Although the staff at Melville House originally envisioned David Graeber’s new book as a short work on the economy, it just kept growing until Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a now 550-page comprehensive work on the impact of financial issues on people, was eventually published this past summer. For Melville House and Graeber, the book couldn’t have come at a better time: Debt was released in July when the words “debt crisis” were headlining every newspaper in the country. Two months later, Zuccotti Park welcomed a few new residents.
Graeber has been dubbed the “Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street” by Bloomberg Businessweek, and though one of the points of the “occupy” movement is to have no formal leaders and no formal demands, Graeber is one of its initial organizers, credited with coining the “We are the 99%” slogan. He’s an anthropologist presently teaching social anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, not an economist, something that attracted Dennis Loy Johnson, publisher at Melville House, to his work. “It seemed to me that an anthropologist would represent exactly what was missing from the discussion at that moment: the fact that it was impacting human beings,” Johnson said.
The human aspect of the financial issues beleaguering the country is at the heart of Debt’s argument. In essence, Graeber argues that debt and money (debt’s cause), have eroded our natural instinct to help one another by turning responsibilities, which should be social, into purely financial features. Debt and money, Graeber wrote, have been perverting our ideas of right and wrong for centuries, and we don’t even know it.
For Melville House, the book has been a hit. Debt is in its sixth printing, and sales are still growing: last week, the numbers were the highest yet. Print sales are “far ahead” of e-book sales, and Johnson says most of the sales are from independent booksellers. The book is also doing well overseas, appearing in Amazon.de’s (Germany) top 10 (where it worked its way up to #2), as well as in Italy’s top 10 list on Amazon and other bestseller lists.
But despite Debt’s success, Melville House is still finding mainstream media coverage difficult to come by. Graeber has appeared on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, PBS’s Need to Know, and had the aforementioned cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, but aside from a review in the Financial Times, the book itself hasn’t received much coverage, with most media outlets focusing on Graeber rather than his text. Johnson said, “We found initial strong resistance among, say, chain buyers and other folks in the system who had issues with the lack of fame of the author, or the intellectualism of the topic, or the political bent, or the cover, or the price. And so there weren’t many copies in the system at first, and yet it kept selling and selling and selling.”
At the same time the book was starting to take off, Melville House launched an “underground effort” to promote the book. “We worked the Internet hardest of all,” said Johnson, “and eventually there was so much blog discussion on leading blogs—places such as Naked Capitalism, kind of an online think tank for discussions about economic issues—that some mainstream media eventually began to sit up and take notice.”