I knew I wanted to work in publishing – especially children’s books – when I left university in the early eighties, but I couldn’t ﬁgure out how to do it. In New Zealand there was no publishing course, so I worked as a kind of journalist/editor/researcher for a mixed bag of magazines and newspapers – Adventure Magazine, Wakatipu Advertiser, New Zealand Geographic, the New Zealand Herald. I realised that I like putting things together, I like being involved in the whole process, I like a good story, and I like ﬁnishing with something in my hand I can be proud of.
For ten years I worked in Sweden making all sorts of magazines for Swedish industrial giants, some of them in twenty-two languages. Then I came back to New Zealand, determined to work in book publishing. Finally, after six months’ trying – I was about to take on a job raising bobby calves – Bridget Williams gave me a job as a trainee. I worked with Bridget Williams Books for two years, learning how to produce a well-made book.
It was tricky to switch from magazines to books: it took me a while to realise that books need longer in the making – there are more layers, and somehow they won’t be rushed. In 2000 I went back to Sweden one more time for a three-year period as regional manager for my old magazine company – like doing an MBA, I thought.
I knew I wanted to start Gecko Press, and to publish children’s books, but still I I was told I would meet a lot of nice people but not make much money. So far that’s truedidn’t know where to start. So, I went to the Frankfurt and Bologna international bookfairs to learn how they worked. At Bologna, a Belgian publisher – Philippe Werck of Clavis – told me to come back the next day and he would answer all my questions because someone had done the same for him twenty-ﬁve years before. He told me that one way to start was to buy rights to existing books.
I chose my ﬁrst book, Can you Whistle, Johanna? – and discovered it had been translated into twenty languages but not English. Oddly, I had stumbled onto a niche – at that time only 1 per cent of children’s books were being translated into English. I didn’t pay any advances on the ﬁrst books Gecko Press published, because the publishers were so pleased to see their books being produced in English they wanted to give me a head start.
I had no idea when I started Gecko Press in 2005 whether it would work. I was told I would meet a lot of nice people but not make much money. So far that’s true, but every year gets better. Like other people in the book trade, we laugh about how rich we are getting in soul. But we know we have to sell books to make books. We work hard at that. This is the hardest I’ve worked in my life.
In the meantime, I love it – I love that something extraordinary and unexpected happens every week, and that every year we get a bit more established, and we ﬁnd books we think children and the people encouraging them to read will love. And I love that we are making what we call ‘curiously good books’ that I’m proud to hold in my hand. Long may it last.