How New Zealand businesses succeed internationally.
One of life’s pleasure is sitting with a child on one’s lap reading a book to them: attractive – sometimes mysterious – illustrations, humorous – even mischievous – plots, rhythmic sentences and just enough eccentric words without being obscure. E-readers are no substitute. The children’s section in my local bookshop is growing.
New Zealand appears to have an internationally competitive advantage in children’s books. It probably arises from the strength of our primary schooling system and its commitment to literacy illustrated by our world leadership in readers, books which teach children to read. The School Journal (established in 1907) has also been important; many of our outstanding writers (and illustrators) cut their teeth contributing to it.
The strength of writing for children is evident in the local respect with which those writers are held: three of the twelve recipients of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction are children’s writers: Margaret Mahy, who also TWICE won a Carnegie Medal, the ‘Booker prize’ in children’s fiction (2005), Joy Cowley (2010) and Jack Lasenby (2014). Another three also wrote for children and young adults: Maurice Gee (2004), Patricia Grace (2006) and Owen Marshall (2013). James K. Baxter wrote poetry for children.
Even so it may be surprising that the children’s book publisher, Gecko Press, has been so internationally successful. Its specialty is to translate the best children’s books published in foreign languages – from France, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Taiwan – and sell them with the original illustrations throughout the English-speaking world. It also publishes some New Zealand writers, in turn selling their rights for foreign translation and publication.
It is interesting to look at the different publications – ah, the joys of browsing in a bookshop – and see the different cultures’ different approaches; presumably the listening child will imbibe that too. The books are always laced with humour; perhaps the most famous is Poo Bum about a rabbit who could only say one thing. Some tackle difficult topics ever so courageously. Swedish writer Ulf Nilsson's All the Dear Little Animals is about death; I’m told the issue is handled so naturally, so sensitively and yet so practically that children respond very positively.
Given that Wellington, where Gecko operates, is so far away from the rest of the world, how come its success? (Especially as New Zealanders are not noted for their language abilities.) The strength of our children’s book industry with all its voracious readers is one reason. Another is that it is easy to start a business in New Zealand and its restrictions are not too hidebound. Gecko doesn’t have to print here, instead using Asian printers and shipping directly to its international markets. It is the publishing added value which comes back to New Zealand (the royalties accrue to offshore writers).
That would have been impractical a couple of decades ago but the falling costs of distance (the driver of globalisation) means that despite being at the unfashionable end of the world, certain sorts of New Zealand businesses can operate globally. (Even the constant need to go to distant trade fairs does not seem to be too big a handicap. Like many other publishers Gecko will be going the TIBE book fair (Taiwan) next February, where New Zealand is the guest of honour; English language reading seems to be opening up in Asia.)
A key element is that the publisher, Julia Marshall, who worked in Sweden for 12 years, returned home, saw the market niche and seized it. As the New Zealand Herald said: 'It's one of those "why didn't I think of that?" ideas that seem so obvious - in hindsight.' But Julia saw it with foresight.
So there it is: a rich national context; a supportive business environment; low cost, high quality international connections; a talented entrepreneur and – of course – luck. Were government business subsidies helpful? There were a few at the beginning but I understand Gecko is now standalone – an innovator which our innovation policy seems to have overlooked.
Has it ever occurred to you how odd the notion of Wellywood is? If two decades ago you had been told that New Zealand would become an international centre for the production of major movies, you would have said ‘absurd’. Peter Jackson did not think so.
Perhaps Julia Marshall is our Peter Jackson of international children’s literature.