The Heart Factor

Julia Marshall's startup, Gecko Press, is proving an early success, publishing best sellers from overseas and local authors.

Julia Marshall looks for the 'heart factor' when she's deciding to publish a children's book. But she is not ruled by her heart; her business targets are fixed firmly in her head.

Marshall launched Wellington-based Gecko Press in 2004 to publish overseas children's authors in English. It's a chancy business dealing in authors unknown to English-speaking readers and adding the cost of translation into the publishing budget.

"Everybody said to me when I started, 'You will meet a lot of nice people but you won't make any money'." But she believes she has found a niche market and she mitigates the risks by targeting award-winning authors.

In 2005, Marshall published her first book, Donkeys, by Austrians Adelheid Dahimene and Heide Stollinger. It had the heart factor: two old donkeys deciding after a lifetime of love that they can no longer live together. The book sold out and is into its third reprint.

She put $100,000 of her own money into starting the company, with a small amount of extra capital from family, and says cashflow is one of the biggest hurdles in an industry where you pay upfront.  "I buy the rights to books that have been published in other languages, publish them in New Zealand and Australia and then sell those rights back to the other English-speaking markets."
But Gecko Press has also just published its first New Zeland book, Snake and Lizard, by New Zealand author Joy Cowley and illustrator Gavin Bishop, securing world rights for the book. Snake and Lizard has been published in the US in 1996 on an educational list, but had never been available in bookshops.

The number of titles in Gecko's catalogue is small but expanding. It published four books in 2005; five books last year; nine books are being published this year and 12 books are planned for 2008. Book sales are gaining pace and the sales target for 2007-08 is up 300% on last year.

Marshall, originally from Marton, lived for 12 years in Sweden, working as an editor and translator for a company that publishes multi-language company magazines.  "I have always loved children's books, but to help me learn Swedish I read quite a lot more." Reading Roald Dahl and Margaret Mahy in Swedish she realised that while internationally acclaimed children's writers were being translated into many languages, few European children's bestsellers were being translated into English. There she found her niche market and decided to start a company.

Marshall came back to New Zealand to work for Bridget Williams Books for two years, to learn about the book business. Then it was back to Sweden to work for her former employer and to visit the major international book fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt.  "I went about three times without knowing anything. Every time I went to Frankfurt there were just acres and acres of books and then I went to Bologna - I was about to give up and then this man said to me, 'Come back tomorrow and I will answer all your questions because somebody did that for me 25 years ago'.
"He told me that you could buy rights. People do it in Europe all the time - start publishing companies by buying the rights to a few books and then off they go. So that year I went around and collected all the catalogues from the companies whose books I liked. I made appointments with them for the next year."

Gecko Press is one of the startup companies in Wellington's Creative HQ incubator. Mark Robotham, General Manager Incubators, says Marshall is this year seeing the rewards for her work in international markets and has built her brand credibility to the point where she can secure world rights.  "I think the simplicity of the concept in Julia's case will be one of the factors in her success. She is taking an existing award-winning product from another culture and language and importing it into the English-speaking world. That's not without risk", he says, "but choosing a product that can cross over is where her expertise lies".

Marshall's focus now is on increasing the number of books she publishes and expanding her market in Australia. Last year she obtained an agreement with Tower Books to distribute there but she is looking for a New Zealand distributor to replace Reed, which was recently bought by Penguin.

Despite its focus on overseas books, Gecko Press will next year add another two New Zealand books to its catalogue. "It doesn't mean we can't do really good New Zealand books. The idea is to get the books moving in both directions."

And why Gecko?  "Because I think they are cute, but they are not too cute and they are very quick and very curious."

Penny Harding, Unlimited
October 2007

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