What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
I have no idea. I work pretty hard to avoid knowing much about trends, other than how to buck them. I mean, it’s become far too rare that a trend is “Read more Latin American literature.” It’s more usually, “Buy adult coloring books” or “Buy 50 Shades of Grey” or “Buy 50 Shades of Grey adult coloring books”—in other words, the kind of bottom-line corporate dreck that my wife and I set up Melville House to counter, because we thought it was overwhelming a more meaningful book culture. But also, simply, I’d rather our work was more original than whatever’s trending at the moment. Who wants to be beholden to trends for survival, either as an artist or a businessperson? For example, we recently published a novel that’s been one of our most successful ever—The Girl in the Red Coat, by Kate Hamer—and someone wrote a column about the trend of “Girl” books (The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl) and cited our book. But while those were unusually good books for bestsellers and we’re lucky to be compared to them, I felt like we were actually bucking the trend very specifically—after all, The Girl in the Red Coat is not a murder mystery, for one thing. It’s suspenseful, yes, but it’s mostly an elegiac story about motherhood and religious fanaticism in America. And, for another, unlike the other “Girl” books, The Girl in the Red Coat is actually about a little girl!
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
I’d like to get a book from Jeffrey Toobin, or a reasonable Toobin imitator, explaining why the Obama Justice Department decided to prosecute the publishing industry for trying to break the Amazon monopoly, thereby making said monopoly government-sanctioned, much to the detriment of not just a literary and retail culture that’s best for consumers, but in many ways to free speech and democracy itself. A good study of this would be useful in the effort to undo that decision in a future, less–big-business–controlled administration. Until then, we’ll keep publishing books that not only entertain, but promote the concerns being suppressed in the resultant marketplace, making them in fact something more than entertainment, which is always the goal. Books like our biggest seller ever, Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada, which is a 1947 novel about a middle-aged couple in Berlin who decide to stand up to the Nazis with an anonymous letter-writing campaign. For bookish people especially, it’s one of the most stirring novels ever, because it’s about finding your own way to go forward—in this case, by writing!—and never quitting against the bad guys.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
Adult coloring books. They make me despair for humanity. I equate their purveyors right up there with climate change deniers. And by the way, on that last topic, there may actually be more books by deniers than believers, shockingly, even though deniers are such a minuscule minority of pick-your-population (scientists, climatologists, people with opposable thumbs). Which is why we were happy that our biggest seller last year turned out to be our edition of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. We’re a secular press but it was deeply satisfying to be able to move so many copies of such a thoughtful, intelligent, and important piece of thinking.
What’s unique about your corner of the publishing industry?
What’s unique about my end of the industry, which is independent publishing but which is too often referred to as “small” publishing, is that it takes in not just indies like Melville House, but also nonprofits and university presses and all kinds of other companies. “Small” presses actually constitute about 50 percent of American publishing every year, and yet they have to peddle their wares in a marketplace completely and utterly dominated by the other half of the industry, which consists of historically giant corporations—both in publishing and retail—which care almost exclusively about bestsellers. It’s my contention that what the independent half publishes—books of art and science and politics and religion and intellectualism—is more generally useful to a democratic society than the overwhelming majority of bestsellers (although more “small” books would be bestsellers if they had half a chance). And so this situation strikes me as deeply unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because it’s very hard to publish in a marketplace that is organically so disinterested in you and that, in its rules and practices (severe discounting, say), makes it so very hard to do business. Equally unfortunate is that this is widely unrealized in any kind of contemplative manner and even more widely uncontested, even by veterans of the industry. The only people fighting the modern status quo are indie publishers and indie booksellers. (The big publishers tried once, I’ll admit, but the Department of Justice punished them for that, and boy, have they been obedient love slaves ever since. The indies have yet to quit.) Thank you for asking.
Dennis Loy Johnson is, alongside his wife, Valerie Merians, the founder and publisher of Melville House, a leading independent publishing house, based in Brooklyn. He has published, among others, Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, Slavoj Zizek, Pope Francis, Renata Adler, David Peace, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Banana Yoshimoto, Alejandro Zambra, cult author Tao Lin, and the final book of Jacques Derrida. His rediscovery and translation of forgotten work by German writer Hans Fallada has led to a worldwide phenomenon. Most recently, he published the book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, an international bestseller. Dennis is also the founder of MobyLives, one of the world’s first book blogs, and is an anthologized fiction writer, whose work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He is the author of the book The Big Chill: The Great, Unreported Story of the Bush Inauguration Protest, and the editor, with Merians, of the anthologies Poetry After 9/11 and What We Do Now. Dennis lives in Brooklyn.