Women Mean Business: ‘The Longest-Ever Author Tour in New Zealand?’

2:33 PM, 19 December 2019

Dr Catherine Bishop looks back on her tour to end all author tours, traversing the length and breadth of Aotearoa.

At barely 5ft 3 inches tall and having written only two books, I am not the biggest author, either in physical or literary stature. My two-month, 24-town, 31-talk tiki-tour of New Zealand, however, might lay claim to being the biggest book spruiking tour, certainly in recent years. It was a mad undertaking: it made no financial sense, I organised it singlehandedly and it was exhausting. But it was also fabulous fun.

I left New Zealand for my ‘O.E.’ 30 years ago and never quite made it back to live in Aotearoa. So, having just written Women Mean Business: Colonial Businesswomen in New Zealand, I had the perfect excuse to reacquaint myself with the land of my birth by gallivanting around the country telling anyone who would listen about the extraordinary stories of enterprising women I had found in New Zealand’s 19th century history. Having uncovered these tales of dressmakers and boarding house keepers, publicans, shopkeepers and even taxidermists, chemists, phrenologists and ginger beer manufacturers, often with an enticing scandal in the background, I wanted to encourage New Zealanders to come to hear me talk about them (and also to read my book!).

I went online and found libraries, museums and bookshops, historical societies and NZ Society of Genealogist groups around the country and asked them if I could come and speak. I worked out an itinerary, booked flights and cheap-as-chips hire cars, found as many free beds with family and friends as I could, and Airbnb-ed the rest. A cousin in Ōtaki taught me a very basic mihi and I was ready to go, determined to make the most of every minute.

Otago University Press produced a lovely book, with lots of illustrations and a great cover. They also provided me for the first weeks with the best publicist in the world. There is no way I would have got so much attention without her ability to transmit her enthusiasm for my book so effectively to media gatekeepers. Penny Hartill managed to make me feel well and truly ‘world-famous-in-New-Zealand’. The most hilarious media day was the photo shoot in Hokitika on a wet day (who would have thought) with fabulous photographer Stewart Nimmo for the NZ Woman’s Weekly. I had teamed up with the descendant of one of the more eccentric businesswomen in my book, and under Stewart’s instruction we found ourselves creating ridiculous poses which the WW perhaps wisely didn’t go with, standing in a dinghy under an umbrella or in the middle of the road looking pointing at the rain….

But my head was never allowed to get too swollen with the media hype. There were many humbling and bumbling moments: on a drizzly Saturday morning in Auckland – one woman dragged her two kids along to my event (bribed with a visit to the Lego store afterwards). And that was the sum total of the audience apart from two staff members (it was one of three Auckland events, I hasten to add, one of which had a crowd of at least 15!). There was disdain from the occasional bookseller, such as the one (in a highly regarded bookshop) who had to look my book up on the computer before she realised that yes, they did have it (on the shelf but not on display). When I asked if she might want me to sign the three copies they had in-store, she considered this for some moments before unsmilingly replying that I could sign two of them, but not all three (*gosh). I got the complete brush off from a local bookshop franchise owner, even though I visited it at the recommendation of a journalist who had just interviewed me for a story to run in their local newspaper. It is always slightly disheartening to realise that even though your book has been featured in newspapers, on TV, internet and radio, it has not cut through to all booksellers. Some were kind. The nice young man behind the counter in Paper Plus in Cambridge congratulated me on publishing a book and making it into the New Zealand Herald when I raced in to buy a copy of said paper, but he had not heard of my book and they didn’t stock it. As I write this, I realise somewhat belatedly that in the flurry of the exchange I think I might have walked off without paying for the newspaper (‘Not-So-Famous Author Caught Shoplifting …’).

Having worked in bookshops myself, I knew that I was being dismissed by some as a middle-aged, self-published-family-memoir/local-history-writer (which I wasn’t). After all, how many authors wander into local bookshops to push their own book? (Yes, I know we all sneak in to turn it face out on the shelf but that relies on it being there in the first place!) And self-published authors should not be discounted: there are always the Fifty Shades of Grey examples, and while my book isn’t quite so salacious, it does have its fair share of bigamists and illicit bonking.

I also found many wonderful bookshops across New Zealand, with interesting books and even more interesting and passionate booksellers, all up for a chat, especially when I admitted to having been part of the bookselling world myself. I got such a kick from the young Whitcoulls bookseller who managed to sound genuinely excited to meet a real live author. (She was almost as excited as I was to find my book not only in a Whitcoulls store, but actually face out on the shelf!) Rather naively I had thought I would find copies of my book in the two big bookstore chains, especially as I was getting so much publicity – both by doing the tour and in the media. But they rarely had stock. Te Papa, on the other hand, had at least 10 copies, and were delighted to let me sign all of them. Later I realised that the staff hadn’t questioned my identity. Next time I could perhaps pretend to be a really famous author and sign all their books?

Some events in smaller towns well and truly surpassed expectations, notably Taupō Library, Napier MTG Museum and Petone Library: it is always heartening when you have to put out more chairs! Other places drew audiences of 60–90 people (Nelson Provincial Museum, Canterbury Museum and Friends of Turnbull Library). Then there was the thrill of being asked to sign my name on the author wall of Poppies Bookshop in New Plymouth (just under the signature of Helen Clark), or of wandering along Oamaru streets and seeing posters advertising my book and talk at the library in almost every shop window and of posing outside lovely window displays of my book (Carson’s in Thames & Poppies New Plymouth). I really appreciated the way that my venue hosts helped publicise my talks through their networks. In most cases I organised local booksellers to sell books at my events. One advantage of this was hopefully that they would then both stock and hand-sell it at least until Christmas. This has ensured that my book is in at least one (usually the independent) bookshop in each of the 24 towns I visited.

The biggest event of all of course was the official book launch itself. My home town of Whanganui played host, with the fabulous Lesley Stead of Paige’s bookshop selling books. It was held at the lovely Space Gallery as a fringe event of the Whanganui Literary Festival. I was a bit terrified that no one would show up, especially as a writer/publisher friend had said he would travel to Whanganui from Wellington for the launch because he ‘anticipated that I might need the support’(!). Whanganui, however, turned out in droves: not only were more seats brought out, but there was standing room only. Never underestimate the power of a local bookseller, literary festival organisers and an enthusiastic mother.

The talks were always fun and the questions even better. The most common was ‘who is the lady with the hair on the cover?’ She was Jemima Potto, a Whanganui teenager who inherited her mother’s straw bonnet business. After her marriage to a Wellington butcher, Jemima took the reins of the family finances, her husband being rather too fond of the races. The Whanganui UCOL Hairdressing Class tried to recreate the hair, finding it extremely difficult.

Travelling for two months, giving talks most days was pretty exhausting. As the tour entered its fifth week, I learnt to tell what day it was by the town I was in. “Today is Thursday so I think I am in Taupō because yesterday was Tauranga and the day before Thames...” I also discovered the value of an afternoon nap … not a ‘nana nap’ but a ‘power nap’ of course.

Everywhere I went I found new stories; if only it were possible to do a book tour before writing a book! There is the one I will forever be kicking myself for not discovering until it was too late: Catherine Wiltshire, ‘pedestrienne’ (she and her husband put on displays of long-distance walking in the 1870s) Later she had a (more conventional) midwifery business in Palmerston North, through two further marriages. She got caught out for being unregistered after the Midwives Registration Act (1904) but quickly remedied the situation.

And she also happens to be Jacinda Ardern’s great-great-grandmother.

Nevertheless, the book has sold its 1000 copies and is now reprinting. It is also starting to get reviews, which, like all authors, I  will tell myself to read selectively – focusing on the comments such as ‘the best sort of history – the kind that tells us history is not what we thought it was’ (North and South) and ignoring anything less glowing. (The reality is of course, that it is the little criticisms that eat away at you.)

Overall, the most rewarding thing about doing this tour was not selling books but reconnecting with New Zealand – with the people and with the country. In New Zealand, it is not six degrees but about two degrees of separation. Having lived overseas for most of my adult life I did not expect to arrive in a town and find old school friends, mates of my mother’s, or previously unknown relatives. And then there were all the archivists and librarians and genealogists and historians I had been emailing during my research. Friendly and familiar faces everywhere.

And New Zealand is beautiful. It is green and gorgeous; the mountains are extraordinary; the beaches stunning; the towns quirky. And how refreshing to have a prime minister the world respects, even if some Kiwis don’t seem to appreciate their government quite as much as the rest of the world seems to. As I sit across the Tasman with sore eyes from smoke-filled skies, monitoring the fires that approach from two sides, I certainly appreciate a country where not only is the land green and not burned to a crisp, but where the politics of well-being and future-proofing humanity seem to be conquering those of self-interest and climate-change denial. How great is … New Zealand (to borrow the Aussie PM’s favourite catchphrase).

Women Mean Business: Colonial Businesswomen in New Zealand by Dr Catherine Bishop  is published by Otago University Press.

Dr Catherine Bishop’s first book, Minding Her Own Business: Colonial businesswomen in Sydney, won the prestigious Ashurst Business Literature Prize in 2016. She currently holds a research fellowship funded by the Australian Research Council at Macquarie University, where she is writing a history of women in business in twentieth-century Australia. The research for Women Mean Business was assisted by a New Zealand History Trust Award. She grew up in Whanganui and lives in Sydney.