found in translation, not lost. A good translation is the key. People do sometimes prefer things that are comfortable, known, and by people whose names they can pronounce easily – I think that is changing. But yes, it is harder to sell a translated book than a book by a local writer/illustrator, and the world is moving back to being quite parochial, I think. We really appreciate the people who take a chance on something from us. 

Click HERE for a brilliant blogpost on the Gecko website about translating children's books

What advice would you give to someone setting up a children’s publishing company? Is there any advice you wish you’d been given before starting out?I was given good advice by Phillippe Werck of Clavis at that first Bologna Bookfair, about choosing a good sales and distribution partner, and not to reprint too soon. 

I would repeat the advice I was given that anyone setting up a children’s publishing company should be sure to have adequate capital, and a vision for the kinds of books they will publish, and stick to it.  

I would make sure to have good advisors, and to know one’s weaknesses. 

 

Jeremy George of Readings Melbourne described Gecko Press as eccentric. Is he right? What do you see as the positive aspects of eccentricity?  

That’s very nice of him! I take that to mean unconventional. I like the unconventional aspect of our books a lot, and it’s related to them being ‘curiously good’. We are pushing boundaries sometimes in looking for books that are different to what is commonly published, books that stop us in our tracks.  

If you could wave a wand and change attitudes to children’s books (or the ways in which they are experienced and used) what would you do? You’re allowed to be all-powerful, and to interpret this in any way you like!   I need to think about this for a year at least. I would halve the number of books being published for starters. I would have adults treat children’s books, their writers and illustrators (and children) with the seriousness they deserve. I would make sure there was a range of books for children in all the places children congregate, and an array of adults prepared to take time to ensure that every child finds the one book that might set them on a path to a lifetime of reading. Probably we could all slow down a little, experience the world as a child, and act accordingly. I would have adults be more open to books outside their own range, and also give them more time and more resources. 

Thank you so much Julia, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Before we go, there’s a great segment on your website about the books that raised me. Which books raised you? It is great, isn’t it? My list is HERE, I note that it is fairly conventional! 

 

Find the books Julia mentioned - and many more - on the Gecko website HERE

Or browse our Top Ten Gecko book collection in the Cast of Thousands online shop at uk.bookshop.org HERE
Every purchase helps us (and independent bookshops throughout the UK) pay our expenses and keep going, so thank you for your support

 

The Visitor by Antje Damm is featured in our Top Ten Gecko Books Collection on uk.bookshop.org HERE

Click HERE for free learning activities inspired by this book in the Meet the Books section of this website 


Migrants by Issa Watanabe is also featured in our Top Ten Gecko Books Collection on uk.bookshop.org HERE

Click HERE for free learning activities written by Carey Fluker Hunt at Cast of Thousands for Teach Primary Magazine at teachwire.net

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