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."
On the cover of his book, Newberg wears his Jaws getup: dark aviator glasses, a cigar, and a hat that covers his bald spot and reads "Quit Squaking." ("Squaking," presumably, is related to "squawking.") With his gray-blond moustache and his Jaws accessories, he looks like a tough TV cop. A tough TV cop with a memoir in the front seat of his taxi that he'd like to sell you.
When he had compiled enough stories for a book, Newberg made some inquiries with a vanity press, which landed him on a mailing list, which got him a letter from a literary agent out of Montana, where big-wheel literary agents tend not to live. "So I mailed him the floppy disk of the book," Newberg says. "He said it was an extraordinary work, but I also got a big, long lecture on how a manuscript is prepared. He offered to edit it for me for $1,300. I wiped out all of my savings. He did a good job, and then he did his best to sell it to a publisher, but after a year and a half I just called time."
Next Newberg turned to his friend Paul Bugbee, who formatted the book, designed the cover, and located a printer. Newberg calls Bugbee a "genius" and considers him a partner in the Jaws enterprise. Newberg and Bugbee are now hooked up with Lulu.com's print-on-demand service.
Like Jaws, most self-publishing writers are unknowns. After their books hit the shelves or the virtual shelves of internet retailers, they are typically unknowns with a bit less money. A vanity press such as the 55-year-old Vantage Press charges its steady stream of customers an average of $8,000 to $10,000 to publish a small print run (usually 500 to 1,000) of their work. The fee covers copyediting, design, distribution, and limited publicity. Vantage authors get 40 percent of retail sales.
In their promotional brochures, vanity or "subsidy" presses like to point out that quite a few great writers have paid to publish their work at some point. Notable self-publishing writers of the past and present include Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, by some definitions of the term, Dave Eggers, who issued his novel You Shall Know Our Velocity on his own McSweeney's press, later selling the paperback rights for a healthy sum to Vintage. Vanity presses, being service providers and not tastemakers, will embrace you whether you write like Marcel Proust or Pepe Le Pew.
"Vantage Press and other vanity presses have never seen a bad manuscript," says Milt Adams, publisher of Edina's Beaver's Pond Press. "If you looked at their contracts, you'd want to put them out of business. They rape and pillage the author. Many of the authors they take money from should never be published. There's nothing illegal about what they're doing, but it's almost immoral."
Adams calls Beaver's Pond a "maverick" in the self-publishing business in that it is committed to quality. Beaver's Pond connects its writers with professional contract editors, assists with the marketing of its books, and doesn't take a piece of the retail profits. "We have high standards--we reject three quarters of the books that come to us. Beaver's Pond is a way for good writers to get past the gatekeepers in the publishing world," says Adams.
Those gatekeepers--the elites and the slush-pile-reading interns of New York--are the self-publishing author's nemesis, or unrequited love, or both. All snotty kidding temporarily aside, book publishing is a rather closed world, largely controlled by a handful of huge companies with mysterious and fickle ideas as to what sorts of books will sell. (Though regional and academic presses abound, understanding their particular missions and mandates is a full-time job unto itself.) A similar if less commercially driven insularity infects book critics and awards committees. All five nominees for this year's National Book Award for fiction, for instance, were women from New York City.
Not surprisingly, the writers shut out of the publishing establishment are often the kind of folks you don't meet in books released by the big houses and prestigious smaller presses. There will always be a new, slyly philosophical novel about an English professor who's having a late-in-life affair. But how many books have you read about a volunteer law-enforcement chaplain, itinerant crime-solver, paralegal investigator, animal lover, driver's-ed instructor, and Catholic priest from a branch of the tiny Heartland Old Catholic Church?
None, presumably--but you can read a book by such a man. Monsignor Thomas D. Knopf Bigelow of Minneapolis recently self-published In the Eye of the Beholder: Five True Stories with a Wink, a Nod, and a Tear, a short collection of stories and poetry mostly drawn from the author's circumlocutory career path. Bigelow ordered 1,046 copies of his slim and psychedelically decorated volume through St. Cloud's North Star Press, and handles all the distribution himself. He drives them around to booksellers, from the major chains to independents such as Minneapolis's Once Upon a Crime, where he did a signing this October.
Bigelow first entertained the idea of writing a book after his father's best friend, a 35-year veteran of the Iowa Department of Conservation, published a book called The Warden's Diary. (This seems to be a self-publishing subgenre all its own: Beaver's Pond has moved an impressive 17,000 copies of Tom Chapin's Poachers Caught!: Adventures of a Northwoods Game Warden.) Bigelow says the project has been more work than he might have expected, but like everyone I spoke to for this article, the monsignor has found the endeavor to be rewarding.
So there are self-publishing successes like the northwoods game warden, hopefuls such as Jaws, and unknowns who might have been victimized a bit by vanity presses. There are also a lot of contentedly unsuccessful self-publishers. Hibbing's Pat McGauley, a former high school social studies teacher, has published a trilogy of historical novels set in the Mesabi Iron Range. The books--2002's To Bless or to Blame, 2003's A Blessing or a Curse and this year's Blest Those Who Sorrow--follow several generations of the Moran family. McGauley explores the beleaguered marriage of Kevin and Angela Moran in the just-issued Blest Those Who Sorrow, which also involves a Hibbing rape, a Duluth homicide, and detours to California, Paris, and London. McGauley has also issued two holiday-themed children's books, and is at work on a fourth novel that will herald the start of a second trilogy of his Mesabi series.
McGauley is self-effacing and funny, yet deeply committed to his work, which has become a full-time hobby or a hobbylike job, as well as a spiritual necessity. "I don't have a snowmobile or a four-wheeler, but I have these books," says McGauley, who drove down from Hibbing to Minneapolis's warehouse district to talk about his work. "They're your hobby, but they're also like children you create. They're part of you."
McGauley's first two books cost him about $8,000 each to print through St. Paul's Stanton Publications Services. By having a friend help with the layout on the third novel and working through a different printer, he managed to cut some costs. A different friend designs the jackets while another serves as his volunteer editor.
McGauley does all the promotion himself, spending as many Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays as he can hawking his books at craft fairs, readings, and bookstore signings. A few days before our meeting, he spent the day at a Grand Rapids fair, manning a table set up between someone selling cookies and another entrepreneur hawking some sort of health juice.
The 62-year-old McGauley retired early to focus on writing, and has fallen in love with the process. He writes in the morning and spends a few hours each afternoon on publicity. He greatly prefers the creative mornings to the business-minded afternoons, but he's also a creative publicist. In an effort to interest City Pages' books editor Michael Tortorello, for instance, he named a female Italian translator in his third book "Tortorello," but told the real Tortorello that he'd have to read the book to find his name.
"As a financial endeavor, there has been a lot of red ink," says McGauley. "As an ego trip, for the most part it's been quite deflating. It is exciting to see your name on a book cover. That was a real thrill with the first book. Less so with the second and third, both because you've had that experience and because you're looking at 40 boxes of the previous one. But the first two have been read by thousands of people, and people are enjoying the stories. No one has said anything about literary masterpieces, but I've gotten a lot of satisfaction out of it."
Selling a novel by hand provides its own rewarding episodes. "I was doing a signing at a bookstore after my first one came out, and there was a guy at the counter ready to pay for the book," McGauley says. He said, 'You've got the Petersons in here?' 'The Petersons?' I said. 'Yeah, they lived on Mahoney Street,' he said. I said, 'You know, it isn't a history, it's a novel. I can't remember any Petersons.' So he pushed the book aside, and said, 'Not interested.' He was going to send it to his sister in Idaho, but no Petersons in it--no sale."
Even when McGauley does close the sale--so far he says he has moved about 1,800 copies of the first two books combined--he doesn't necessarily come out ahead. For his first two novels, he had to make an average of $8 a sale to break even, and that's not possible through the major retailers such as Barnes & Noble (where his books can be found throughout the Twin Cities).
"Distributors will give you 45 percent of the cover price, and you have to ship them, so you can lose money for every book you sell in the big chain stores. At the same time, it's a thrill to be on the shelf at Barnes & Noble."
To be sure, just getting on the Barnes & Noble shelves is an accomplishment. Roughly 150,000 titles are published each year in the U.S. Without the imprimatur and promotional budget of a major publishing house, the odds of breaking through are dauntingly slim. For example, when a self-published books comes across a reviewer's desk, the critic might think: 1) Cool, here's a David versus the publishing Goliaths, someone who won't wait for validation from the money men and culture mavens, another inspiring example of the irrepressible human desire to create beauty; or 2) Here's another piece of junk from someone who couldn't land a real publisher.
Response number two is probably more common.
Despite the uphill battle, McGauley says he wouldn't have gone about his literary career any differently, and doesn't envy his more successful peers.
"We all have dreams of fame and fortune," he says, "but when I think of the realities of the publishing industry--the promotional tours, the handlers telling you to be in San Diego in the morning and Los Angeles in the afternoon--that would be a bad fit for me. If that's what it's all about, I'll sit at a book fair in Grand Rapids and sell three copies of my book on a Saturday afternoon."
Back at RJ Riches, James "Jaws" Newberg finishes his lunch and agrees to take me on a short tour of his northeast suburban stomping grounds. He picks up most of his fares in Mounds View, Coon Rapids, Fridley, and Blaine, where he lives. In the RJ Riches parking lot, we run into one of Newberg's friends, another Green and White driver who has a story in Two Fisted Cab Driving Tales. Given Newberg's finger-chomping history, I can't help but notice that his friend is missing a thumb.
I climb into the back of the Crown Victoria Newberg leases for $452 a week from Suburban, and we begin our tour. Having read Jaws's book, I happen to know that people have copulated, urinated, and done other messy things in the backseat of Newberg's cab. I don't dwell on this knowledge.
Newberg drives through the parking lot of Northtown Mall, where he often waits for a call to come in and where he and a regular customer dubbed Thorazine Lilly had a screaming match described in the book. As we cruise through Newberg's working-class stomping grounds, the gray and chilly November day seems to harmonize with the cabdriver's less-than-sunny worldview.
"A substantial percentage of the American populace is profoundly disturbed," he says. He tells me about the Nazi skinhead meth addicts he has encountered in the area, and points out a motel where he says a variety of legal but unseemly sexual liaisons often occur. (Also less than seemly may be the "black" dialect the book occasionally breaks out when dealing with crack addicts and sundry hoodlums.)
Some of the stories in his book are funny, even kind of sweet, like the one about the middle-aged couple that Newberg permitted to have sex in the back of his cab. "That was a long-standing fantasy of theirs, and because I let them do that, I put at least 20, 30 more years on their marriage," he says. "They were starry-eyed when they got out of the cab. I did for those two people something Dr. Phil never could have done. Plus, I got a hell of a tip out of it."
In another story, a different couple makes out in the back of Newberg's cab, but the affection quickly ends when the woman can't come up with cab fare. The man excoriates his girlfriend for not having the money and then beats her up, smashing her head against the side of the cab before Newberg can call the police. Though fairly mild-mannered in person, Newberg in print comes off like a combination of the narrator of a James Ellroy novel, the writer of a relatively clean Penthouse Forum letter, and the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down. He saves his sternest vitriol for the batterers he has encountered, evincing a strong sympathy for victims of domestic violence.
Newberg shows me the intersection on the border of Blaine and Coon Rapids where one of his two-fisted tales came to a climax of sorts. On an especially pleasant June night, he picked up a quintet of pie-eyed college girls. Even before the young and reportedly randy women entered his cab, Newberg was suffering from what he calls "an acute attack of priapism." In a less literary mode, he uses the word "boner" and names said boner "Richard."
According to the account in Jaws's book, the customer in the front seat noticed Newberg's aroused state, and kindly stroked "Richard" through his chinos while one of the backseat passengers played with her driver's earlobes. Then a Coon Rapids police car pulled alongside the cab, at which point the customers hopped out and squirted the cop's passenger window with penis-shaped water pistols.
Despite such good times with the meter running, job dissatisfaction is Newberg's biggest incentive to write. And in contrast to the retired McGauley, Newberg feels a sense of urgency about making it as an author. "I'm 50. I feel like time's wasting. I spend 10, 12 hours a day in that cab every day and it's hard to find time, 'cause when you're out of the car all you want to do is sleep. You've got to grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and get it done now whether you like it or not.
"When the company says they fixed something on the car and I end up stranded 'cause it isn't, or when I get a customer who just makes me want to strangle him, that's when I say, this [writing] could get you out of the car forever."
For established authors and anonymous home scribblers alike, getting published is like playing the lottery. Someone will be winning adoring reviews and million-dollar movie deals. It could be you. The odds may be longer--much longer--on a vanity project. But if you don't have a ticket, you can't win.
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