T-Rex Versus the Pterodactyl: AKA Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing
By Kathleen Ann Gonzalez
I am on the cusp of self-publishing my fourth book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, a collection of biographies about remarkable Venetian women. I’ve made a leap: I will not even seek a traditional American publisher for this book. It exhausts me, and even angers me a bit, to consider writing dozens of query letters. The traditional publishing industry is a behemoth T-Rex, stomping through the trees and acting like it’s the only dino in the forest.
Why have I changed my thinking? Because at this point in my own knowledge base and abilities, and within the changing world of publishing, I can do the job better on my own. Like a pterodactyl, I have a powerful set of strengths and talents, a nimbleness not possessed by the T-Rex.
Of course, it has taken me a couple decades of writing and publishing to get here. My first publication came soon after college, when a story I had submitted there won a prize and was later picked up for an anthology. I even got to do some bookstore events, and that small success emboldened me to pursue writing short pieces for publication in magazines and newspapers, plus a couple other essays published in anthologies. I eventually decided I had a book in me in 1996, though after five years of writing and revising, and another couple years of collecting rejection letters from a couple hundred agents and publishers, I threw in the towel and self-published. I had a little sign on my wall: “Each NO is one step closer to a YES.” But this sign misrepresented my experience. Instead of finally hearing Yes from someone else, I created that Yes for myself.
And yes, that was tough, designing a book cover, finding a printer, formatting a book, creating a website, and then convincing bookstores and local groups to let me share my fledgling with them. I kept thinking I just needed to pitch to that one audience member who was Oprah’s best friend, and I’d get on her show, and the rest would be a yellow brick road to fame and fortune. When that didn’t happen, I sulked. If I really were a pterodactyl, I might have eaten some raw flesh at that point.
But then I began to notice something. I really enjoyed doing events to promote my book Free Gondola Ride, which was a memoir about spending a summer with Venice’s gondoliers. I heard others’ fond reminiscences, their travel tales, their sighs of longing for a romantic adventure. And I also got compliments from people who enjoyed my writing, my story, my characterization. I realized that publishing a book is also about connecting with people—if I let it be about that.
After that realization, things got easier and more enjoyable. I self-published a book about Camp Everytown with the goal that it could be used as a fundraiser to send teens to this anti-prejudice camp. Then I wrote another book about Venice, this time tracing the locations that Giacomo Casanova, the famed lover, lived and loved in the city. Once again I tried to secure an agent and publisher, and once again I gave up, determined to publish on my own.
Because here is what I learned from the publishers I talked to: They still expected me to do virtually all my own marketing; they wanted to change and control the final book; they didn’t think they could reach the right audience for my subject; they wanted to take well over a year to produce a book; and they wanted to charge me two to three times the amount that I could do it for myself.
While writing this book, Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps, I also wrote three chapters that were included in a book about teaching high school English, published by Pearson. Living through the process of working with a major publisher helped me see anew how much of the writing process is eventually taken away from the writer. And then a lovely thing happened: I found a small press in Venice, Supernova Edizione, who published my Casanova book. I had found that elusive creature, the Publisherasaurus, and suddenly I dropped all the pressure off myself to find an American publisher.
So with A Beautiful Woman in Venice, I’m going straight to print on my own. My life partner RJ and I have started our own imprint called Ca’ Specchio, named for the many mirrors in our house, and he formats the books and creates cover art. I can write the book, design and print it, and market it myself for a low price and still make enough to cover my costs and pay for the next book.
At this point I don’t expect to make it onto Oprah (good thing, since the show is extinct!). I’m content, no, even excited and often thrilled, to sell books myself at local events and meet the people who will be reading my book. I’ll admit that my heart races to see my book in the stores in Italy and California, and I’ll always support our local bookstores here who still make it possible for writers like me to publish and share my ideas. But I’ll no longer be intimidated by the T-Rex, thinking it’s the only master of the land.
Kathleen Gonzalez was one of the authors who appeared at Village House of Books on May 2nd as part of our California Bookstore Day celebration! Thank you to everyone who came out and said hello!