Most of us hate someone looking over our shoulder while we work but for Kat Merewether it proved to be a life changing moment.
She was working as a PA at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, the Māori education provider, when a colleague noticed her doodling at her desk. That was in 2002 and today Merewether is a bestselling children’s author and a self-publishing success story based out of Te Awamutu.
“I was learning te reo Māori and because I’ve got dyslexia I’ve always drawn images to help me learn,” explains Merewether.
“The tutor responsible for the te reo programme saw me sketching at work one day and asked me to illustrate a new textbook. I did the project while I was on maternity leave and enjoyed it so much, I never went back to work.”
Instead she started her own company, Design on Q, and spent 10 years designing and illustrating educational resources and books for other authors before she plucked up the courage to write a book of her own.
Just do it
Merewether was driving to meet one of the authors she worked with when she was inspired to pull over to the side of the road.
“I grabbed a pen and paper and sketched the storyboard for ‘Kuwi’s First Egg’, which later became my first book,” she says. “It came to me like a movie, almost fully formed. The words weren't there but the story was.”
“I showed it to a friend of mine. I told her: ‘I have this idea for a book which is a bit crazy because I’m not a writer.’ She gave me the best advice ever. ‘Just do it,’ she said. ‘If nothing comes of it, you can read it to your kids.’”
Start with a plan
Merewether pitched her book to some of the big publishing houses but her determination to donate some of the proceeds to Kiwis for kiwi — a charity dedicated to protecting our native bird — proved to be a stumbling block. So she decided to do it herself.
“I’d worked with self-published authors and publishers before so I was able to draw on the best of both worlds and avoid many of the traps.
“Some self-published authors put all this time and effort into creating their book and think it will sell itself, but it doesn't. They end up with boxes of books under their bed.”
“I wrote a business plan for my book and identified different avenues to market including the environmentally conscious reader, gift shops, bookshops and tourism operators. Treating your work like a business instead of your passion is key.”
Think long term
Merewether printed 5,000 copies of ‘Kuwi’s First Egg’. Her distributor told her she was being wildly optimistic about how many books she would sell.
The book hit the shops in November 2014 — “which was a little bit late for the Christmas market and a rookie mistake,” says Merewether — and by the end of December it had sold so well, she ordered a second print run.
This year the 100,000th copy of the Kuwi series (there are now three books and a colouring book) was printed.
“In my business plan I mapped out a series of books, merchandise, and apps,” explains Merewether. “I thought a long way ahead and I’ve still got a few years left to achieve those goals.
“I’ve worked with so many authors who say to me: ‘This book is going to make us rich!’ The reality is it’s not. Hard work will pay off eventually, but one book is unlikely to do it for you.”
Merewether says that one of the most important lessons she’s learned is when to ask for help.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do everything yourself. If you don't have the expertise, find someone who does.
“I’m not good at blowing my own trumpet so I employ someone to look after my marketing and social media. I try to keep my head in the creative space. Designing and illustrating rather than selling and marketing is where I can add the most value.”
Despite topping bestseller lists and winning awards for her work, Merewether still feels like an imposter sometimes.
“I look back at where I’ve come from and think ‘How did this happen to me?’ But I’ve learned to fight through that feeling and just enjoy the ride.”