My First Book—One Author's Story

by | Aug 3, 2011

I’ve been corresponding over the last few months with novelist Don Horne. Don’s already broken into self-publishing and now has a lot of enthusiasm for helping other writers get their work in print. He’s started a writer’s group and given talks on self-publishing to help those with less experience. I asked Don to tell the story of how he got started, and here it is. Enjoy.

In the belief I am not the only “newbie” self-publishing wannabe who reads this blog every day, I’d like to offer encouragement—and some tips—to others. Most of these tips are about fiction, but I hope they help.

I majored in English and Journalism in college, I published a weekly newspaper for several years, and I have built web sites for the last ten years. When I decided four years ago to write my first novel, I thought to myself, “I’m a natural for this. How hard can it be?”

Don Horne, self-publisherThe only subject in my boring life that I thought anyone would want to hear about was my experiences in Viet Nam. Even then, I was aboard a carrier, ate warm meals three times a day, and slept in a cool, clean bunk at night. I had friends who had horror stories when they came back: heat, bad food, and someone shooting at them 24/7. Still in all, it was the only subject I came up with to get started.

I wrote my first manuscript in Microsoft Word, dropped it into a trade template from and received my first printed proof. No one was as proud, or as filled with such a sense of accomplishment, than I was. I had my wife take a picture of me holding up that first proof. I ordered 50 books, and we did a book signing at the local Hastings Store in Waxahachie, Texas. I sold 12 books. I was on my way!

Do You Know an Editor?

I have a friend who is a former professional editor. I asked her to read my book and give me a constructive critique, especially on the layout and interior design. Big mistake. She finished reading it, and when she saw me a couple of days later when we met for breakfast, she almost patted me on the head, smiled and said, “You don’t have a clue what you are doing, do you?”

Thoroughly crushed, I choked back my un-manly tears and said, “What? How hard could it be? I ran spell check twice, I read and re-read until I knew what happened on every single page. I know most of the punctuation is correct, and maybe I split an infinitive or two, but it is basically a book! I bought an ISBN number, and I even designed the cover myself using a cropped picture of a beautiful sunset I took over my back fence.”

When she could finally breathe again after laughing at me so hard I was embarassed, she hugged me. “Don, I loved the story. You actually wrote an interesting book. If it is any consolation, it is not the worst-laid out story I have ever read. Many of my C students back when I was teaching would have loved to have been able to call your book their own!”

By then I was struggling to keep from breaking into sobs in front of a woman. She put her arm around my shoulders and smiled the by-now irritating smile, and said, “I’m just kidding. Don’t give up. You show some promise.”

“Oh sure,” I thought, “I can always hand letter yard sale signs.”

“I’ll make a few notes and email them to you,” she said. I waved listlessly as she drove away.

Feedback is Good for You

Sure enough, in a few days she sent me notes on what I did wrong. They were in Word, and were more pages than the book I wrote!

She started with the cover. Although she praised me for making the images at 600 dpi for printing, she hinted I could have found a better photo. She told me if I was not going to use a professional graphic artist, which she always suggests for a new author, to look at other similar books to get ideas. Also, one does not put “By John Doe” on the cover underneath the title.

I was supposed to have dropped the “By” and just put my name. She explained the “By Don Horne” was a dead giveaway that I was an amateur. In fact. she promised, later, after 2 or three million sales, I will be able to put my name at the TOP of the cover and the NAME of the new book under. By then people will be looking for my name first and then the book title. Cool, I thought, I could do that. Then we moved to the interior.

The first page inside the cover is the title page. I got that right. Guess what, there are no numbers on the bottom of the title page. Plus, one should use something as the font for the title, the byline, the author, and the name of the publishing company besides Times New Roman in 14 point.

Here, she said, be bold and daring! Maybe the title could be a bold script, maybe 36 points, which out of 72 points per inch, is 1/2 inch tall, and the byline, or single line about the book, could be in 18 point to differentiate. The author’s name and the publishing company did not have to be the largest font on the page even if I was proud of my accomplishment.

The next page had my ISBN numbers and statement that no one should reproduce my work without paying for it, or at least getting my permission. By then, I would have given away the rights just to see it somewhere. I needed a morale boost.

In her opinion, one should always begin the first chapter on the right, or on an odd-numbered page. She criticized my use of clip art at the top of the pages, and she wanted me to look at the use of a drop cap, or larger font size in bold, to begin the story.

She wanted me to “set the scene” better, even though she did give me a B+ on the dialog. It was believable, though quaint, she said. She did not like: “He stepped up on the porch, opened the door, and went in.” She asked questions about the locale of the house, the weather, was there a dog, did the door creak, was it a screen door, and all of this was under “setting the scene!”

Born to be an Author

By now, dear friends, you must realize this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but as someone who has been there, done that, do not be ashamed to seek professional help. First, for wanting to be an author. Then you need professional help for editing inside and out.

There are hundreds of excellent books, sites, blogs, and so on to learn from, including this one. If you’re going to prove me wrong, and believe you can write an excellent first novel, which will be the Next Great American Novel, don’t let anyone read it! I still go to therapy twice a week in my wife’s Kindergarten writing class!

Don Horne is the author of Anthem to the Wind. He is based in Red Oak, Texas. To find out more about Don and his books, head over to his author website.

Photo by Horia Varlan

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  1. Sam

    Especially liked the candid manner in which Don’s described his experience. Thanks Joel for sharing this with us. Still so much to learn for all of us! :)

    • Don Horne

      Sam, thank you for the comment. I worked for 40 years either in management, or owned my own business, and self publishing is something most people can do. On the wall of my office is a crayon canvas my granddaughter did for “Poppa.” She did not have professional help, but her “market” still appreciates what she has accomplished. I am more offended by all the publishing services companies lined up to take unlearned people like me than I am worried about whether someone writes a great story and not every grammatical phrase is perfect. Even Joel comments in his book about letting people write. That is what it’s all about ultimately. For the first time in history the average person can write a book and hold the finished product in his hand. “Let them eat cake!” Best of the day to you!

  2. Don Horne

    Thank you, Jo, and Bev. In my opinion, self publishing is the perfect business. One really has no competition. What you write and what I write are protected by law! Neither of us can copy the other. It is not nearly (I can see Joel wince from the misuse of the King’s English) as cuthroat and full of piracy as the music CD and MP3 business of a few years ago. Plus, there are people willing to help you, such as Joel Friedlander and myself! If it runs into time and lots of expense, we are going to refer you to professionals which will not make you sign in blood and give up your firstborn. People are being charged lots of extra money, which if you would take the time to ask or read, you can do it yourself!

    Set a realistic goal of sales, watch where you spend your money, and very few self publishing authors are very deep in debt. The one or two authors with a garage full of unsold books I have met did not do their homework. I am a big fan of CreateSpace for allowing one to print their book cheap enough, even if you have to make a few changes, it only takes a couple of days and it is back up for sale. As long as you are not spending a lot of borrowed money or something, self publishing is a viable business! My best to both of you!

  3. Bev Robitai

    Brilliant! A nicely-contrived explanation of how NOT to selfpublish. I’m at about the same point – got my first book into print with some professional help and now I’m helping others along the publishing path, learning more every day. It’s such a joy to escape the grovelling dependence on mainstream publishers, isn’t it? There’s a huge satisfaction in getting good reviews, and I’m even making money from writing – enough for a cup of coffee a week, at least!

    • Don Horne

      Bev, beautiful photography! I gather you live in New Zealand. I would love to visit about cover photography for my books and others. Use my email, not fair to Joel to visit on his blog.

  4. Jo Arnold

    Enjoyed the story and the persons honesty of what he felt. I am a first time writer attempting Childrens books. Jo


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