The Art of Mistakes: Lessons From Self Publishing

Have you ever promised something, not delivered, and found yourself apologizing, a lot?

Or taken on a project and found yourself hanging onto the ledge of this wasn’t what I expected?

hanging of ledgeIn this blog I really try to put out the best material I can, even if this means taking two months to write an article.

I also try not to pretend to be more sophisticated than I am. Or more sorted. (OK so I always draw a better dressed and more groomed version of me—it’s easier to do your hair in a cartoon.)

Looking in the mirrorAnd I really try to follow through on day to day promises.

But in the past year, I’ve spectacularly failed at following through on a promise I made. And it’s embarrassing.

Want to hear the (now) funny story? It also involves a serious importing and self publishing snaffoo we narrowly dodged plus a common creative stumbling block I got snared in.

Cool. Because things got ridiculous for a while.

Enter: my inspirational cards.

Reach Your Big Calm Inspirational CardsThe embarrassing bit

A few years ago I made a deck of cards to help me through a really challenging time. I printed sets for friends, then a small run which I sold. I called them Life Cards.

They’re great. I love them. Other people love them. They are not the problem.

The problem is their production.

If all of my skills were Smurfs, my rustling-up-a-meal-out-of-nothing Smurfs would be so up themselves they wouldn’t even speak to my self publishing Smurfs.

Which is why I’ve been hoping an of angel would swoop down and reprint them for me.

Waiting for an angelBut damn angel has been a no show.

So last year I decided to be my own angel.

I dove in. I took orders. I even collected the dough.

“They’ll be available in 2 months,” I said.

And I honestly thought they would be. All I needed was to redesign the packaging, find a commercial printer and wallah.

(Cue laughter from self publishing compadres.)

But it didn’t take 2 months, it took 12. Twelve! Can you imagine buying something and not getting it for twelve months!

The tricky part of self publishing

(Outside of making terrific content)

Are all the decisions: Paper size. Card stock. Packaging. Design. What to wear for your author photo.

Give me a major life changing decision any day.

Take the box the cards come in.

For the past couple of years my husband Franco said I should do the artwork.

I disagreed.

Sure I draw on my blog.

Sure all the cards are paintings I’ve done.

We need an artistWe consulted a graphic designer, and friend, Polly.

I explained how the cards are watercolor paintings of inspiring messages.

I explained how we wanted a sophisticated, fresh look.

She said she’d love to do the design but that I should do the artwork for the box.

Blank stare

I decided to draw a tree. That would look cool, right? And how hard is it to draw a tree?

Franco suggested a pohutukawa.


And not just because of the adorable way he pronounces pohutukawa.

Pohutukawa are native to New Zealand, have brilliant dark red blooms and live on rocky coastal outcrops. A supreme choice for a deck of cards that provide a foothold when we’re on rocky ground.

I Googled lessons in tree drawing.

I found photos and enlarged them.

I prepared my paper, filled my water jug and squeezed out a bunch of earthy-colors.

Channeling Van GoghI painted a tree.

But it wasn’t pretty.

Or inspiring.

It was ugly.

Here it is in case you don’t believe me.

Pouhutukawa Tree, New ZealandSo I tried again.

And again.

But each was worse than the one before.

Drawing those ugly trees was scary.

Despondent about art skillsThen one day I went into my “studio” (small desk at the end of our bed.)

I put away the earthy colors and got out my usual color palette—bright yellows, pinks, oranges, purple.

Thirty minutes later I had a tree I liked. It wasn’t a life-like tree. But it was a Lisalike tree. 52 colorful leaves for 52 colorful cards.

Colorful treeAnd I thought, ha, look at how I was hoodwinked into thinking I couldn’t do it.

We think art is doing what someone else has done. Miming like Charlie Chaplin, playing riffs like Jimi Hendrix or painting watercolor trees that look like other people’s watercolor trees.

But it’s not.

It’s finding our way. Putting our spin on it.

That’s the secret.

So even though this little tree is no big deal.

To me it is.

Picture of a treeA reminder about how easy it is to put blocks in our way.

A reminder that old beliefs about how we’re ‘not an arty person’ can surface at any time.

A reminder that the real magic happens when we embrace our vein of inspiration and that trying to be like someone else only hinders us.

But enough about the tree! The cards. Where are the cards?


By this time I was way behind schedule.

I emailed the (awesome) people who pre-ordered explaining there was a delay because things were more involved than I’d realized.

I found a copywriter.

I ordered my first ever ISBN and bar-code.

BarcodeWe pondered how to make them pretty but also dude friendly, since guys like them as well.

I turned coffee dates with friends into product testing sessions.

Looking at printing samples with friendsFranco and I “talked cards” for months.



Reach Your Big Calm CardsWe had a winner.

It was time to have them printed.

Which is when things started going awry

We wanted to support U.S. manufacturing.

Sure it would cost a little more, but it would be worth it.

Not to mention easier.

I spent hours calling commercial printers.

On the telephone Most people didn’t even return my calls.

No-one could manufacture so many small color printed boxes. And if they could, it was only because they planned to outsource to China.

I said to Franco, “It really looks like we’ll have to go off shore.”

And he said, “But remember what we decided.”

And I said, “Well, it’s not ideal but I think we have to.

And he said, “There must be someone who can do them.”

And then I went back and tried again.

ReflectingEventually we found a commercial printer in Hong Kong.

And in many ways they were exceptional. They picked up mistakes we’d missed. They couriered proofs and even sent us a full mock up.

On being inappropriately calm when dealing with U.S. Customs

As you probably know, I grew up in New Zealand. A tiny country in the South Pacific with population less than a third of Los Angeles.

A country where there’s public health care and universal social welfare.

This engenders a sense of ease. A sense that nothing unreasonable will happen—and if it does, you just call your cousins best friend who’ll know someone who can help.

So while Franco was saying, “Have you double triple checked everything we need to do re customs?”

I was saying,

itll be fineBetween you and me, I was still confused

But I figured, I don’t need to know all the details. I’ll learn as I go.

This is partly because of the New Zealand thing.

But also because when faced with dozens of customs brokers, I chose one that said, “When your cheap customs broker gets you in the poo come and see us and we’ll fix it.”

I was ahead of the game.

The thing with shipwrecks

When you look back it’s easy to see the mistake(s) that caused the calamity:

  • Not enough lifeboats, delusion of invincibility (Titanic)
  • Drunk Russian Captain, ocean liner, New Zealand coastline (Mikhail Lermontov)
  • Weather deterioration not relayed to captain, deviation from course, poor pump system (Wahine, NZ passenger ferry)

For us, it was the ISF–Importer Security Filing. A one-sheet document to be filed by the importer. Us.

ISF, Importer Security FilingWhat I know now:

  • The ISF must be filed 24 hours BEFORE the ship sails.
  • If you file the ISF late there is a $5000 fine.
  • If you file the ISF incorrectly, there’s a $5000 fine.
  • Incorrect or late filing is likely to trigger a search at the border, holding up the entire container for up to a month and triggering another $5000 fine.

But back then I knew none of this.

And so things progressed

I sent my guy in Hong Kong a polite email asking for the ISF. (Since I don’t understand Chinese business etiquette I always write extra polite emails.)

He emailed back and said that he could send it after the ship sails.

So I emailed and said, no I need it before.

And then he emailed and said, oh well, I guess we can do that.

A week before the ship is due to leave port, I still don’t have it. So I send more polite, reminder emails.

Thursday afternoon, I’m concerned. The weekend is approaching, our shipment is due to leave Monday and Hong Kong is a day ahead.

emailFriday morning I get an email saying, the cards have been shipped but he’s very sorry he can’t give me the ISF until three days AFTER the ship has left port.

This was annoying. But I figure it must happen all the time. So I call our customs people and see about a contingency plan.

But there isn’t one.

Which was when I heard about all the fines.

Let me overstate this:

We were in our own action movie. There was no time to burst into tears. Or get annoyed. Team Esile was on a mission.

On a missionWe wrote emails.

We made phone calls.

What happens if you don't file the ISF with US CustomsBy Friday evening, it’s Saturday morning in Hong Kong. Se we call head office.

“Hello, I’d like to speak …”

But the receptionist doesn’t speak English.

So I try a few more times, saying, “English. English. Do you speak English?”

But she doesn’t.

So we Google how to speak Mandarin.

Practice for 10 minutes. Then call back.

Trying to speak MandarinBut that doesn’t work either.

(Watching Franco say “Engwin Ba” was the funniest thing ever.)

We hire a translator. A $4-a-minute translator. But do we care?

Finally …

We’re half way through a conversation with our gold studded translator when I notice an email from Hong Kong:

They’ve pulled the cards off the boat.

There’s nothing like dodging a $10,000 fine to shake your “she’ll be right” stupor. And every day for the next week I hassle our customs broker. And harangue Hong Kong.

By the following week the cards are on their way.

But it wasn’t over yet

A few days before the cards are due I call our customs contact to see when we can pick them up.

“The ship is waiting to dock.”

Excuse me?

“It’s hard to tell but we think it will be unloaded in 3-6 weeks.”

She went on to tell me there’d been a port workers “go slow” in Los Angeles for the past 6 months and everything was backed up. And that there were dozens of ships bobbing around waiting.

Long Beach Port CongestionEventually, and recently, the ship made it into port and was unloaded.

The cards cleared customs.

And Franco and I drove down to Long Beach to pick them up.

picking up a palletBut boy. I learned a lot:

  1. Publishing takes longer than you think—Publishing houses allow 12-18 months. In the end it took about what you might expect, give or take a few months.
  2. Never sell what you don’t have—I know people do this all the time, but for me, any advantages are outweighed by the awkwardness of not delivering on time.
  3. Learning involves mistakes—There is no way to learn and take risks, without stumbling a bit as you go.

As for the biggest lesson I learned:

It’s scary.

I’m not talking about the logistics. If we’d scored a $10K fine, we’d have handled it. And there are worse things than people seeing you make mistakes and fumble.

What’s more scary, is the fear of showing up. Of putting yourself out there. I feel it every time I write a blog post. And it never seems to get less.

So if you’re sitting on the edge of a creative project, nervous to take a leap. I say go for it!

Because as scary as it is, that’s how rewarding it is too!

Celebrating the mistakes we makeLove me!


PS: Do you have any your fumbly learning experiences to share? Or creative breakthroughs? Please share below! I’d love to hear from you, and I know others would too.

PPS: If you’d like a set, you can order them here! For delivery now! I LOVE the final result. They’re fresh, inspiring and some how a little magical the way they help you feel more at ease. (The first edition of these cards were called Life Cards, but now they’re: Reach Your Big Calm: 52 Powerful Messages to Quiet Your Mind.)

Important Disclaimer Notice: Our printer sends tonnes of printed material to the US every week and our customs brokers help dozens of clients each week. This brings me to strongly suspect that any difficulties I had were due to me missing a piece of the importing puzzle.

Name: Email:


  1. Thanks for sharing this story – I am considering producing a set of words of wisdom cards as I started on them as part of my graphic design diploma I have recently completed and want to take them further. I do understand the difficult times. I also produced a book as part of my course and I have published it but only got 10 copies and I need to look at getting it out there but I am unsure what direction to take it. I have been told the book is a good one by people who have looked at it but I am currently trying to do some more with it. I like the look of your cards but currently trying to get myself back in the red financially so do not want to buy your cards but I certainly will recommend people to look at them because they look cool and finding the words to put in the cards mustve been great learning

    • And thanks for sharing your story too, Fiona. For what it’s worth, I’ve found it helpful taking it in stages. That way it’s easier to tweak and fix mistakes etc. When i first started with these cards, I printed 10 sets for friends. Then I moved up to a couple of hundred sets. Then it was two thousand this time. Best of luck with your projects!!

  2. Congratulations Lisa! Though it was a bloody bumpy road to having the cards in your hands, your perseverance is inspiring 🙂


  3. Madeleine says

    Lisa, I love my cards! They were worth waiting for and of course, the wAy things do, they came at the exact right time. If they had come eArlier that would not have been the exact right time.
    Thanks for sharing with us!

  4. A million thanks for sharing this story. I laughed and could totally relate to the oversimplifying of a process. Glad it worked out for you!

  5. Awesome post! The bliss of creativity mixed with a dose of reality 🙂 I love it! This is more than enough inspiration for my next leap. Thanks Lisa! Peace and Blessings

  6. Dear Lisa. When I finally received my cards yesterday…I thought to myself. Hooray, I can finally hand out those long-standing Christmas and birthday gifts to my friends. And THAT was the forwarded set that we sent to my old address. After reading this blog, I didn’t know the whole story for the long long wait…but all I can say, as an published author myself, that your story was amazingly humorous despite all of the hurdles that were thrown in the way. Yes…I have had something similar happen to me recently, not in publishing, but in credit review in order to buy a new house. The hurdles are thrown there for the lessons we all learn. So thank you for the beautiful cards which I will be sharing this year has birthday and Christmas gifts. When the other boxes come, I will return them back to you. You are worthy, and the universe is watching out for all of us! Sincerely…. Lori

    • Thanks Lori! It was a funny time. Well, not so funny the day we’re trying to sort the blinking paperwork, but even then I thought—when this its over I am going to laugh! Boy, but you’re right, these things do happen. It is so easy to judge them too, when really, what do we know. As you say, the universe is watching out for us. Great to hear the cards arrived eventually, I don’t know how the USPS found your new address – it was very clever of them!

  7. Hi Lisa
    It has been a while and it’s fabolous to read your stories again. I love your blog (that must have been a learning curve too!) & congratulations to your reprint of your beautiful cards. I had to laugh as my hubby is a printer & does this kind of job all the time.
    Love from Australia, xx simone

    • HI Simone! Thanks for your note. So you totally know about printing stuff then—what a useful thing to know about! Does your husband have a website?

  8. Wow Lisa, you certainly know how to live life on the edge, I don’t know whether I could have lasted through all of that. But congratulations on achieving what you set out to do. Also loved the translation of the ‘Pohutukawa’. NZ’s xmas tree, beautiful when they flower, and provide colour to the landscape around them.

    • Isn’t it a beautiful tree. We were traveling around the East Cape not long ago, and wow, do they have magnificent Pohutukawa’s there. They just look so at home in New Zealand. I guess because they are! Maybe that’s why we all love them:)

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