When Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians founded Melville House 20 years ago, they had no idea their small press would eventually become one of the country’s most respected independent publishers, or that Johnson would become one of the industry’s most outspoken members. In naming the publisher after Herman Melville, a towering literary figure who died in poverty and obscurity, Johnson said, “maybe, subconsciously, we were also trying to manage our expectations.”
The duo’s expectations were indeed modest: looking back, Merians called Melville House “just a collaborative art project that got out of hand.” That art project has expanded into a publishing house with offices in Brooklyn and London and a list of more than 700 titles, including works by such authors as Jonathan Lethem, Tao Lin, Elizabeth Little, Jenny Odell, Leigh Stein, Banana Yoshimoto, and Slavoj Žižek.
Johnson said that in the past 20 years, he has witnessed the emergence of several trends that were “potentially quite disruptive to publishing”—namely e-books, audiobooks, and “the big kahuna, Amazon”—but noted that some “worked out better than others.” Digital books, for instance, ended up not being the dominant force they were expected to be. As someone who takes great pride in the craftsmanship of physical books, Johnson is fine with the fact that e-books haven’t become ubiquitous.
In more recent years, Merians has been excited by the “heroic” response to the pandemic of indie bookstores, which are a key sales channel for Melville House. She said she is impressed by the resiliency of booksellers who, by developing improved online presences and new delivery services, have created “an expanded skill set that will really steady that segment of the industry.”
Not all publishing trends have been so promising. Johnson said he is particularly concerned by “the steady governmental protection of the Amazon monopoly,” as well as the allowance of “growing monopolies amidst big-getting-bigger publishing.” Against this backdrop of corporate consolidation, it has perhaps never been more difficult for small presses like Melville House to survive. Back in 2002, “small players had a better chance in the marketplace than they do now,” Johnson said, noting that there were more indie booksellers, more bookstore chains, and more robust literary media coverage. “Even giant publishers weren’t so giant then, and there were more of them,” Johnson said. “Accounts weren’t dominated as a result.”
But Merians likes to look on the bright side, buoyed by the longevity of Melville House. “While the media and retail landscape have changed since we started, we know readers want what we publish,” she said. “And luckily, the rise of social media has helped us to compensate for some of those changes, and actually punch above our weight. We’ve always been a little ahead of the game when it comes to social media—often enough, we’ve even been better at it than much bigger players.”
While its beginnings were humble (in the press’s early days, Merians recalled, it was “just the two of us running the company off the kitchen table in our third-floor walk-up in Hoboken [N.J.]”), its aims were always lofty. “Right from the get-go we were always taking risks with what we published—be they artistic, political, financial.” Many of the press’s risks—from betting big on fiction debuts from such authors as Lin and Stein to publishing such controversial government documents as the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture—paid off. Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel is one of Melville’s top-selling novels, while another government report, The Mueller Report, is its fourth-bestselling nonfiction title of all time, sandwiched between The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston and Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook by Mark Bray.
Johnson said sales were flat last year after increasing in 2020. The 2020 increase “was pretty shocking given that we’d gone an entire quarter with no revenue,” he added.
Since its launch, Melville has grown by innovating. “We’ve had some fun along the way trying to find the unique capabilities of e-books,” Merians said, “to understand them as potentially being more, or at least other, than just a PDF of a book.” Melville House’s inventive Hybrid Book series, for instance, offered print books that each came with a free QR-enabled e-book of complementary materials that enhanced the reading experience.
Johnson cited the Hybrid edition of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener as a particularly exciting entry in the series. Its accompanying e-book includes biographical information about Melville, letters he composed to friends about writing Bartleby, philosophical works Melville said had influenced the story, a book review of Melville’s writing by his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, historically accurate depictions of the story’s Wall Street setting, and even a recipe for ginger nuts, which Bartleby eats throughout book. “The e-book was hundreds of pages long and was a lot of work,” Johnson recalled, “but that whole program was a labor of love.”
After weathering two turbulent decades in publishing, Merians said she and Johnson remain focused on their mission of contributing to culture. Today, the mission they first undertook in February 2002 has become their legacy.
“We got into this business because we thought we could make the kind of books that have a lasting power,” Johnson said. “Now we have made a company that itself could conceivably outlast us.”