Small Press Profile: A Conversation With Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House Books

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The second in Bookselling This Week’s series of small press profiles features a conversation with Dennis Loy Johnson, co-publisher and cofounder of the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House Books.

Johnson, a Pushcart Prize-winning short story writer and former journalist, became well-known for his MobyLives newspaper column about the book industry, which, in 2000, he turned into one of the very first book blogs

In 2001, the tragic events of 9/11 inspired Johnson and his wife, sculptor and poet Valerie Merians, to establish their own publishing house in order to put out Poetry After 9/11, an anthology on the tragedy with pieces contributed by 45 poets. Since then, Melville House has gone on to publish books by a host of notable and emerging fiction writers, poets, intellectuals, and investigative journalists, including Andre Schiffrin, Paul Berman, T Cooper, Imre Kertesz, and Tao Lin. 

These days, the outspoken voice Johnson introduced with MobyLives still anchors the liberal publishing house, which now hosts the column on its website. 

Johnson and his staff’s work has garnered Melville House respect in the publishing world. In 2007, Melville House won the Association of American Publishers’’ Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing. 

In a recent conversation with BTW, Johnson discussed the company’s early days, some of the books on Melville’s upcoming list, and the origins of the MobyLives name.

Bookselling This Week:  What motivated you to start Melville House in the early days following the September 11th terrorist act?

Dennis Loy Johnson: Neither Valerie nor I were publishers at the time; we didn’t really intend to start a company. It was more of a bit of activism. When 9/11 happened, I had been running a blog called MobyLives, which, depending on whom you believe, was the first, or one of the very first, book blogs in the U.S. and I was getting some attention for it. [Book blogs were] kind of a new phenomenon, which is hard to believe now. On September 10, 2001, Yahoo declared MobyLives its website of the week, so I went from having not so many readers, to the next day having close to 60,000 new readers, and, of course, the next day was 9/11.

Since there wasn’t any other kind of communication in New York at the time, because all the broadcast towers for the media were on the World Trade Center, people had to go back online to find out what was going on; we thought we were under attack. A lot of my readers started sending me eyewitness reports, and, as the days wore on, we got other interesting, very moving pieces of writing from people — some of whom were famous writers — about their experiences as witnesses and about living in New York in the days after such a horrible event, and we just kept posting them. So my beat had kind of changed. 

Then George Bush came to town and said, Let’s go kill a bunch of Afghanis, from atop the rubble. My wife was looking over my shoulder and just said, You know, all the stuff you’re putting up on the blog is what’s really telling the true story of New York right now: People aren’t lusting for blood; they’re lusting for an explanation; they’re in shock. So we decided to continue our activism against the Bush administration by collecting some of that material and making a book.

At that point, my wife and I had been together for three or four years, and we were looking for an art project to do together. It all just kind of came together that way. Then when the book [Poetry After 9/11] did so well, we just decided to keep going. So that’s how the company got started.

BTW: How has the legacy of Poetry After 9/11 affected the content that you publish today? How political is Melville House still?

DLJ: We still feel we are publishing things that should be mainstream but aren’t. A lot of what we do is stuff that the big houses used to do but don’t anymore because they don’t make enough money on it. So the company still feels very left, very mission-driven. And even as we’re doing what might be construed as more commercial titles than we used to, it also still feels kind of like rock and roll to me.

BTW: What kinds of authors do you seek to publish? Do you look for a lot of new voices? Do you lean toward titles that speak to your political mission?

DLJ: We do love to break new authors and that’s something we strive to do on every list. What’s the point of having a publishing company if you can’t discover a new talent and give them a leg up and help them start a career? Before I was a publisher I was a short story writer and I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I know the scene really well and I mean to champion that scene. It is a big part of what we do. But we don’t really discriminate much beyond that, although, true, we would never publish, say, Rush Limbaugh. We’re just looking to make good books that speak to the cultural moment, and we’re not too picky about who wrote them. 

This is an old-fashioned company in that it is privately owned: It’s not a nonprofit; it’s not a giant conglomerate with foreign ownership; it’s not a university press. My wife and I own the company, and it reflects our tastes, certainly, but our tastes are pretty eclectic and wide-ranging. [Our acquiring principles are]: Is this a good book? Do we believe in this book? Can we champion this book? Does this feel like it fits the mission? 

Then we ask, can we afford to do it? Will it make us money? Those questions are secondary to the primary question. That’s just not the way most publishing is run anymore, even for a lot of the smaller houses that are individually owned.

ABA Board members and staff with Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians at Melville House's new offices.

BTW: How do you market to independent booksellers? Is that a big part of getting a book to sell?

DLJ: It is a huge part. That is our ideal client. That’s where the likeminded spirits who might be interested in our books are apt to shop, and that’s the best place we have for any chance of discoverability. And luckily in the States there are still a couple of thousand indie bookstores, many that are thriving and growing; they’re having a good moment. It’s a diverse marketplace amongst those indies, too. It’s our best chance to reach the unconverted. It’s nice to preach to the converted, but we also want to take the message to others, and that’s the best way for us to do that.

I have to note, though, that it’s not our biggest market. Our biggest is, in fact,, and chain retail would be just behind that. Those aren’t our ideal situations, but those are also places we have to market to. We work them really hard. Our main mission is to sell books and we have to take every opportunity.

I’m pretty well-known as an Amazon critic, and some people are surprised that I allow our books to be sold on Amazon, but those people don’t really know anything about the book business because, for one thing, you can’t ignore your biggest account. Amazon is something like 30 or 40 percent of our business. And, second, there is such a thing as free speech. And, third, you have this moral obligation to represent the author in as big a way as you can, and if that means selling to a hostile retailer or a retailer you disagree with, well, so be it. It may be an even better chance, again, of reaching the unconverted.

I wish it was just a world of indie bookstores, but it isn’t, although it does seem like we do spend most of our time working them. I travel a lot; I visit a lot of bookstores; I do a lot of regional indie retail conventions and just try to remind those people that we are in it together. Our true partnership is with indie booksellers.

BTW: How many titles does Melville House publish each year and what are some that you’re excited about this coming season?

DLJ: We do about 55 books a year, give or take two or three titles, and sometimes we do what are called drop-ins, which are books we decide to do at the last minute. For example, we just over the Christmas holiday crashed a book that was not in our catalog. We published a book version of the U.S. Senate report on torture. That was a book we just decided to do the day they released the report because we realized nobody was going to do it otherwise… It was a great project. 

Our list is really deepening. We’re getting a lot more writers, just like we’re getting a lot more staffers who are quitting the big houses and trying to have a different publishing experience. As the big houses have become more about the bottom line, the very good literary writers who sold well but not well enough are looking for a better experience, and we’re getting a lot of those writers — particularly fiction writers — over the next year.

We’ve got some really stunning novels coming out. We’ve got a book called Rules for Werewolves by a playwright named Kirk Lynn; we’ve got another writer named Greg Hrbeck, and we’re doing a terrific book with him in the fall called Not on Fire, But Burning

For nonfiction, we’re actually doing some drop-ins that are great: We’re publishing the great British leftist Owen Jones. He’s done a book called The Establishment and How They Get Away With It, a great piece of leftist intellectualism. We’re doing another book called The Darknet by a British writer named Jamie Bartlett. So it’s a really, really strong year right now. We’re off to the best start we’ve ever had, and I think the best times are yet to come.

BTW: So, obviously, Melville House as a name is related to MobyLives, but where did the name MobyLives originate?

DLJ: MobyLives refers to the fact that at the end of the great American novel Moby Dick, the great white whale of American literature is still alive; he doesn’t get killed; he swims off. Even with a harpoon in him, he survives. I was trying to make a statement about the tumult that American literature seems to have been going through for the last 20 years, as these giant players take it over and make it less about anything that’s meaningful.

The phrasing of MobyLives came from what happened in the 1950s when the great, great, great jazz musician Charlie Parker, a saxophone player, died tragically of a drug overdose. He was known as “Bird," and when he died, graffiti saying "Bird Lives" appeared all over New York. So that’s what inspired the name MobyLives.

BTW: How does the MobyLives blog operate today? How many staff do you have working on it?

DLJ: Everybody works on the blog. You can’t have a job here if you don’t write for the blog. When I interview employees, a writing sample is part of the process. The blog used to just be me, and I would blog for eight, 10 hours a day, and post 10, 12 stories or more. I sweated blood to keep that blog going for a while, and it was worth it. Now that we have a company, I want it to represent the people at the company and the shared mission that we have, so I just sort of widened up the blog and made it more interesting. The idea has always been to speak about the book business from the inside and speak about it honestly. 

When I first started the blog, I wasn’t a publisher, but I was conscious of the fact that all of my friends who were writers talked about the book business in ways that I never saw represented in the media. I was the guy to whom people would say, why don’t you say this? And I’d say, why don’t you say that? And they would say they were afraid of getting in trouble, and so I would say it. 

I was the little kid who always got prodded to make trouble by the bigger kids, and now I want the staff to do that. I want them to feel free to openly talk about the business of making books, and that is also a very joyous thing. They love books. I don’t know anybody who got in the book business to make money; they all get in it because they love books, and so that’s always been the orientation. And that’s what kind of drives the honesty. So the blog has become for the company what it used to be for me individually, in that it is the company’s claim to fame. Everywhere I go I hear about MobyLives. I meet people who have been reading MobyLives since I started it in 2000, who are devoted, longtime followers, and new followers. Some are people who just say, thanks for telling it like it is on the Amazon story, or on the Barnes & Noble story, or thanks for writing about what was happening with the New York Public Library when the city was trying to sell it out from under us. Basically, we get a lot of really honest affection for speaking truth to power. So the blog represents this company very well. It does get us into trouble sometimes. It has given me some headaches with Amazon, but at the end of the day it has all been worth it. If people know the [Melville House] brand, MobyLives is probably part of what they know. 

Melville House titles are distributed by Penguin Random House.