Publishers' Sweepstakes

What do you do with a book that absolutely nobody in his right mind wants to put out?

Veteran cabdriver and budding author James "Jaws" Newberg needs to be self-employed. This is not just a matter of occupational preference. It is, in the cabdriver's words, "a good thing for public safety."

"Let me tell you, I had a dream once," says the 50-year-old Newberg over a late lunch at Mounds View's RJ Riches, his favorite restaurant. "I dreamed that I was working in an Arby's and some little pimple-head half my age started giving me a hard time, and the next thing I knew I was making a sandwich for him out of his own face. I was running his face through the roast-beef slicer. In the dream, the police came for me and took me away and everything. That's liable to happen if I ever have to take any grief from anybody who's half my age. I couldn't do it! So it's probably all for the best for me to continue driving a cab until the book sells."

Though Newberg, to date, hasn't eaten a fast-food-manager sandwich platter, the cabbie's nighttime vision ought not to be taken idly. This is a man who once bit off the finger of a drunken customer who'd attacked him--earning his nickname, Jaws, in the process.

"As a flavorful and nutritious treat, human flesh leaves a lot to be desired," writes Jaws in his recently self-published Two Fisted Cab Driving Tales. (Newberg's nine-fingered attacker, by the way, spent two weeks in jail for assault and was required to pay the cab driver the $20 fare that was lost in the fight.) The book is an often amusing, sometimes disturbing, and generally odd collection of "true or alleged-to-be true" stories from days and nights spent driving around drunks, nuts, punks, voluptuaries, hard-luck cases, and the occasional upstanding citizen. Actually, most of Newberg's customers are normal and friendly, but a book about them wouldn't be two fisted.

Newberg is among the thousands of writers who self-publish novels, memoirs, cookbooks, biographies, oil-massage primers, inspirational essays, and what-have-you each year. He's also emblematic of how the industry has changed. Ten years ago, Newberg's cab-driving earnings likely wouldn't have been enough to publish a book.

Traditional vanity presses such as Vantage Press typically charge authors $10,000 and up to get their name on the cover of a tome. But with print-on-demand (P.O.D.) technology, cash-strapped writers can do small print runs on the cheap, often for just a few hundred dollars. Newberg, for instance, made 50 copies of the first edition of Two Fisted Cab Driving Tales. Internet-based P.O.D. publishers such as Philadelphia's Xlibris, Bloomington, Indiana's 1rstBooks, and Lincoln, Nebraska's iUniverse tend to charge writers between $500 and $2,000 for books that are chiefly sold on the publisher's own website (with profits split with the author) and through Amazon.com. Rather than keeping an inventory of books, P.O.D. publishers print and ship books with each new order, thus saving authors the humbling inconvenience of keeping a closet or basement full of unsold books.

Self-publishing, in other words, has been significantly democratized, with results often closer in spirit to charmingly amateurish Xeroxed fanzines and punk-rock 45s than to the not-so-charmingly amateurish novels of MFA grads with more disposable income than identifiable talent. Self-publishing will always attract people with a perhaps irrational faith in the potential of their powerful, unique, sure-to-be-discovered story. Often these folks are highly unpolished writers who would be better off investing their time and money elsewhere.

But in tracking down the authors of a small handful of the many self-published books that come through this paper's door, I didn't come across pathetic victims of predatory vanity presses. I don't think I uncovered any future giants of American letters, either. I did meet some very interesting people, all of whom, in fact, would make wonderful characters in a novel, self-published or otherwise.

"I worked briefly as a medical driver, but there was less money in that than there was in driving a cab," says Newberg. "So I had to go back to Suburban Taxi. That was depressing, and right away I started getting the drunks and the nuts. One night, I'd just gotten through dealing with some maniac. I'd gotten him out of my car--stranded him. I drove off someplace and I sat and I shook for a while. And I just shook my head. I says, 'I could write a book, you know, I could just write a book.' And a light went off, and a little voice says, How come you haven't started yet--like yesterday?"

Newberg was a professional draftsman before computers essentially forced him into a different line of work. Yet he overcame his hatred of Bill Gates to pick up a secondhand laptop on which he began writing down his best cab stories. He also picked up a tape recorder and transcribed yarns from his fellow cabbies.

"On lease day"--when cabbies pay the rental for their wheels--"the drivers all stand in line and trade these stories like bubblegum cards," says Newberg, who takes on a boyish excitement when he discusses his publishing project. "This is a gold mine of stories. And they're all so strange, nobody's going to question the fact that they're just too weird to be anything but true."

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