Q+A: Melville House Books
Melville House Books is one of DUMBO's many amazing independent businesses. We sat down with founders Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson to learn more.
What inspired you to start an independent publishing house?
Dennis: We were not publishers; Valerie is a sculptor and I was a freelance journalist. It was 2001. At the time, I was running a blog which was one of the first book blogs, and the day before 9/11 it was named by Yahoo as the website of the week. I went overnight from having a very small readership to having a huge readership. The next day was 9/11, and so I got a lot of live tips coming in and people started writing to me about events that were happening right then. A poet that I knew who had a day job working at Number 7 World Trade wrote in about escaping the collapsing building. I had some amazing reports that I put up from lots of writers who were witnesses, another writer who wrote about escaping over the Brooklyn Bridge in a snowstorm of paper that had blown out of the buildings. So we kept doing it, and they kept coming in over the following days. Then the President came down to visit the site and he climbed up on the rubble and said “let’s go to war.” But we were all shell-shocked; we weren't thinking about who to kill, and Valerie was looking over my shoulder and she said, “the stuff you're putting on your website is much more the story of New York than what the President is saying it is.” So we started gathering stuff from the site and we turned it into a book, and the book did extremely well so we kept going. It was kind of an activist urge of two artists trying to do something good.
We felt like books could fill a void and address certain things that were just not getting talked about.
Valerie Merians, Co-Founder of Melville House Publishing
Can you tell us more about how activism fits into your overall mission?
Valerie: The company was born of the Bush years when we were very unhappy with the direction that the country and the media was going. We felt like books could fill a void and address certain things that were just not getting talked about. We’ve always that that streak, though we have other interests as well— from poetry, to art and fiction, sociology, all different kinds of things— we’ve always had that feeling that it’s important for books to be a serious player in the political conversation. Most recently, we published The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The report was released at the very end of the year, and I believe that they hoped to bury the news in the Christmas news cycle. We were very motivated that that should not happen, and we got a lot of help from a lot of people to make sure that it didn't happen.
The books you publish are very diverse. Are there certain characteristics that you look for in a book? Something that ties them all together?
Dennis: It’s an old-fashioned company to the extent that it comes down to ownership. At the end of the day, Valerie and I are the ones that sign off on everything. It reflects an individual's taste— in this case two individuals— but we’ve also built a really diverse team that always makes us expand our interests. They come in with things we wouldn’t have thought of, so the list gets more and more diverse.
Valerie: Everybody brings stuff to us— it’s one of the things that’s so fun. It’s very collaborative in that way. One thing that Dennis and I say a lot is that it's just so hard to publish a book that we really have to believe it's worth the effort, because so much goes into it— not just money but also a ton of effort— and if you don't really believe that it needs to be in the world, it's just not worth it.
Dennis: It’s still a mission-driven company. When we started the company, this was a very conservative country, and they frowned on books by foreigners, or avant-gardism, or poetry, or intellectualism in general. I mean, we had a moron as a president, and the country reflected that in some ways. Intellectualism was out, it was déclassé. Just the act of publishing, say, a translated novel, felt against the grain and that is in keeping with the sense of activism from when we started.
How has publishing changed since you first started, and how have you adapted to those changes?
Dennis: What’s changed is the marketplace. It now has a monopoly player: Amazon. That has definitely changed what's being published, and the publishing companies have had to get bigger to keep up with that. It’s a marketplace dominated by giants, and that kind of marketplace needs best-sellers, as opposed to less-sellers, which is everything else, and which is the preponderance of books that should be published. At the end of the day, it's harder for smaller presses beyond the top five publishers to get into that marketplace because they're not doing bestsellers. It’s still a fight to get books that we do into bookstores, in front of people, in the media.
Valerie: We are constantly trying to adapt what we do. The company was born out of a blog, so we’ve always been very involved and committed to the internet. From very early on, our books have been e-books as well as print books simultaneously. When we started, newspapers were where you’d go to learn about the latest books, and that's really not the case any more. There’s a big social media component to what we do and a lot of effort goes into publicity and marketing.
Dennis: This is actually our second location in DUMBO. I noticed that the New York Times kept running articles about very cool companies moving here, and so I proposed to Two Trees that they give us a space where we could do events. At the time, we were operating out of Hoboken and having real difficulty finding spaces in New York City to do events. Our first space was half bookstore/event space and the other half was the office. Here the division is a little different, but we’re finding we’re getting a lot more foot traffic. And, of course, we have a great friendship with Brooklyn Roasting. We’re working on a lot of projects with them, starting with the fact that we have a door between our two spaces. They've very generously put some Melville House signs in their store. We’re trying to do things that keep us very integrated in the neighborhood. The bookstore is going to be much busier.