Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Interview with Dennis Johnson of Melville House

If you read about the book industry at all, you’ve run into some permutation of the phrase “Everything is changing,” and once you hit that phrase you almost always run into “But nobody knows what’s coming next,” next. Melville House Press might be what’s next. Publishing daring fiction like Tao Lin and Christopher Boucher, creating collections like the Neversink Library and Art of the Novella series, and embracing new reading technology with their Hybrid Books, Melville House displays everything that has made publishing important in the past, with the potential of the future. Below is an interview with publisher Dennis Johnson.

What are Hybridbooks?

It's a project we've developed that takes the concept of the enhanced ebook and imposes it onto print media.

It's very simple — if you buy a book in the HybridBooks series, you will find in its back pages a QR Code that you can scan with your smart phone, and that will take you to a trove of free material related to the book. For example, for our edition of Giacomo Casanova’s The Duel you’ll find an excerpt from Casanova's diary detailing the actual duel he was involved in that inspired the book; an article about the hunt to find the manuscript of the book, which was lost for centuries; paintings and portraits of Casanova and the figures in his world; and lots of stuff about dueling, including a comic essay by Mark Twain on French dueling, lots of paintings of famous duels; photos of historic dueling weapons; and an illustrated account of a famous duel fought from hot air balloons.

These addendums, which we're calling "Illuminations," are hundreds of pages long — in every instance so far, longer than the book they accompany. They're free ebooks, basically, and they're available in every format, for any reading device. You don't need a QR scanner to get them, either. There's a url to follow, or we can just email them to you.


What potential is there for digital technology to change and/or improve the experience of reading?



Well, I think the HybridBook project really speaks to that. I've always ignored traditional introductions and afterwords in the classics I've read in trade editions. I don't like scholarly types telling me what to think and appreciate in a book before I've even read the thing. On the other hand, if I read a classic and like it, I usually want to know more about the book and the writer and what it's about. So I inevitably launch a giant search for information inspired by the book -- just endless, wandering and impromptu research into the author and their times, the background to the story and maybe the location, and endless research into little tidbits from the story -- such as, say, what's a ginger nut, the thing Bartleby is always eating in Bartleby the Scrivener? See, a great story can stay with you that way, with so many different levels of interest and intensity that it ultimately takes you into an expanded sense of its meaning. So that is the experience we emulate with HybridBooks. By putting all that stuff into one package, I think we've improved the core experience of reading Bartleby, or The Duel, or whatever. And yes, the Illuminations for our edition of Bartleby tell you what a ginger nut is.


What are some of the limitations of digital technology in terms of books and reading? What can paper and binding do that screens and apps still can’t?


You know, no one ever thinks of print books as "technology," but of course a book is one of the most absolutely amazing pieces of technology ever invented, right up there with the wheel. In fact, it's a superior technology that actually has lots of advantages over the more modern technology supposedly replacing it. For one thing, it's a technology that never needed a 2.0 — think about it: you can still access the information in the very first book ever printed. It's a Gutenberg Bible and it's still in one piece, the binding still works, the pages are unfrayed and still completely readable ... and it's 500 years old! And you don't need any particular training or skill to do so -- a monkey could access the data loaded into a book ... all that you have to do is open it. Further, a book is the reading technology that's easiest on your eyes, is as portable as any computer or reading device, usually in fact weighs less, never needs a charge, and if you drop it it still works. A book is also 100% recyclable, which is not true of any digital reading device, and certainly will not be during our lifetime. Plus, you can read it in the bathtub, secure in the knowledge that if you drop it in the water you won't 1. be out hundreds of dollars, and 2. electrocute yourself.

Meanwhile the basement of the Library of Congress is littered with old fiches and tapes and cartridges and whatnot that are loaded with art and information that is now unreadable for numerous reasons and is therefore lost forever. Then there's the problem of getting rid of that junk, which poses a significant hazard to the environment.

But I say all that only to emphasis how amazing a print book is, which people just seem to blank out on sometimes. This is why people love books and they won't go away. Of course, neither will ebooks. And they've got a long list of equally obvious advantages — god knows I love being able to read manuscripts on my iPad and not wasting so much paper, and it's great to be able to travel with an entire library like that. And as I've come to appreciate with the Illuminations in our HybridBooks, there is no better way to view color art than on that iPad. From a publisher's perspective, that's awesome — up until now, a little publisher like us couldn't really afford to make books that are heavy in color art. But we can afford to make ebooks that are ....

The point is that it's super-important to note that we shouldn't see digital and print as being competitive. The really big corporations that sell books -- retailers and maybe some publishers, too -- want you to see it that way because they'd love to get rid of their warehouses and skip the packaging and postal expenses and the salaries of the people working those areas for them and sell you something they make a higher margin on -- ebooks.

But the fact is that in many ways print books and digital books are apples and oranges, because we read differently in each format, and I think that's going to mean the development of ebooks that are significantly different qualitatively from print books. Again, our HybridBooks project illustrates the point — the Illuminations are essentially ebooks, but you won't read them from start to finish the way you would the print text they're accompanying. You skip around in them, reading the parts you like first, probably not as deeply nor with as much retention as with the print text, and you would generally emulate the way you read on a computer. That was our thinking in the development of the thing, anyway — that it was a way to put two different kinds of reading together and show how they compliment each other. This is part of our statement of support for the belief in the co-existence of print and digital.


Melville House has created a couple of different collections, the Neversink Library and the Art of the Novella. Why did you decide to create these collections? What do these curated collections offer that wouldn’t be there if you just published all the books individually?

It was mostly just out of personal passion for those kinds of books. I mean, Jesus, The Train is the best book Georges Simenon ever wrote. Why is it out of print? How cool is it to be able to fix that little problem? Answer: It's totally cool! In fact, we practically have a party every time we have an editorial meeting to work on selections for the Neversink. The whole staff comes over to the table with stacks of books they think we should do, and it can get pretty raucous.

As for novellas -- well, that came out of my experience when I was in the writing program at the University of Iowa. It seemed to me that every one of my fellow students had written a novella, but then we would each just put it in a drawer knowing we could never sell it, because it was too long for a lit journal, and too short to be a book. So it was this very pure thing everyone was doing, art for arts sake, more so even than a short story or a poem. And I just fell in love with the form. So when I suddenly found myself with a publishing company, I thought I'd act on that passion and see what happened. It's kind of the same impulse that I followed when I wrote fiction -- you just do it because you're following an artistic impulse. You imagine an audience but don't really think about them. You just do it. As it happened, it worked. But I have to say, it was just instinct. In the early days, lots of people told us it was an idiotic thing to do -- people in the biz, some sales reps at our distributor and a couple of buyers at some very big accounts. There was particular hostility toward the design of the series -- the text-only presentation, the bright colors, the whole thing. They wanted pictures, art, you can imagine. Now, we win design awards and people laud us in particular for those books. But it was not an easy sell. It taught us to follow our instincts, the way we did, Valerie and I, when we were just artists making art.

Along the same lines we started a crime series about a year ago, simply because I thought that for all the crime series out there no one was really getting what crime fiction should be about. They were just running with the idea of books as cheap entertainment -- the bestseller principle. I think of crime fiction as literary and political. To me, noir was born in the work of the sunshine of the California trinity; James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. Their work was smart, beautifully crafted, treated the reader intelligently, and was rooted in the socio-economic politics of the day -- they were born of the depression and the rise of fascism. They weren't just brain-dead whodunits like Agatha Christie. They were uniquely American, but a form that could be applied to any culture. So that's what we look for, and I think that's what makes it our own. And of course, that all fits in nicely with what we're already known for -- works in translation, political writing, great prose, and a kind of activist, you-can-do-something-about-it feel.

As for any advantage to being part of a series -- well, there are lots of advantages. For one thing, all three series are pretty popular, and so good-looking that most booksellers display them as a group. So people recognize them as a brand they come to trust. And that level of design also speaks well for our attention to the texts.

And in a successful series, each book helps the other, while it's also a boost for any given book in the series. This is particularly true in our novella series, which is a public domain series, as there are other versions of some of these titles out there. I also just think people like series publishing. It's a sign of dedication and concentration that speaks to their own dedication as readers. It's a different level of publishing.


How do you choose books for these series?

Complete whimsy. They're just books that we love. Publishing is so hard that you have to feel that way about everything that you publish. That's the way the first series, the novella series, started -- back when the company was just me and Valerie working off the kitchen table -- and that's the way we've tried to keep it.


What responsibilities do publishers have to society?

They have an obligation not only to publish books that support the cause of culture and the promulgation of information important to a democracy, and fearlessly so, but also to support the cause of literacy. I think the emergence of digital media can really help in that fight, so it could be a good moment for that, but I must observe that few publishers, strangely, seem to be involved in the effort. Perhaps it's that publishing is so hard that most publishers already feel like they're running some kind of charity!

Beyond that I also feel a personal obligation to educate people -- writers and translators in particular -- about how publishing works. Most of them have absolutely no sense of publishing being a business -- it's the place where art meets commerce -- and it's to their detriment. They have no idea about how much it costs to make a book, for example, nor what booksellers go through to sell their work. I also feel it's important for readers in general to know about the business in greater depth, so they'd know how badly Amazon is damaging their cultural and free-speech issues, for example, or understand the reasons that digital media is being pushed at them so hard, which has nothing to do with whether it's the best way for them to receive literary information.


What’s the most exciting thing happening, or who are the most exciting writers in America right now?

We've published two books this summer by two of the most radical writers we've ever published -- which is saying something -- and they are to my mind the most exciting writers around. One is David Graeber whose book is called Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and the other is Christopher Boucher, whose book is a novel called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. David is one of the most highly intellectual yet hilarious writers we've ever published, and his book is like an exciting journey into something you thought you understood but will come out thinking entirely differently about. Chris, on the other hand, is a flat-out avant-gardist, but he is to my mind perhaps the most accessible avant-garde writer ever. He's funny and tells a beautiful story about love, and in the end his weirdness becomes a very gripping thing and leads you to enter his story in a depth that's going to feel new and different. There's really nothing like either one of these guys out there anywhere, and you really feel changed at the end of both of these books.


Why did you decide to go into publishing? Was there a particular book that showed you how powerful books could be?


It's a long story that essentially boils down to this: It was an accident. We had no intention of becoming publishers, and had no experience in the business beyond the fact that we were writers. But like most writers, we knew absolutely nothing about how publishing works. But it was 2001, George Bush had just been appointed president, and we were angry and desperate for a way to do something good for the country. Then 9-11 came along, and we were eyewitnesses. As it happened, I had a very hot book blog at the time -- one of the first -- called MobyLives. On Monday, September 10, Yahoo (the Google of its day) had named it the website of the week or month or something, so I suddenly had, the next day, tens of thousands of readers. And as events unfolded, friends in the city who were writers started writing in about their experiences. One, the poet George Murray, had a day job at 7 World Trade Center, and he wrote in about his escape, which was dramatic. Another poet, Elliot Katz, wrote in about watching it all go down from Queens. The playwright named Mike Daisey wrote about escaping downtown over the Brooklyn Bridge under a blizzard of paper.

And I just posted this stuff as a way to tell people what was going on -- the broadcast towers for all TV and radio were on the towers and so for most New Yorkers the internet was the only place to go for news -- and to say, hey, we're holding on. We started getting some attention -- the AP ran a big story about Elliot's poem, for example -- and it just kept growing. It was an utterly remarkable moment when people in New York were struck into the most thoughtful, spiritual state imaginable, wondering how that had happened, where had it come from, what we could do to impart this to others, how to make it never happen again, and in general some very deep philosophical wanderings. And poetry was everywhere! People were posting it on telephone polls and writing it into the letters to the editor section and most famously in the ashes covering lower Manhattan. It was like the average person thought this was a good way to respond.

Meanwhile Bush came to town and crawled up onto the rubble and said let's go to war. It was ridiculous and didn't represent at all what was going on in New York. And there was this moment when Valerie leaned over my shoulder to look at Moby and she said, "The stuff you're posting tells the story of New York right now so much better than what's in the newspapers." And that was the spark. We started looking into collecting material from Moby for what we thought would be some kind of political pamphlet cum poetry chapbook, and it all snowballed into a book called Poetry After 9/11, which sold a remarkable 12,000 copies that first year of release, and here we are ten years later.


What do you think publishing is going to look like in 10, 20, 50 years?

I've not a clue, which is what's so exciting, not to mention terrifying. Valerie and I have just surrounded ourselves with some of the most exciting creative thinkers we've ever known, and our plan is to simply sally forth and see what happens.


What are you reading now?

I'm not really at liberty to disclose that, because I'm reading stuff for the Neversink series that I'd prefer were a surprise to our fans. The most recent thing I've read that didn't relate to our own publishing program was You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier. What a great book!

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