September 2004

Jessa Crispin

features

An Interview with Dennis Loy Johnson

While Dennis Loy Johnson may be best known for his much beloved and much missed website Mobylives.com (the site is currently on "hiatus"), recently his attention has been on running the small independent publisher Melville House. What started off as a way to bring Poetry After 9/11 -- an anthology he edited -- into print quickly became a full time job for Johnson and his wife Valerie Merians. Now in its third year, Melville House is printing a wide range of books, including the high profile Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Johnson's own The Big Chill: The Great Unreported Story of George W. Bush's Inauguration, and a series of novellas.

I first met Johnson at this year's Book Expo, as we sat on a panel together about the influence of bloggers on the publishing industry. Johnson's publishing career grew out of his experience with his website, and what the future holds for the intersection of the Internet and publishing is a topic that much interests him. I called Johnson at his home in New Jersey on laundry day, and we started off discussing the particular procedure for running a literary website.

So you actually do the site at work, right?

Yeah. Parts of it.

That seems… saner, if you can work it out. I was always doing it before work, which just made for really long days.

What time were you getting up for that?

I would start at 6 in the morning. It really felt like something that should be done when people got to work. I had a sense that people were looking at it when they first got to the office and settling in. So I really busted ass to make that as a deadline. Then, of course, as you well know, you kind of keep tinkering and going hours past that anyway. The more you read, the more e-mails you get about what's going on. I've been a freelancer for years, so… magazine assignments, reviews, the Moby Lives column was a weekly assignment, too, so that was for newspapers. My day job was just newspaper work usually. The only reason I was semi-successful as a freelancer was I pretended it was a real job. I do it at home, so I started it at 9 o'clock and went forth from there.

Not a lot of freelancers I know have that kind of structure.

I think writing makes you dedicated. If you last at it. You get pretty fanatical about scheduling things. It gets in your blood, if you don't do it every day by a certain time, no one wants to live with you. If you're going to survive as a freelancer, it's part of what happens to you.

I know you probably hear this all of the time, but everyone misses Moby Lives.

Oh, well, that's sweet of you to say so. It sure seems like there's a lot other stuff to read, though, in the time since I quit. Every week I think I'm going to start it up again. I even went so far this last week as to put a new gif up of a new Melville House book and played around with it some. I just couldn't get it together. Publishing is just consuming. Every day I'm astonished at how involved it is, and there's just no time.

When I talked to you at Book Expo, you were having problems with Amazon. But you said an Amazon rep wanted to talk to you about that. How is that being resolved? Is it resolved?

Well, you can see how it's been resolved. Our new books have no ranking on them, they have no discount on them, they're almost impossible to find if you type in very exact information like titles and authors. They've just buried us, basically. It was weird, the day after our panel discussion an Amazon guy came up to me in our booth and just started screaming at me. He said, "Are you in our Advantage program?" I guess if you're yelling at me you know who I am, so you know I'm not in your Advantage program. "Well, why aren't you in our Advantage program?" Because I can't afford it! And I said, well, let me ask you a question. Why are you blocking our books from your site? At that point they had just taken our books off the site, and the ones that had been up previously they'd taken off prices and information like that. And he stepped back and said, "What are you talking about?" Well, you've done this and this other thing. "Well, I had no idea!" Yeah, don't you think that's a rotten strong arm tactic? "I'm new to the company and I didn't know these things, I'll have to look into them." And he kind of stalked off.

It was a really weird encounter. In the end we decided not to pay the kickback. It's a really interesting story in the industry because they're doing something illegal, and everybody knows it but is afraid to call them on it, which is that they're trying to change their status from a retailer to a distributor. By law, you can get a bigger discount if you're a distributor. They're trying to break an anti-trust law, basically, because that would give them an unfair advantage over everyone who sells books. They've started with all of the small publishers and intimidated everybody into doing it. They're using us as an example, I think, of what they'll do to you if you don't behave. We'll see how it plays out in the long run. I think the secret of Amazon that no one realizes is that they don't sell that many books for general interest trade list. Certain niche publications they're crucial for, but for people like Random House and the big general interest houses -- even the little general interest houses -- they don't sell that many books. It's only like 6-7% of your sales. It's substantial, but it's not quite enough to take that kind of bullshit.

Melville House has been publishing for over two years now?

We're in our third year. We incorporated in February of 2002.

How are the growing pains going, as far as evening out, getting into bookstores, that sort of thing?

It's going really well in certain respects. We got a lot of attention quickly, we did some big books and got a lot of attention. With independent booksellers, we're doing really well. Actually, this is what we've been doing on weekends, we go to bookstores, talk to owners and managers and things. We also just cruise because I can't tell you what a charge it is to see one of your books in a bookstore. We'll cruise and just look for that little white house on the spine. It's going pretty well that way. People seem to be carrying our books, and we get a lot of good feedback about not only the kind of books we're publishing but the look of them and all the things we're trying to do differently that people seem to be responding to.

It's still a struggle to make money, though. As an independent house, the difficulty is really in promotion, just to get attention in the mainstream media. For a couple books we've had it, for something like Who Killed Daniel Pearl, we had a famous writer and a hot sounding title, we had him on a lot of television and things like that. For a lot of books that I think are equally substantial, it's just hard to get the mainstream to pay attention. And even there I think with a book like the Daniel Pearl book it was hard for… I know we had trouble with network television because it was hard for them to conceptualize that a small publisher can do an important book. Especially if it's a French writer. It's still very exciting. There's nothing that equals the feeling of being able to make a book, to meet a writer and hear a good idea and say we'll publish it and then eventually hold the thing in your hands. It's just a thrill, it really is.

Are you guys doing your own publicity work?

Oh yeah, we do it all. Just the three of us. Just me, Valerie, my wife, and Designer Dave, the rock star. Our designer we feel like is an equal partner. We just give him carte blanch, he makes these actually stunning looking books, and he does it all while being in a really hot underground rock band [The Battles]. On tour from the road, he calls us from Japan and tells us his new idea for design.

Because your books are beautiful.

Thank you. When you decide to do this sort of thing, you really want to do it your own way if you're going to work this hard and put everything you own into it. You really want it your own way. We decided that one thing important to us was the artifact itself. We just like books. We just like the feel of them, and they're just interesting objects to us. Plus Valerie is a visual artist as well, she's a sculptor. So we had a real orientation toward wanting to make different looking books. We like European books. European books are much cooler looking than American books. But yet there's a lot of pressure to make books that look like every other book. We did the Daniel Pearl book and we thought it was a very thoughtful and truly beautiful to handle that difficult book cover. We didn't want to do anything very scandalous or frightening. But we were under tremendous pressure to change that cover. We got a really belligerent, temper tantrum letter about what children we were to make that cover. They wanted a picture from Daniel Pearl's captivity, they wanted a picture of his head or something. They wanted a big, splashy cover. Because we hadn't done that, we had done something dark, ominous, and tasteful, they were enraged. It made them reduce the number of books they ordered. What we learned is that you really do pay when you make artistic decisions. There is a price to pay in this culture. We like to think that over time people will start recognizing that and that will become something of value. Right now, that's the sort of thing that's making life really difficult for us.

It is impressive, though. Usually when a publisher takes the book-as-artifact approach, the prices of the books skyrocket.

A book from a little publisher is always going to cost more because we just don't have the clout that a big publisher would have with the printers. It's just a simple fact of commerce. We don't get the discounts. For example, we can't buy paper. If we were a big house like Simon & Schuster, they buy paper from the manufacturers and give it to the printers. They buy it in bulk and get a big discount. We can't afford to buy those amounts of paper, so we have to get it from the printer where it's more expensive. For various reasons like that, a book from a little publisher will always be more expensive. We're really struggling with that, because when we started out we thought we would make really cheap books. We were really going to fight the tide of rising book prices and we found we couldn't. As a matter of fact, our books are a dollar or two more than I'd like them to be. We like to think that maybe that extra dollar or two is going to be worth it if you think the book is attractive as an object. The little political books are a good example. We finally figured out a way to get a book at a price that's cool. Under ten dollars is rare anymore. Same thing we're doing with the novella series. We really had to come up with all sorts of tactics to get the prices down. We come up with designs that help with that. With the novella books, once we came up with the series design, we don't have to spend a lot of time or money with the designer making a different design for each book. You go along that way until you cobble the price down and try to compete that way. But the chains, they don't like that sort of thing. We're going to live and die in the independents.

These political books, two of them, the [Renata] Adler and [Mark] Danner, were previously published in magazines in different formats. What made you decide to republish them?

We were becoming known for political books. We wanted to do something about this election, of course, because we both think this is certainly the most important election of our lifetime. So we were just trying to think of what we wanted to talk about this election. I sort of felt like no one really talked about the last election. It just kind of happened and we had to live with it. Then 9/11 happened and there was no further analysis. We thought the last election had a lot of foreboding about this election, so let's go back and analyze that one. Once we decided that, these are the two articles that came to mind as the key issues from the last election: the vote count, the Supreme Court decision, and then, for me, the issue of why didn't the press cover the dissent, that people thought this election had been stolen. We just kind of conceptualized it as a series and then approached those writers. We're delighted because they're pretty big name writers, and we weren't confident at all that they'd want to work with a small, independent press, but they were both into it.

Your book on the inauguration protest, most people only seem to have heard about that from the film Farenheit 9/11. Has that helped at all, at least introduced the subject to people?

Interestingly, that was also the first time I ever saw that footage. I think I'm in that footage somewhere. It looked like footage from the corner I was standing on, which was the corner of Pennsylvania and 14th. We were on the very front row, right on the curb. It was thrilling to see that. There was so little attention paid to this, you come back thinking, "Am I crazy? Was it as intense as I thought it was?" It was thrilling to see that, it was just an reaffirmation of your beliefs. We have cited it to people because everybody that sees that movie, that's the scene they remarked on, that they had no idea. Which is exactly the point of my book. It does come up a lot, I don't exactly know how to capitalize on it. It makes people think I might have something valid to say, and I'm not just some crank lefty protestor who felt like I didn't get enough attention. The book is not going to be discussed in the mainstream at all because the big chunk of it is media criticism. It's very hard when you're a critic of the Times. People don't know what to make of you, if you're a leftist or a rightist. Because the right obviously hates the New York Times, so it's difficult to conceive of a leftist who would criticize the New York Times. I kind of like that, because people don't know what you are.

But I don't expect any normal coverage of the book at all, and we've really been trying to promote it through… I hate to use the word "underground" or "alternative," but that's what we're doing. We're really trying to get people to talk about it on left-wing radio, on the Internet. All the alternatives… this is kind of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. I just think the Internet is going to save all of our lives.

Are you optimistic about coverage of the Republican convention protests?

Not based on what I've seen so far. Here in New York, it's been getting a lot of coverage, but it's pretty uninformed and pretty reflexive coverage that doesn't seem to know anything about history. Right now in New York, all the papers are writing about the anarchists that are going to come and kill us all. They could be writing about the Haymarket affair, these damn anarchists. There are articles in the Times about how the FBI have infiltrated the anarchist groups and how the New York City police has profiled 56 anarchists, and they've assigned six detectives and one supervisor to each anarchist, and they're keeping them under surveillance… This is around the country. They're sending New York City cops out to watch over these anarchists. This is just a stunning missing of the point. They just don't want to acknowledge that there's a significant portion of the population who feels we have a president who wasn't elected.

Even though there are going to be tons of reporters out on the streets, because that's where the more interesting story is, all I can say is there was a ton of reporters on the streets of Washington, too. Those stories just didn't make the papers. There's a picture in my book of one of those anarchists, and it's an AP photo, but no one saw those photos. They were there, but those photos weren't making it out.

How is the Melville House slush pile? Your submission page says you're swamped.

It's mind-boggling. It kind of combines with Moby Lives, because people used to send me stuff for Moby Lives and they still do. So we've just got hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts, and we're very guilty about it. I feel very guilty about it, because I'm a fiction writer and I've been sending to slush piles for years. We've got stuff on there that's been there for a year. We just don't have time to deal with it. On the one hand, we have found stuff in there, and we've published stuff in there. Maggie Balistreri's book [The Evasion-English Dictionary] was from the slush pile. Rob Laughner's novel Our Nun we found on the slush pile. We've got a couple more books in the works that are from the slush pile. I think we're going to continue to find a good percentage of our books from that slush pile, but until we bulk up and staff up, it's just going to be an ongoing source of guilt for me.

It's just astonishing, though. When you become a publisher, you find out that everybody's a writer, and I mean everybody. People you least expected of having aspirations to write have in fact already written several novels, and they'd like you to look at them. And so it's an ongoing source of wonder, but it's another one of those things that can give you hope. There a lot of worse things people can be doing with their time than trying to make art.

What is your plan for your book output?

We're doing about twenty books a year. That's about right. We're still wrestling with what smarter people than me call cash-flow problems and figuring out what the right number of books is to have a sufficient income to hire some more staffers. But I think we're right about where we want to be. We're going to split the list in the future. The novella series will be about half the list every year. It'll fluctuate.

I'm never linear, so going back to your statement that the Internet will save all of our lives, how are you approaching the literary community, the literary bloggers, with the Melville House books? Are you marketing to them?

I'm pretty slow witted with marketing. Neither Valerie nor I have any background in publishing. I have a lot of background as a writer and working with editors, but I have no background as a book publisher, so publicity comes slowly to us. It's always a fresh idea with me that if we want someone to talk about the book, I should send them the book. I think the novellas was the first time I started sending books around to the bloggers. Part of that was also realizing how many bloggers I was reading regularly. Instead of just checking out one or two a day as I was doing when I did Moby Lives, now I read you, I read Maud Newton, I read the Moorish Girl, um, I just started realizing, there's a lot of people doing this, and I should show them what we've been doing, because it's all just simpatico. This publishing company really grew out of Moby Lives, and I have a real sense of camaraderie with these sites. I don't know what to expect. When you send a book to a newspaper, you expect a review. I don't know what I expect when I send it to a blog. It's just an awareness program. And if that leads to an interview, that's fabulous. That's terrific. If it's leads to a review or some other commentary on the book, but I guess my main goal is just to make people aware of it like it was another blog and part of that community.

You say the promotion has come slow to you, but you've gotten good coverage. The Evasion-English Dictionary was on NPR. Has this fallen in your lap, or has it become more comfortable for you?

I think one thing that helped was I had a certain notoriety going into this from Moby Lives and the newspaper column, and my surveys, like how often the New York Times reviews themselves and the New Yorker on how infrequently they publish women. So we get a lot of press that way, I think. Someone called us the McSweeney's of New Jersey, which is kind of a strange thing to say. That's why we became publishers, because we had this idea for this first book, the poetry after 9/11. Even before the book existed, word circulated with poets in New York and somehow beyond. One day we got a call from the New York Times saying they wanted to do a profile. Within a few days, CNN called. And all of this before the book existed. We did have some lucky attention from the get-go.

I have a lot to learn about other mediums, like the Internet. I think, as I say in the book about the inaugural protest, something really happened a few years ago. I think it's a really revolutionary moment, a really epochal moment. For me, the turning point was the inaugural protests, but maybe it was something different for other people. But all within the last few years, a lot of normal people who don't consider themselves counterculture in any way just got tired of the mainstream and started finding more interesting stuff at their fingertips on the Internet. Those are the people I'm interested in. Those are really the people I'm interested in. It's kind of an extension of being a fiction writer. When you sit down to write a short story, who do you see yourself writing for? I think really, if everybody could answer that question honestly which is difficult to do, the people, the audience you imagine is a sea of people that look exactly like you. And those are the people I want to address with our books. And that's why we've published the kinds of books we have. It's not throwing bombs. It's not particularly radical. But given the current nature of our culture, it seems radical.

What have you been reading that's impressive to you lately? Now that you don't have the outlet of Moby Lives.

Nowadays all I read are our own books. This week we've been staying up til 2 or 3 in the morning proofing our new run of novellas. It's a particularly wonderful hell to be sentenced to. I've now read Flaubert's… oh my god, now I've read it so many times I've blanked on the title… A Simple Heart, ten times in the past week. The short answer is when you're a publisher you don't have a lot of time to read a lot of stuff. One thing Melville House has not been great at is proofreading. If you look at some of our older books they have a lot of unfortunate typos in them. We're trying to get better at that. When I am not working on one of our manuscripts, editing, copyediting, or proofing, I'm trying to read the slush pile, or I'm looking for the next novella. It's hard to read beyond that. I'm certainly not particularly up on new fiction right now. I'm not particularly up on new poetry right now. I use bloggers to keep au currant, and make sure when I say what we're offering is new and fresh and different, I know what I'm talking about.

And then there are the obligations to read for my own self. Right now I'm doing promotions of a book on politics, so I'm doing some flashback reading. I've been reading a book by Todd Gitlin, a book called The Sixties, which is mostly about the protest era, that side of things. I'm looking for resonance there with what's going on now. I was up late last night rereading Abbie Hoffman's really wonderful and underrated autobiography called Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture. I just couldn’t put it down. He was so funny, he was such a great American. I can't say I've read the hot new novel. I've had Jonathan Lethem's book here on the coffee table for the last two months.

What made you start the novellas series? Why specifically novellas?

For one thing, that's a particular area of expertise for me from when I was a college professor. I devised and taught a course about the history of the novella, just because it seemed like every writer I knew was writing them and then just put them in a drawer because they were hopeless to publish. You could never convince a journal. We were all, I was from the generation whose dream was to be in the Paris Review or Ploughshares, and those places very rarely published novellas, because why should they publish a novella when they could publish two or three short stories in that space? It just seemed all these writers I knew were writing these things, and they were exercises in pure artistry because it was hopeless to publish them. I got really into it and started teaching a course in it, and always said someday I'd like to publish novellas, an anthology of novellas, something. And now we have our own company, and the wonderful thing about your own company is that all those ideas you have over the years, "Wouldn't it be great if somebody did that…" Well, now we can do that with the novellas. It's just incredible. I can't believe it. We published Melville! And Chekov and Tolstoy… It's a mindfuck. We're very, very pleased and excited about them. We can't publish them fast enough.

Usually small presses find a niche and stay there, but Melville House has been all over the map as far as genre, starting with poetry, then going to literary criticism… Is there any sort of master plan with what you want to do?

What happens is when you start a publishing company, and you get involved with publishing experts, attorneys, bankers, etc., everybody starts talking to you about your niche. You're a small publishing company, what's your niche going to be? Then you go to your distributor's sales meetings, and you understand what they're talking about. Every publisher gets up there and they sell knitting books, or they sell testing books, or they sell woodcarving books. And so small business is always about finding your niche. We have so little interest in having a niche, I can't tell you. We thought, here's a really good idea to be different. We'll be a general interest, just like the big boys. Just like Random House. We'll publish fiction and nonfiction and poetry and on we go. I want to do a cookbook, we've got a great idea for a cookbook. We want to do art books. We want to do what Random House does, but we want to do it right.

I read a really interesting book right around the time we were starting the house, which was the memoirs of Bennett Cerf, the founder of Random House. It's called At Random. I realized what he had done was a wonderful thing that got corrupted over the years. His first book was Moby Dick. And he said something really radical in the book. He was talking about how they had some really huge hits. They would publish crappy joke books, things like this to make money, but they would also publish other really serious writers that would lose money for years and are now really famous writers. He just said, you know, every book doesn't have to make money. If the president of Random House said that today, he would be summarily fired. So I just thought, just being a good publisher is a good thing. And a necessary thing. That'll be our principle.