During a long and apparently happy partnership, Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians have produced one child: its name is Melville House. MHP shares several features with flesh-and-blood children: its upkeep is expensive, it demands attention at almost any time of day or night, and however big it gets it never ceases to be a source of anxiety, worry and nervous speculation for its parents. (Admittedly, sprinkled with moments of joy and pride.) So if you’re reading this because you’re looking for advice on starting a publishing house, Johnson and Merians would say don’t—unless you’re willing to have it take over your life. Comfortable offices? MHP’s operations were finally moved from their third-floor walkup apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, to space in a former warehouse in Brooklyn three years ago. Health insurance? Up until two years ago they hoped for the best and tried not to get hit by a bus. Vacations? Can’t remember the last time they had one, although they admit that work—conferences and such like—does sometimes take them to nice places.
Innocents at home
The truth is that making it as a small publisher in an era of international conglomerates—who themselves tremble at the name of Amazon—is hard if not impossible. As it turned out, it was probably just as well that Merians and Johnson were clueless when they decided to publish Poetry After 9/11 in 2002. Babes in the tangled wood of modern publishing, they stumbled in and never left. When the New York Times ran a piece about them just before their first two books came out, the writer began it: “How’s this for a disaster in the making? A writer and artist, living and working out of a third-floor walkup, decide to start their own publishing house. They have limited funds and almost no experience in the book business. To make matters even worse, the first two volumes they plan to issue seem to have almost no commercial potential.”
Johnson and Merians had never worked in publishing before. They were English-lit types—in fact they’d both attended the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, though they didn’t meet there—but in September 2001 Merians was beginning to have some success as a sculptor, showing at a hip gallery in Chelsea, while Johnson was working as a freelance journalist and short-story writer with a (frequently combative) syndicated weekly column about books that had become one of the industry’s earliest blogs, mobylives.com. Its frontrunner status earned it a wide readership, and after the World Trade Center came down, a lot of people started sending him poetry. Some of it was pretty good. Johnson wondered if any bigger, serious poets were writing about 9/11, too, and decided to start soliciting. Suddenly they had more than enough poems for a book.
”We thought it would be a chapbook,” says Merians, “but it kept getting bigger.” They decided to make a real book; at around the same time they persuaded the writer B.R. Myers, who’d just published ”A Reader’s Manifesto,” a big article in the Atlantic slamming pretentiousness in contemporary literature, to let them do an expanded version in book form. Suddenly they had to find a printer and a distributor, and think about stuff like contracts. “It looked really simple!” Johnson says brightly. They found a cover artist who’d been laid off from Random House and needed work, and a printer in Massachusetts (“cheap and bad”). They called the four or so companies that distribute small publishers’ books in the U.S. When the guy they spoke to at one of them, Consortium, heard that they were doing a poetry anthology, “he literally laughed at me,” Johnson says, still annoyed a decade later. But Curt Matthews of the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) thought they seemed smart and took them on. Through a friend, they were put in contact with Allan Kaufman, who’d been head corporate counsel for Penguin USA; he took a shine to them and ended up giving them invaluable advice and help with the legal side of the enterprise—“What’s a P & L?” being the sort of response he got to his questions about their business plans.
Getting a foothold
Johnson and Merians scraped up the cash to get their books produced any way they could: emptying savings and IRA accounts, maxing out credit cards, borrowing from family, taking out a small bank loan. Their audacity was rewarded when Poetry After 9/11 went on to sell 12,000 copies, small potatoes in general terms but a massive hit in the poetry world—“I think maybe only [former poet laureate] Billy Collins has sold more in recent years,” Johnson says proudly. Johnson’s blog, which had a big readership, and where some of the poems in the collection had originally appeared, was a big source of publicity. Incidentally, the blog, mobylives.com, was the inspiration behind the new company’s name, for obvious reasons—though they settled on Melville House only as a last-minute fallback after trying “Leviathan” and “Runagate,” both of which turned out to be taken. “We were in the process of incorporating the company, and our attorney was saying, ‘Hey, guys, I have an hour to file these papers,’” says Johnson. “It ended up being a good choice, even though we weren’t crazy about it at the time”—perhaps its combination of weight and unobtrusiveness lends it an authoritative, established air.
This quality was testified to by another of MHP’s early authors, the French philosopher and intellectual provocateur Bernard-Henri Lévy, who ended up bringing them his incisive book about Pakistan and terrorism, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? in 2003, after his previous tome had bombed and he was dumped by his (much bigger) publisher. When asked in France who his new American publisher was, “B-H L” would say, “I tell zem, Melville ’Ouse”; the response was invariably impressed head-nodding. “We were actually his comeback vehicle,” says Johnson. “It was a terrific book and a coup for us to publish from off our kitchen table in Hoboken. When he was in New York, he always stayed at the Carlyle—he kept saying, ‘I’ll come to the office,’ and we’d have to pretend that we were going to be near the Upper East Side and could just stop by and see him at the hotel.” Despite B-H L’s reputation for pretention and grandstanding, Johnson and Merians have nothing but respect and affection for him. “He taught us a lot, especially about how to market and publicize a book,” Johnson adds. “He’s such a media whore!”
The no-niche approach
You only have to flip through the spring 2012 catalogue to see that Melville House is not a one-trick pony: their new books range from a first novel by a young Brooklyn woman who used to blog for the New Yorker to a uniform series of “last interviews” with great (dead) writers such as Vonnegut and Derrida, a new crime thriller by Andrey Kurkov, the author of the cult hit Death and the Penguin, and a sociological and historical analysis of the history of debt by the anthropologist David Graeber, who made the headlines in 2011 as one of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street. As I talked to Merians and Johnson I felt secretly slightly embarrassed that when I was prepping to interview them a lot of the questions I’d written down had to do with finding a “niche” in the market. It’s drummed into us today that what any business must do to succeed is to create a very specific product that satisfies an unfulfilled need. But what if the need is just for good books, whatever they happen to be about? In Johnson’s view, “The system puts a lot of pressure on you to become a niche, but we always resisted that. Our interests were too broad.” He continues, “We were lucky in that early on we had a success with poetry; we had a success with a book of literary criticism; we had a success with investigative journalism—Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book; and with our classics—we started a line of novellas that did well.” As a result, they weren’t locked into any particular genre and felt free to pursue books they just really liked.
This is not to say that there aren’t themes to what they publish. They’re cheerfully and self-professedly on the left politically, which, considering the 9/11 poetry book that got them started, is clearly in their DNA. “We came in as activist publishers, responding to a political impulse,” Johnson points out. “And fighting George W. Bush!” In 2004, when Bush defeated John Kerry to hold on to the presidency, they couldn’t believe it. Riding the shockwave, they decided to put out their first instant book. “We called every lefty in the country, from Howard Dean on down, asking for contributions,” Johnson says. “We put the articles together, called it What Do We Do Now?, and got it into stores by early December—a miracle in itself because of the competition for shelf space at Christmas. Everyone was really excited. Barnes and Noble called to thank us!” Besides political activism, one area where Melville House has made its mark is in resurrecting minor classics and important writers in translation whose work has sunk out of sight (full disclosure: last fall they republished my father Michael Glenny’s out-of-print translation from Russian of Soviet dissident Georgii Vladimov’s wonderful short novel Faithful Ruslan). It was this genre that in 2009 brought Johnson and Merians their biggest success so far: the rediscovery of the post-Weimar German writer Hans Fallada’s gripping anti-Nazi novel Every Man Dies Alone, which has done “sensationally well,” as Johnson says, and also became Melville House’s first e-book.
In a discussion with almost any publisher today, Amazon is inevitably the elephant lurking in the room. As Johnson—who’s a realist if not a fan—says, it has transformed the retail landscape. One major effect is that in both the real and virtual worlds, there are now simply fewer places to sell books. Even in the one area where physical bookstores still have it over the online version—the opportunity to pull actual copies off the shelves, turn the pages, smell the paper and serendipitously stumble over something interesting because it’s on the shelf next to something else—a practice has developed (it’s called “showrooming”) where readers go to bookshops to browse and then do their buying online at Amazon, because it’s cheaper. This also applies to e-books—which, as was announced last year, overtook Amazon’s print sales, in numbers if not dollars, since Amazon deliberately prices e-books as loss leaders to attract traffic.
”By 2008 or 2009 we realized we really had to get on top of it,” says Johnson about e-publishing. Since then, no doubt helped by his pioneering background as a blogger, MHP has worked to establish an online presence in every way. Besides simply publishing and marketing e-versions of its print books, they’re enhancing and promoting what’s inside the books with various digital-only initiatives, especially ones that help them work with independent bookstores to mutual benefit: one of their most recent efforts is distributing special “shelf talkers” for their books in independent shops—shelf talkers being the pieces of paper attached to shelves that recommend particular books—that carry QR codes, the black-and-white square barcode-type things that you can scan with your smartphone. Scanning the shelf talker takes you straight to the bookshop’s website where you can buy the e-version of the book you’re looking at directly. It’s early days, though, and they haven’t sold all that many booksellers on the idea yet. Probably more successful at the moment is their own website, which Johnson and Merians reckon is one of the most trafficked and successful of any publishing house in the country, with about 70,000 unique visitors a month. It carries a lot of direct-to-consumer information in the form of newsletters and other announcements, along with the continuation of Johnson’s mobylives.com blog—now with many contributors—and fun stuff like contests and giveaways. At this point their direct book sales through the site probably amount to enough to pay the rent on MHP’s Dumbo office space—not great, but not bad, either.
The coolest bit of online wizardry so far may be their HybridBooks series. These include some of MHP’s classic short stories and novellas, such as Herman Melville’s own Bartleby the Scrivener, published in a clean, uncluttered uniform edition. On the page facing the inside back cover is another of the QR code squares; scan it with your phone, or download it for your e-reader, and it delivers a ton of extra material relevant to the book—the kind of stuff you might go looking for online if you were really energetic or curious or having to write a paper about what you were reading: in Bartleby’s case, it includes excerpts from writings by Emerson and Thoreau, a contemporary map of Manhattan, and a recipe for the ginger nut biscuits that feature in the story. It really works—I tried it! Though next time I think I’ll pay for the 99 cent QR reader app instead of downloading the free one, because with the free one you have to read annoying little commercials along the bottom of the text all the time.
One important aspect of Melville House’s non-virtual books is that they look terrific. In the tradition of great paperback series such as the original Penguins, MHP has created several uniform series with very simple but clear and clean designs—some, like their novella collection, are identical except for the colors of the covers, while others, such as the Neversink Library (Faithful Ruslan, which I mentioned before, is one of these), carry a silhouette of the main character on a darker background. Most of them are small trade paperback size, easy to hold in the hand, with generous margins and attractive, unassuming serif fonts that make them a pleasure to read. These are books you want to take home and keep. Oh, and read. Johnson is very definite about the fact that he and Merians are not conducting some kind of charitable preservation exercise. “We’re not a non-profit or university press,” he says. “At the core, we publish books we like that we then try to market and publicize. Our goal is to sell books.”—TAMARA GLENNY