Dennis Loy Johnson and his wife Valerie Merians, publishers of Melville House Publishing (based in Hoboken, New Jersey), received 2007's Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing. When the opportunity arose to interview Dennis about his press and about his perspective on publishing in general, I couldn't resist. Even though the Cruelest Month is very much a product of HarperCollins, and HarperCollins is very much a product of News Corp, I figured we could afford to celebrate some of the truly good things happening on smaller scales. (Since its inception, the Miriam Bass Award has gone to Soft Skull Press, Akashic Books, and McBooks Press.) Dennis is well known for running Mobylives.com, an online journal of the highest quality, and is the author of Big Chill: The Great, Unreported Story of the Bush Inauguration Protests. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions:
Michael Signorelli: After learning that you had received the 2007 Miriam Bass Award you said that “Valerie and I honestly believe that books are more important than ever.” Why now more than ever?
Dennis Loy Johnson: Look, no one in America believes the mainstream media anymore. They regard it with the same disdain and distrust with which they regard politicians. Bill Keller, David Remnick—they all supported the war, just like Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, where else are you going to find any kind of long-form writing? In a time of short sound bites and insufficient public access to in-depth analysis, we find ourselves with a twice-unelected president and in a stupefyingly senseless war that everyone else in the country knew before it happened was stupid and based on lies.
But meanwhile the one form of media that people have an inherent faith in is the book. I mean, one thing I’ve learned as a publisher is that every body either has written a book or believes they can. Everyone just grants the book a certain sense of honor. And I’ve been encouraged by what happened at a couple of significant points in recent history. After 9/11, the best-selling books in America were all from independent and university presses, and they were books about Islam and spirituality and books about the twin towers and so on—people were searching for the kind of information the newspapers and television weren’t really covering. And they were buying these books in large numbers, and totally ignoring the entertainment tripe on offer from the big publishers. This is a story—a little remarked upon story—that says something really glorious about the American book buyer. And it’s in stark contrast to the accepted wisdom, which is that there is a diminishing audience for serious books. The other thing I found inspiring was how, in the run up to the 2004 election, it was books that really drove the political discussion in this country. It started at the turn of the year with Ron Suskind’s book about Paul O’Neill fleeing the Bush administration, went on with Richard Clarke’s book about Bush’s manipulation of intelligence to back the war, and went on through books by Seymour Hersh and Bob Woodward and even the Swift Boat Veterans’ evil little fantasy—it was all books. The book would come out, 60 Minutes would do a story on it, they would get record viewership, then the topic would get some lengthy and serious discussion from the rest of the media herd. That year, books ignited discussion after discussion, and most of those discussions were good for the country. So I don’t care what anyone says, nor what sales figures indicate, books still have meaning, and in fact still have real power. Despite the failure of the rest of America’s mainstream media, and despite this fact that this has become a virulently anti-intellectual culture—because of those things, in part—even here in Dumbfuckistan books have awesome super powers.
MS: Does being a writer make you a better publisher? Or, how does your experience as a writer shape your approach to publishing books?
DLJ: Sure it makes me a better publisher. For one thing, it makes me a lot less snotty than the average Ivy League wannabe novelist that has been the historic character of the big New York publisher, and a lot more open to good books coming from unusual places. And by that I don’t mean, you know, whatever is the new hip ethnicity—I mean unusual places such as the slush pile, which is something the big houses don’t even have anymore. We’ve published quite a few books now that just came in over the transom. (As, similarly opposite to the big houses, we usually reject out of hand things that come in from agents.) Beyond the attitude difference, I also think simply that my years in the writing trenches just make me a more discerning reader when it comes to craft—I really don’t like the kind of shallow constructions and total ignorance of form that is the hallmark of most new big house fiction, for example, and think that the kind of mind that can construct a smarter narrative and have some sense of linguistic control is more apt to have something clear and engaging to say. I mean, there is no poetry without form.
MS: After Bush was re-elected you crashed the publication of What We Do Now in three weeks. As a book publishing “professional” that time frame makes my stomach hurt. Did that crash entail the writing of the book? Even if not, what drove you to such lengths?
DLJ: That time frame made more than my stomach hurt. It entailed everything – we got the idea a few days after the election, when everyone we knew was just sitting around massively depressed. I mean, the election had once again been pretty clearly stolen, no one was reporting on it, we were still being governed by right wing pigs that had taken us into this insane war …. It was pulverizing. People were taking days off from work. A couple of people we knew actually left the country. Then some kid from Athens, Georgia drove all the way up here, climbed down into the pit at the World Trade Center site, and shot himself dead, leaving behind a note explaining that he was upset about the election. Valerie and I, who had been among the massively depressed till then, looked at each other and just said, “Enough. This is getting way out of hand. There’s got to be something we can do.” As it turned out, we decided we had a publishing company and the thing we could do was make a book—a real book, something that would motivate people in the spirit of democracy. I mean, this country was in a very essential way founded upon the inspiration of a book—Tom Paine’s Common Sense. So it seemed a historically sound thing to do, although given the current situation and the culture, suitably revolutionary and inspiring. We thought about it for another day or two, then when the title came to us we started.
The first thing we did was we called our distributor. As you know, it’s extremely difficult to make a book “out of catalogue”—among other difficulties, it’s just hard to get the word to booksellers if you’re not in the catalogue, so it entails all kinds of extra work for your sales force to let them know and for them to then convince a bookseller to order a book when he’s already ordered in for the season and is probably out of budget. It’s also hard to get a book printed that fast—printers are tightly booked at that time of year. Which was what made this really insane—the time of year. It was Christmas season in retail land, the absolute peak busy time of the year.
The other thing we did was we started calling every prominent lefty we could think of—not just politicians like Howard Dean and Donna Brazile but essayists like Lewis Lapham and novelists like Percival Everett and George Saunders and poets like Alicia Ostriker and feminists and economists and environmentalists and so on—and we asked them for a couple of thousand words on what the left should do now. And we spread the word to some editors at the big houses that if their famous clients wanted to join us we’d be happy to hear about it.
And what happened then was: People went nuts. I mean, people started calling us and just whooping into the phone. Our distributor, god bless him, simply said, “Well, if I ever heard of a book worth crashing this is it. I’m in.” And they were wildly enthusiastic. The staff there—not just the reps but, you know, the staff—just started calling bookstores like crazy. Then we started getting calls from booksellers trying to place orders already—and to thank us! Writers started calling back completely pumped. I can’t fully describe to you how excited everyone was.
Valerie and I basically worked around the clock. It was just the two of us then, and it was exhausting, overwhelming--we were running on fumes, but fumes can make you high, you know? At midnight on Thanksgiving I was exchanging emails with Howard Dean, editing and writing like crazy.
Meanwhile we had to actually design the book. It took us a while to contact our designer, Dave Konopka—he was on the road with his rock band, Battles. But we eventually reached him, he designed something from the back of the van while driving to a gig in Arizona, and then he found a wi-fi connection in the back of a pool store in Phoenix and he sent us the cover and interior layout. In the meantime, we had connected with a printer named Victor Graphics in Baltimore run and staffed by people who were also phone-whoopers and upstanding patriots. They agreed to do an accelerated print run of 10 days. So we did a quickie digital run of one thousand copies of the book—digital books can be made much more quickly and they’re indiscernible from a regular book except they’re more costly. But we made enough to send to our favorite indy bookstores while Victor made the bigger run to feed the chains and middlemen.
And by December 4—precisely a month after election day—we had the book in leading independent bookstores from coast to coast. It hit the chains a few days later.
That’s when the trouble hit—we couldn’t get any press to save our life. I remember calling an NPR producer to see if I could get them to cover us, and she said, “Do you have any Republicans in the book?” And I said, “Er, um, well, it’s a book about the left, how the left recovers, or at least the Democrats. Why would I have a Republican in the book?” And she said, “This is not a balanced book. We can’t discuss it.” I mean, that’s the kind of censorious nonsense we ran into. I called the day after the President’s second inauguration, and then after his State of the Union address, saying “The right had your attention all day yesterday, how about a little lefty love today?” And they always said the same thing: Our book wasn’t balanced enough.
Nonetheless, it sold extremely well, and is in fact the third highest-selling book we’ve ever published. And to this day, I hear from buyers and other industry people who thank us for doing that.
MS: The return of Mobylives.com—pending?
DLJ: Yes. I still get asked this a lot, and I’m grateful for the continued interest in something that’s been in a coma for—what? A year? More? But we have definite plans now to bring it back. It’ll be different, as it was the last time I brought it back, but it will retain its je ne sais quoi Mobyness. Stay tuned.
MS: Who or where is the lifeblood of American poetry?
DLJ: Hint: it’s not in the academy. We had to stop publishing poetry for a while because we lost too much money on it. But then I read Tao Lin’s new manuscript and we decided we had to publish it whether it makes money or not. It’s really such fresh stuff, playful with both form and language, with an understated intelligence that’s absolutely piercing. If there’s more out there like him, we’re in luck. American poetry will be back. And meanwhile, recent developments in printing technology—the ability to do affordable short runs in particular, thanks to improvements in digital printing technology—are making me think that we can, after all, publish poetry regularly without losing our shirts. Simultaneously, we have to develop a new kind of book contract—more a kind of profit sharing deal, although not a cost-sharing deal; a contract somewhere between the old book business and the new music business—whereby the writers stop acting like publishers are their slaves and not their partners. Put it all together and I think you’ll see a resurgence in poetry publishing. Or at least you will at Melville House. It looks to me at least like a way to publish poetry whereby we still probably won’t make any money, but at least we won’t lose any.
MS: Do you find it odd to be interviewed on HarperCollins’ poetry blog?
DLJ: I thought you were kidding about that HarperCollins thing. You really work there? Hey, did you know Judith Regan?
Dennis Loy Johnson is the co-publisher, with his wife Valerie Merians, of Melville House. His short fiction has won the Pushcart Prize and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the author of the book The Big Chill: The Great, Unreported Story of the Bush Inauguration Protests.