Writers: Let Mistakes Be Your Teachers

Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery
was self-published in June, 2020

By Linda Wilson

Three mistakes—whoppers, and very painful, I might add—stand out in my writing career, all the rest are small (and many!)

Mistake #1: Taking on more work than I could handle. Back when my daughters were growing up, both in their 30’s now, I landed a terrific job as a writer for a well-known library journal. I had left teaching elementary school for a while and had made the big time! Our subjects were short biographies, called by the journal “biosketches,” about famous people. The editor gave me my pick of subjects and any number of sketches I wanted to write. Up to that point, I had experience writing newspaper articles, period. Not to worry! One of the other writers advised me that my sketches needed to be conversational as well as factual.

I started out with only one or two, with 2-3 weeks to research and write. A research assistant sent me articles and information, but the perfectionist in me decided that wasn’t enough. So, while my husband was at work and my daughters were in school, I did more research in the library. My subjects were such interesting personalities as Stephen King, Troy Aikman, and William Shatner.

The extra research paid off. My sketches were tight with information, and friendly. The editor was pleased.  

Piece of cake. I decided to take on more, 3-4 sketches at a time. That’s when I hit the wall. I didn’t realize the time crunch I was getting myself into while volunteering at my daughters’ school, being a girl scout leader, and more. I missed a deadline, and I was toast.

Lesson Learned: Take on only what you’re sure you can handle.

Mistake #2: Signing up with a Vanity Press without doing a search for complaints. According to Wikipedia, “a vanity press or vanity publisher, sometimes also subsidy publisher, is a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published.”

About two years ago, I chose a publisher that I’d been following, sold by the way the company presented itself on their website and in phone conversations I had with the company rep. I loved the packages they offered, which included everything under the sun that I would need.

My husband and I lived in a small town at the time. I didn’t have the advantage of a critique group or contact with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s chapter as I do now, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I joked that my package—the Ultimate, mind you, promising the moon—was my “Harley,” a gift from my husband a few years after he bought his dream Harley. I would buy my dream: a way to publish my book with the help I believed I needed.

Now, after finding help in critique groups with my fellow SCBWI-NM authors, and information from the SCBWI organization itself, I see how misguided I had been. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As luck would have it, just days before my book—my first, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, a ghost story for 7-to-10-year-olds—was to be published, I read a book that changed everything: 10 Publishing Myths, by W. Terry Whalin. I had barely turned the first few pages before a feeling of dread crept into my soul. In Chapter One: “Myth One: I Will Make a Lot of Money Writing My Book.” Of course, I understood that. But in this chapter, Whalin makes the case that “to be a best seller, the book needs broad distribution to online plus brick-and-mortar bookstores who report their sales to a bestseller list. Balboa Press [a press that he uses as an example] is online and their books are not sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores.” This was not the case with my company, I assured myself. Whalin goes on to say that the overall production of these books is not good quality. Not mine. I'd already seen the cover and had worked closely with the artist. My book was beautiful. Whalin hoped this author didn’t spend a lot of money to produce her book.

Well, I did spend a lot of money. Harley's are expensive! As my alarm grew, I turned to the next page, where Whalin suggests doing a Google search to check out potential publishers, by typing "Publisher’s name + complaints." I did that and was in for the shock of my life. Not only were there a substantial number of complaints against my publisher, but these complaints were made by twenty-nine authors who had published with my company and created a revolt on a private Facebook page. Why? Not one of the twenty-nine had received one royalty check. Not one. Today many more authors have joined the group, an attorney has gotten involved, and the owner is facing several lawsuits. 

I spent two taxing days and sleepless nights reading the authors’ experiences, sent an email to one of them, and he invited me to join the group and tell them about my experience. The group welcomed me, and in their posts, I found the help I needed to obtain my files from the company and proceed to self-publishing my book.

My caveat: I was lucky. I already had possession of my files which were print-ready and easy to publish on KDP. Some others are still battling to obtain their files and as a result, are unable to publish their books.

Lesson Learned: Before doing business with anyone, do a Google search to see if there are any complaints against them.

Mistake #3: Being out of touch with my calendar. Recently, I entered a picture book manuscript in a contest, and it won an award—first, second, or third to be announced at a later date. I wrote to everyone I could think of with the news, then read the fine print. The manuscript had to be unpublished. I forgot that tiny fact when the illustrator finished her work. I went ahead and published the book on Amazon as soon as I could. 

Lesson Learned: Make sure you write down your important dates on your calendar. If I had written the date the announcement was to be made about the contest, I would have waited to publish the book and received the award. Instead, I had to disqualify myself and the award went to someone else.

Ultimate Lessons Learned: It’s become natural for me to know how much work to take on now. I check the companies I work with on Google, and am making it as a self-published author. As for the contest? I’m determined to win an award with the same contest next year. It’s taken me about a week to come up with an idea. Soon, I will begin work on it and when the contest opens, I will enter it and put the important dates on my calendar. This experience has also encouraged me to search out other contests which I plan on submitting to. Who knows? Maybe I will win another contest.  

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher, has published over 150 articles for children and adults, several short stories for children, and her  books, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, and A Packrat's Holiday: Thistletoe's Gift, are available on Amazon, https://www.amazon/author/lindawilsonchildrensauthor. Publishing credits include biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; PocketsHopscotch; and an article accepted by Highlights for ChildrenSecret in the Mist, the second in the Abi Wunder series, is coming soon. Follow Linda at https://www.lindawilsonauthor.com.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, thanks for sharing these three BIG mistakes you made on your self-publishing journey. It's so helpful to learn what to avoid by others' mistakes. Glad it all worked out and you're having much smoother sailing!

lastpg said...

Thank you, Karen. It is smoother now. I would advise aspiring writers to hang in there and keep trying. Eventually, you will learn what you need to know.

Terry Whalin said...


What amazing transparency you have in this article about your mistakes. The critical factor as I read your article is that you did not set your book aside and give up in the process--as many others would have done. You have continued forward, learning and profiting from the mistakes through persistence (a key trait for any writer). I am glad that my book helped in your journey. We need each other in this process.

author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Linda, your advice works so well for life, too. Call them "happy mistakes." We can turn them all to our advantage. Thanks for the reminder!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

deborah lyn said...

WOW Linda, great lessons learned helpful for all of us. Thank you for taking it on the chin and sharing. You have turned painful lessons into productive products! Bravo!

lastpg said...

Thank you to everyone who commented. I am now busy developing a new story idea for that contest and am super motivated to win!

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