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March 17, 2022

Melville House Celebrates 20 Years of Independent Publishing


Since its inception in February 2002, Melville House has been called “brilliant,” “anti-establishment,” “small but innovative,” and “[an] enticing American boutique.” Twenty years later, with offices in Brooklyn and London and a staff of 15, co-founders Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians have published over 700 books, including an astonishing list of internationally acclaimed authors. They recently sat down with Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, to talk about the launch of the company, the most unexpected and most welcome developments in book publishing over the past two decades, and the challenges they face in the years to come.


Question: How long did it take from the point when the two of you decided to launch a publishing company named Melville House and that day in February of 2002 when it actually opened its doors for business? Was there a particular impediment?

Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians: By the time of our incorporation, we had already pretty much finished putting together our first book, POETRY AFTER 9/11. After witnessing 9/11, we'd been so overwhelmed by the feeling of needing to do something that we'd started working on the book just days after the attacks. Parts of it had appeared on Dennis’ MobyLives blog and were very quickly generating national attention --- an AP story about one of the poems had appeared in newspapers nationwide, there'd been an NPR story, and so on. It was still just the two of us, and we'd thought we were putting together a chapbook to sell at poetry readings. But all the press made us realize we had something more than that, and that to publish it correctly was going to require an actual company.

As for impediments, well, that would be our credit limit, because we did the thing parents tell their children never to do, which is to fund your expensive dream with a credit card.

Q: What was the first book you published that earned the kind of reception that made you feel, “We must be doing something right!”

DJ & VM: We were extremely, even freakishly, lucky, because that book was our very first book. In its first year of sales we sold 15,000 copies --- of a poetry book! Mind you, we'd snared a dream level of publicity --- we published it on the first anniversary of 9/11, and that day on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Diane Sawyer read aloud some poems from the book. NPR did something similar. The New York Times profiled us.

But when our second book --- a book of literary criticism, no less, called A READER’S MANIFESTO by B.R. Myers --- sold similarly, we thought we were geniuses. Who else sold poetry and lit crit like that?

Then, of course, our next several books didn't do so well, we were back in debt, and, well, there was no backing out at that point!

Q: Getting Melville House off the ground in 2002 posed numerous challenges, no doubt. With the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight, what was the single most bedeviling factor that you hadn’t anticipated fully?

DJ & VM: Well, it all revolved around the fact that we weren’t businesspeople. Stuff like doing the accounting, understanding contracts, managing back-office stuff --- that was a really sharp learning curve for us. Meanwhile, the skill set we did have --- that of the starving artist --- led us to make some decisions a normal businessperson probably wouldn't have made.

For example, when there was a coloration mistake on the cover of our first book --- our fault; we were still learning how to code CMYK with the printers --- we didn't notice until they'd already printed 10,000 of them. We had the covers stripped off and re-printed without really thinking about how colossally expensive it would be. Our main thought was that it had to be perfect, whereas most publishers would have lived with it.

But such perfectionism, the idea of a well-made object, eventually became part of the brand, and that had real value, particularly for booksellers. Take a debut novel we just published called BE HERE TO LOVE ME AT THE END OF THE WORLD. It has a gorgeous cover that’s really absorbing, and as you take it in you don't really think about the fact that it doesn't look like other debut novels. In our early years, we would have been pressured to make our books look like other books in a given genre. Now, because of our reputation, people are more open to seeing our covers for what they are --- well-designed, and attractive in that.

Q: What kind of support did you receive from the indie accounts during Melville’s early years? And did any especially pleasant surprises befall MHP during that launch period?

DJ & VM: One of our most vivid memories, from the days when we would go into bookstores to see if they were carrying our books, was when we walked into the Posman Books that used to be in Grand Central Terminal. There, by the cash wrap, was a tall stack of our just-published second book, A READER’S MANIFESTO. Maybe 20 copies. We were floored and immediately asked to speak to the manager (we didn't know to ask for the buyer yet). We asked him if he usually put books of literary criticism there. He said no; that was usually where he stacked whatever book was reviewed in the New York Times that day. Commuters read the paper on the train to work, and books well reviewed fly off that spot, he explained. But two things had happened: one, a bad review; and, two, he liked little presses and thought our book was great for his particular clientele. We later learned the friendly guy we'd spoken to was Robert Fader, one of the owners of Posman Books.

Q: Of the many changes in book publishing that you have observed over the past 20 years, which one do you now recognize as being the most unexpected? And which was the most welcome?

DJ & VM: The most unexpected would have to be the rise of Amazon, because it was just so bloody damaging to the entire industry that we kept expecting the big players to stand up to it. But by the time they did, it was decades too late. Likewise, as it was so obviously a monopoly, we also expected the government to do something. But when the DOJ's anti-trust officers finally stirred to life in 2013, it was to prosecute the big publishers for at long last standing up to Amazon!

The most welcome development is the way indie booksellers took on the challenge of the pandemic and, seemingly overnight, developed a skill most of them hadn’t had before, which is how to sell books online. The way they did that, and simultaneously developed other new ways to serve their clientele, such as delivery and curbside pick-up, is going to have a wonderful, long-term impact on the survival of indie bookselling and the war against Amazon. It's been great for all of us, business-wise, and damned inspiring.

Q: Looking ahead, what challenge do you feel Melville House must gird itself for in particular over the next 5-10 years?

DJ & VM: Well, all the big-house mergers are deeply concerning. Even though the big five only represent about 50% of annual book sales, they control pretty much 100% of the marketplace. Most of retail is in their thrall, analogous to the way general consumers are in the thrall of Amazon. Given that 50-50 split of sales between the big players and everyone else, one would think retailers would be just as supportive of small presses, university presses and non-profits as they are the big houses, but that’s just not the case --- with the notable exception of most indie booksellers.

Our hope is that a larger swath of retailers will emulate those indie booksellers. When you walk into City Lights, Solid State or Diesel Books, for example, you’re just as likely to see a book from Akashic, Graywolf or Milkweed on display as you are a Knopf or FSG title. Given the way discovery works in a brick-and-mortar setting --- whereby people are inspired to buy things in addition to what they came in for --- that’s smart bookselling.

Q: If Melville House had been launched in 1972 instead of 2002, which three authors of the time would you have pursued most aggressively, knowing they would make perfect additions to your vision of a publishing house?

DJ & VM: Well, I don’t know that Daniel Ellsberg was cultivate-able, but The Pentagon Papers are kind of the ultimate Melville House crash title (although The Senate Intelligence Report on Torture isn’t a bad comp, 45 years later).

And we would have worked very hard to convince James Baldwin that he was at the wrong publishing house and should move over to a more simpatico, mission-driven company like us. THE FIRE NEXT TIME, for example, is really a Melville House kind of crash title. So much so that we once asked fiction writer and Baldwin scholar Randall Kenan to write an homage to THE FIRE NEXT TIME that Randall called THE FIRE THIS TIME. (Sadly, Randall died in 2020. We're releasing a paperback of THE FIRE THIS TIME in memoriam in July.)

Finally, I know Toni Morrison was a big house editor, but in our daydreams we imagine that experience might actually have made her susceptible to what would have been a massive effort on our part to convince her, too, that she was really an indie press author.