No Backing Out: Melville House Hits 20 Years
A Q&A with Melville House publishers Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson
Publishing at its best is a place for people who love books and believe in the power of books to impact that lives of readers.
But it is also a business.
The fact that Melville House has been around for 20 years shows that when people who love books and believe in the power of books put their mind to publishing, a sustainable business can follow.
On occasion, rather than just offering whatever thoughts are rattling around my noggin, I act like an actual journalist and interview the subjects that I’m writing about. This was the case with Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson, the co-founders of Melville House.
They had so many interesting things to share I could not fit into the 600 words I’m allotted each week by the Tribune that I had the brilliant idea to publish the Q&A I did with them in its entirety.
The story they tell of persistence against odds is inspiring and admirable, but I think it’s also important to recognize the threat of Amazon’s influence on the industry to the kind of work publishers like Melville House are doing. Dennis Johnson talks about the specifics in one of the answers below, and while I knew some of the general outlines of the challenges, I was frankly astonished by the specifics.
To be clear, I’m not trying to guilt anyone into not shopping with Amazon, nor do I think buying books on Amazon makes anyone a bad person, or anything like that. To live in the world is to compromise one’s values and beliefs half a dozen times before you get out of bed in the morning.
But, I do think it’s a good thing to know as much as possible about the structural forces that exert so much influence in the world, and when it comes to publishing, Amazon is the behemoth which influences every other entity in the publishing ecosystem.
Supporting publishers like Melville House is easy because they publish great books I want to read. I hope anyone not familiar with Melville House takes some time to look through what they have to offer.
Q&A with Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson
Q: I think very few people put together a plan for lasting 20 years when they start their independent publishing company.. You describe it as “a collaborative art project that got out of hand.” What was the impulse to keep going after that first book? What led to this thing getting out of hand?
A: Valerie: The main thing is that that first book — a poetry anthology called Poetry After 9/11 — succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings. We sold 15,000 copies. Our second book — a collection of literary criticism — sold slightly more than that. Even as newbie publishers we knew that those were two categories of books that weren’t supposed to sell in those numbers.
As long-time starving artists it was especially gratifying to see work go out that big. And having the sudden ability to do that felt very empowering. You know, we were the kind of people who walked around pointing at things and saying, “Someone ought to do a book about that.” Well, here we could do it and it was great.
Of course, after that our next three books didn’t sell that well, and we were in debt, and there was no backing out. But having started with a successful book, we knew what we were capable of. And having a sense of your ability to persist was another lesson from the starving artist school. And we were working together, which was important. So, chin up, and onward.
Q: It seems like one of the reasons MHP has been able to sustain itself, and even grow over time is a certain talent or mindset around finding projects that you can publish without investing gobs of money in acquiring the property. The 9/11 “Torture Report” is an obvious example, but the “Last Interview” series seems to run on the same principle. Is this savvy business thinking, or “wouldn’t it be cool” thinking, or some combination of the two?
A: Dennis: Well, we did the Torture Report because it felt like we had to or nobody would know about it — the government released it late on a Friday afternoon just before Christmas, and they released it as a barely readable pdf that you couldn’t even search. So we did that one out of our sense of what a good publisher does. I have a sense that in many ways American publishing came out of Thom Paine’s way of publishing himself — a kind of pamphleteering — but that’s another story.
Beyond that, though, the books you’re talking about — particularly the series stuff — were usually “wouldn’t it be cool” thinking. For example, our Art of the Novella series has been hugely successful over the years. It turned out to be a marvelous idea, business-wise – an actual classics line that no one else had thought of in all these years of modern publishing, not even Penguin! The best of all possible backlists! Famous names! No royalties!
But it was entirely whimsey. I happened to love novellas. When I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a lot of us were writing novellas, then sticking them in the bottom drawer because they were impossible to sell — too long for magazines, too short for book publishers. So we were writing them out of some simple but pure literary imperative, which is nicely romantic. I also love reading them. Some of the most beautiful things ever written are Chekhov novellas. I could make an argument that Melville created modernism with Bartleby the Scrivener. Kate Chopin changed the world with The Awakening.
So when we suddenly found ourselves with our own publishing company, able to publish whatever we wanted, I told Valerie we simply had to publish novellas. So we did.
Q: When I peruse the full MHP catalog, I see a rather diverse mix. I’m not sure I’d be able to craft a tidy aesthetic description like I could for some other independent publishers. What is it that ties books like Lars Iyer’s “Wittgenstein Jr.” (one of my personal favorites), or “The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure” (C.D. Rose), or David Stubbs’ history of Krautrock, “Future Days”?
A: Valerie: Well, what ties them together is simply the tastes of the owners of the company. All privately owned companies somehow reflect the personality, or the whims of their ownership. This used to be true even of the big houses – when Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer ran Random House, it was a different kind of publisher than it is today. Likewise — as Dennis likes to say, there really was a guy named Alfred Knopf, and there really was a Simon, as well as a Schuster. Now, there isn’t, and it shows. So we think we really have an advantage over the more homogenous corporate lists in that our list reflects a real personality.
By the way, thank you for citing those books – real favorites of ours.
Q: What’s something you guys tried that didn’t work, even though you had pretty high confidence in it? Or is confidence just not part of publishing?
A: Valerie: Ha! Confidence — some would say mulishness — is definitely part of publishing. It’s like making art — you have to believe you can do it or you wouldn’t do it. But it does take nerves of steel when you own the company. Because it can, at times, feel an awful lot like — as our accountant regularly calls it — gambling.
Dennis: But something we tried that didn’t work was the Hybrid Book project, whereby print books we published came with a free ebook (via a QR code inside the back cover). The free ebook consisted of complimentary material that we felt enhanced the experience of the print book, particularly by providing material it would have been difficult or prohibitively costly to provide in a print book — color art, for example.
It was an idea we’re still proud of. Part of it was real science of reading stuff — thinking about how you read differently on a screen than you do on a piece of paper. The latter seems more conducive to in-depth, at-length reading to us; the former leans more to scanning, to grabbing as much info as fast as you can. But we thought those two styles of reading were equally valid, but also complimentary. Remember, the emergence of ebooks was a real historic moment. All the big companies wanted them to work so bad – no printing costs! no warehouses! no warehouse employees! – that things felt rushed to us. People hadn’t thought through what an ebook could be, how it was actually different or complimentary to a print book. The industry just seemed to think of them as a xerox copy of a print book.
Our starting point for actually crafting these complimentary ebooks was the natural reaction to reading something you really like — the urge to know more about the writer or the time or the place or whatever; essentially, the urge to somehow keep the absorbing experience of the book going. So, the free ebook that came with our edition of Bartleby the Scriviner, for example, included biographical info and full color portraits of Herman Melville; letters he wrote to friends about writing Bartleby; selections from the philosophers he was reading at the time that he said had influenced the story (such as Kierkegaard); a book review of Melville’s writing by Alexis de Toqueville (it’s a really negative review); maps and drawings of Wall Street at the time the story took place, including lots of color art; and even a recipe for ginger nuts, the thing Bartleby was eating all the time in the book. The ebook was hundreds of pages long and was a lot of work, but that whole program was a labor of love.
However, nobody seemed as turned on by it as we were. We thought booksellers would push them, as after all we’d given the books an added value far beyond the cover price. We thought academics would assign them – that seemed like it would have been natural. The series was very popular already, so we thought readers would flip for them. But as these ebooks were on our server, we could see how many were going out, and it wasn’t many.
Valerie: We wish we could say why, but we just don’t know. Maybe QR codes were just too complicated for people? Maybe the kind of people who buy classics don’t like reading electronically? Maybe all of the above, but we just don’t know.
Q: Over the years in my column at the Chicago Tribune, I’ve periodically tried to articulate how and why I think Amazon is a danger to the overall publishing ecosystem, but I come at it as a reader and writer. I’m curious how you see it from the inside of an independent publisher that has been frequently critical of the company.
A: Dennis: From our first real interaction with Amazon as a company — when it pulled our buy buttons after I went public about their demands for a kickback in 2004 — to today — when it continues to invent bogus new “services” that costs us thousands of dollars a month, effectively increasing their discount well beyond legal limits — they have made it harder and harder to stay in business.
And its thuggish tactics and mercenary attitude toward the business of books has impacted the entire business in a kind of ripple effect that’s been devastating for the larger ecosystem. For example, everybody knows that other retailers couldn’t compete with Amazon’s loss leader pricing. (By the way, if you read the antitrust legislation known as the Robinson Patman Act, you’ll see that exact phrase — “loss leader pricing” — spelled out as illegal. It’s what they call “black letter law.” Which is to say the government has really let those other retailers down, not to mention the rest of the industry and, most importantly, readers — or, as the government would classify them, consumers.) But in response to what Amazon has done, those other retailers have unfortunately come to demand, more and more, the same kinds of discounts, promotional costs and service fees as Amazon. “If you give it to them you should give it to us,” they say. Which sounds reasonable enough — except that there’s nothing reasonable about what Amazon extorts out of publishers. So, it’s becoming a case of everybody lowering their ethical standards, and sticking it to publishers and thereby authors and agents, or whomever’s next on the food chain.
Meanwhile, the big publishers are getting bigger, partly in response to Amazon and the scorched earth capitalism it’s fostered within the book industry. This used to be a business of lovers, not fighters. Modern American publishing was founded by actual people — Bennet Cerf, Alfred A. Knopf, Simon and Schuster, et al — who were well situated and educated and could have made money in other professions. But they chose publishing out of a love for books. Now it’s every man for himself. But of course the bigger the big publishers get, the more homogenized their fare has to become, and the less truth they’re prepared to speak to power, if they want the bottom line to keep growing. Which, the bigger they get, the more they have to do, every damn quarter. This is obviously bad for not only art making, but free speech and thereby the democracy itself. Yet those giant houses control the marketplace and take up all the oxygen of what’s left of book media. They big five represent about 50 percent of book sales annually, but they totally control the marketplace the rest of us have to figure out how to peddle our wares in.
And by the way, if you’re wondering why those big houses put up with Amazon’s cutthroat demands, you’re right in thinking that they shouldn’t have for all these years . . . but the fact is they waited too long (lovers, not fighters) and now Amazon is around fifty percent, or more, of their business. And anybody that controls fifty percent of your business controls you. (Amazon does not constitute fifty percent of Melville House’s business, but that’s in large part because we’ve done our best to cultivate brick and mortar bookstores over online sales — because that’s where we think our demographic shops. Meanwhile, the big houses are giving less and less of a damn about what’s known as “the field.”)
Anyway, what we’re dealing with now inside Melville House is: Our margins, razor-thin to begin with, as in all of small, non-profit, and university press publishing, are a little thinner still every year. Allegiances that should exist with other retailers are weakening as those retailers find themselves more and more in the thrall of big publishing. And the reading public, meanwhile, has been successfully indoctrinated by Amazon to think that all other retailers — and publishers — are ripping them off by over-pricing books . . . when books have actually been under-priced since the beginnings of modern publishing early in the last century.
So that’s where we’re at. As for what’s coming next, well, the overall impact of what Amazon has effected is that prices will go up. Little publishers will have to raise them first, because we don’t have the economics of scale that the big houses do. And we’re going to see that have an impact on our business, as we’ll get blamed by retailers for being more expensive than the big houses. But, soon enough, price hikes will occur across the board.
We’ll also be making books differently, too, thanks to Amazon. For example, one of their recent “services” has been to charge us if they think a book needs “special handling” — a cover seems somehow fragile enough to deserve shrink-wrapping, say, or extra cardboard in the box. For particular example, they may decide — somewhere in the depths of their warehouses — that one of our covers may be subject to smudges because it’s white. Now, we know how to make a white book. There are ways to treat the cover — laminates we can use — that make it work. And yet we get such outrageous “handling” charges every month — with no explanation, no detailing of what the charges are for — that, as we've made a good number of white covers, we suspect a cover being white is one of the things they're charging us for. But as I say, we get no detailing of these charges, it’s just a fee taken directly off revenue. So we're guessing about what's going on, but the long and the short of it is that we don’t make so many books with white or light-colored covers anymore. And so, Amazon has actually impacted our ability to design the kind of books we want.
In fact, Amazon is itching to take over the actual printing of everyone’s books entirely. Rather than order books from us to store in, and ship from, its warehouses, Amazon is slowly starting to pressure publishers to use its print-on-demand services. Now, I don’t care what anyone tells you — that kind of digital printing is inferior to the way most publishers print their books, which is called web printing. In digital printing, colors are just not as rich and precise, the printed text is not as sharp, you don’t have as wide an array of effects that you can do such as embossing on covers, and so forth. And I mean, hello? We’re publishers. We print our own goddamn books, thank you very much. It’s what we do. But Amazon printing the books it sells is coming— it’s already here in some circumstances, and is coming soon for everyone else. Because it’s like ebooks: It means Amazon won’t have to have warehouses and all those dreadful and expensive people working in them.
Then there's the fact that Amazon has recently decided to ignore international copyright laws and sell books from foreign markets into the country — even if that book already has an American publisher. They'll offer a British paperback version of a book that has an American hardcover edition, for example. This hurts the sale of the hardcover, because paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers. And so it's suddenly much riskier for us to take on a great UK book that for whatever reason wasn't also done in the US. We've already backed away from several such books we would have been thrilled to publish here. (I should note: Amazon is also doing this to UK and Australian publishers — selling less expensive US editions into their market.) This is all quite blatantly against the law, but who's got the leverage to make Amazon stop?
And so the fight goes on. For once, though, it is not without at least a modicum of hope — the Biden Administration has finally appointed some people in the various oversight agencies that have an old-fashioned idea about antitrust. That is, you know, they think monopolies are bad. In particular, Lina Khan, the head of the Federal Trade Commission, has been extremely critical of Amazon, and long advocated understanding it as a monopoly, and acting against its monopolistic tendencies. Can she do anything? We’ll see. It’s a monumental struggle. After all, the government, under the Obama administration in 2013, effectively sanctified Amazon’s monopoly by prosecuting five of the six biggest publishers for colluding to stand up to Amazon’s pricing demands. So Khan is up against not only Amazon, but recent governmental precedent.
So I’m not exactly optimistic. On the other hand, I’m a publisher, which is in many ways the definition of optimism. I mean, Valerie and I started our company by assembling a collection of poetry — poetry! — and literally sinking every last dime we had into it. And what we discovered is that sometimes longshots come through.
Q: Imagine Mackenzie Scott (formerly Bezos) came to MHP said she was a fan of your work and wanted to fund a project that would otherwise be a stretch. What would you use that support to do? What’s on the wish list?
A: Valerie: Well, first, good on her for what she’s doing with that money.
But as for us, I can tell you one thing we wouldn’t do, which is what people might think we would do — pay a big house level advance to get a superstar writer. That’s just not the kind of publishing we do, for one thing, and the ridiculous advances of big house publishing are really harmful to the entire ecosystem of American publishing.
But what we might do is simply deepen the company — give everybody a raise, because everybody in small and independent publishing is underpaid, and expand departments so we can better support our books. You know, small, independent publishing is a business of razor-thin margins, much, much more so than at the big houses. And most people who work at those small houses are really intelligent, well-educated people doing it out of real love for books and what they can do to make the world a better place. They could have chosen professions where they’d make some money and be more comfortable. So, doing those things would just take some of the tension off and give our team — employees and authors — a fairer return on their own investment, and thereby ours.
Also, we’d buy a coffee machine.
The Morning News Tournament of Books has completed its first round of competition, featuring victories by Matrix by Lauren Groff, In Concrete by Anne Garréta (upsetting Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You), and Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. Tune in for the rest of the action playing out this month.
Saturday, March 12th was Jack Kerouac’s (of On the Road fame 100th birthday. He continues to have an influence on American literature. I once had an idea to do a satirical companion/sequel to On the Road written from the points of view of the people that Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise encountered on their journeys. I was going to call it, Who Were Those A-Holes? It’s the kind of project a more ambitious writer would have pitched and had ready for release on Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday.
George R.R. Martin is “sorry” for the people who only want to see him conclude The Song of Ice and Fire series (known as Game of Thrones to TV-only fans), and aren’t interested in his other projects. Winds of Winter is supposed to be the last in the series, but the man just isn’t done yet.
For some reason, Adam Morgan gave himself the task of cataloging the “50 Best Fantasy Books of All Time,” and Esquire has published the results. Fascinating and likely surprising (to some) list.
An assistant principal in Mississippi was fired for reading students a very silly, very funny children’s book, I Need a New Butt. The moral panic over books has reached a new low, but we shouldn’t imagine this is the bottom.
So this is pretty cool. Substack has released an app for the iPhone, which means you can now read The Biblioracle Recommends in the app, rather than in your email. It’s Apple only for the moment, but an Android version is coming.
All books linked below and above are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. I’ll match affiliate income up to 5% of annualized revenue for the newsletter, or $500, whichever is larger.
After a big surge, we’re flat week to week at $52.80 of affiliate income.
Recommendations are always open. Send in your requests by clicking below and following the instructions.
1. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
2. Saga by Brian K Vaughan
3. Fight Night by Miriam Toews
4. Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit
5. The Push by Ashley Audrain
Kier G. - Maple Ridge, BC Canada
I’m going to lean in to Kier’s residency and recommend one of my favorite Canadian writers who really deserves much more attention for his work. His name is Pasha Malla and the book is People Park.
That’s it for this week folks. I hope everyone in the U.S. has sprung forward successfully without hurting themselves.