In some ways, Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians are the prototypical independent publishers. Lefty artists—before becoming publishers she was a sculptor/painter and he was an Iowa Writers Workshop grad who did book reviews—the two have maintained, for their small house, an outsize reputation. Known for publishing highly regarded books, not to mention a few bestsellers, Melville House has just turned 10. The occasion, celebrated late last month at New York City’s Federal Hall, had Johnson toasting the press’s unexpected longevity and, in his trademark way, taking a jab at “the man.” In an oblique reference to the Department of Justice lawsuit over e-book pricing, he said that when he and Merians started Melville House, they thought they were fighting the government; a decade on, the government is fighting them.
The press traces its origins to 9/11. At the time, Johnson was reviewing—he self-syndicated his pieces for various dailies throughout the country—and blogging about politics and publishing on his Web site, Mobylives.com. On September 10, 2011, Mobylives was named Web site of the week by Yahoo. That plug, Johnson said, sent his readership from a few hundred to some 30,000. Then, the Twin Towers fell. Johnson and Merians (who were dating and are now married) lived in Hoboken, N.J. When he became aware of the mayhem happening in lower Manhattan, Johnson began collecting and posting dispatches from the scene from writer friends. Linda Yablonsky (the author of Junk) sent a piece about wandering around Greenwich Village. The poet George Murray—who had a day job in one of the towers—wrote about fleeing the collapsing buildings. The monologuist Mike Daisy sent Johnson a story of escaping the scene across the Brooklyn Bridge. The essays were, Merians and Johnson knew, in need of some formal treatment, and Johnson said they thought, initially, they would turn them into a chap book and “sell it out of the back of a car.” Then, AP did a piece about the essays. The attention convinced the two that they should do something more formal, like an actual book, so they found a distributor—it was IPG who, as Johnson put it, “took a chance on us”—and became bona fide publishers with a poetry collection called Poetry After 9/11.
On the same day the pair struck their deal with IPG, the New York Times sent a reporter to profile Johnson and Merians. Although the reporter, Johnson said, was a fan of MobyLives, his piece called the publishing endeavor, named after Johnson’s Web site, a “disaster in the making.” (The Times journalist cited the pair’s “limited funds” and the fact that they had “almost no experience in the book business.”)
Although Johnson remains an outspoken figure on the difficulties of publishing, especially for indies, his successes are impressive. Melville House, now located in a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood (after moving from Hoboken) has an additional staff of eight, and a handful of notable bestsellers. Merians and Johnson’s first real hit, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, came together the way many of their books seem to: they sought out the author, ignored at the time by U.S. houses because of disappointing past sales, and told him they were fans. After first asking Lévy’s French publisher about some backlist titles, they were told he was working on a new book and asked if they would be interested in that.
Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, published in the U.S. on September 1, 2003, not only sold well—Johnson said it has moved, in the U.S., about 35,000 in hardcover and another 19,000 in paperback—it also generated a lot of news. It broke information about Pakistan that mainstream journalists in the States had not been able to crack, drawing a notable amount of press for its author and, in turn, Melville House. (Johnson recalled how he and Merians, at the time of the book’s publication, would find themselves hanging out at the Carlyle with the author, who was taking secret meetings with people like Tom Brokaw. “All the American journalists wanted information from [Lévy] about Pakistan,” Johnson said.)
The press’s biggest hit, to date, is another translation: Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone. The novel, written by a German author who died in the late 1940s, was inspired by an actual couple who dispersed antifascist notes throughout Berlin as the Nazis were coming to power. The book had never before appeared in English, and it has sold over 100,000 copies in the U.S.; Melville House licensed the paperback rights to Penguin. (Penguin has since swooped in to acquire a number of titles by Fallada, though Melville House has three others by the author on its list, all of which it recently reissued.)
Melville House is now publishing about 60 books per year; still, attempting to define what typifies a Melville House book is a bit tricky for the couple. Merians and Johnson cited categories ranging from investigative journalism and politics to history and literary fiction. Translations and repackaged public domain classics are also mainstays. The house even does some cookbooks. Their list, they said, is a reflection of their “interests and tastes.” The staff they have assembled includes two other editors, one person dedicated to indie bookseller outreach, and another dedicated solely to overseeing the company’s Web site, which has morphed from Johnson’s original blog into mhpbooks.com.
Although Johnson and Merians are delighted to have defied expectations and are excited about forthcoming titles, they are also quick to point out how hard times remain for the little guy. Johnson said one of his biggest concerns is book prices. “If Amazon or Apple or the big six [publishers] get across the idea that a book is only worth $1.99, we’re all screwed.” His other big fears for the future? The effects of the DoJ case, as well as the possibility that even more consolidation is around the corner with “the big six becoming the big two, or three.”
Although Johnson is never short of quips about cash flow or Amazon, he is as quick to talk about the joys of being able to publish the books he and Merians love. Melville House started, he pointed out, as “an art project.” The true phenomenon is that, a decade, hundreds of books, and eight new employees later, it remains that way.