It is one of my principles that one must not write about oneself. The artist should be like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; so that one can feel him everywhere, but see him not at all. -- Gustave Flaubert
An Outsider Publisher, by Linda Leith
Melville House Books had its beginnings with one of the very first book blogs, MobyLives, which itself arose out of a newspaper column Johnson had been writing. He sees the company as an activist press with an activist mission. That's in its DNA, no matter what book it's currently publishing, for the work they do as an indie publisher exists outside of a corporate marketplace he sees as "incompatible" with their mission.
He's a good speaker and an inspiring model for an indie publisher in Montreal, especially since we ourselves started off with a magazine in the form of a blog called Salon .ll. Johnson has a very clear sense of what differentiates Melville House Books from any of the big five publishing companies in the US.
"If a big house is not sure they’re going to sell 70,000 copies of a book," he told The Rumpus, "that means they’re not going to do that. So they’re not going to publish the avant-garde, a foreigner with a funny name—so many people are just screwed in big publishing culture to a big degree. That was their bottom line."
His own response as a publisher is that "you just have to say, Well, we’re going to lose money for a little while." That applies to the writer, too. "If a writer sticks with us long enough, nine times out of ten, we can make it work. Tao Lin started making money after four or five books. Of course, then he promptly left us, but that’s the role we play for the culture, and I find it very rewarding."
As a writer himself, Johnson is dismayed at how little writers know about publishing. "Writers don’t really understand publishing. I went to the biggie—the Iowa Writers Workshop—and they never told us anything about publishing."
His own publishing experience, when Melville House started up in 2001, was only as a blogger. That inexperience gave him a fresh view of the business, which has translated into some iconoclastic policies. On royalties, for example, which made no sense to him. Why should royalties be based on the list price of a book, when retailers are charging all sorts of different amounts? Why not base royalties on net revenues, instead? He still gets flak from agents over that.
Melville House Books publishes poetry--its first book was Poetry After 9/11--fiction, and non-fiction, prompting comment on edgy titles, novellas, andtranslations of works little known in English. Comment on its book covers, too; some of which are displayed on this 10th anniversary poster.
The connection between the publishing house and the blog is still going strong. All staffers are expected to write for MobyLives, which is front and centre on the company's website. "Melville House has one of the most-trafficked publisher websites anywhere," as a result. The blog contributes to the company's strong brand, and it's responsible for direct sales income, too, which is always useful, for "this is an extremely rough business to make a dollar in." Johnson has nothing against promoting his company books on the blog, so long as there's something about the post that makes it really interesting. The one thing you don't want, he says, is "to be a shill."
Melville House no longer accepts unsolicited submissions. "We were inundated by manuscripts," he says. "It was taking too much of our time, and too much money, to find that one in a thousand in the slushpile. That was a business decision, and a good one." They still publish first novels by unknown writers. "How do they find you?" He sighs, "They find you, don't they?" One of the great things is that we live in a society that "deeply honours the book," so that people really want to have their book published. Sometimes they see that as their right."
© Linda Leith, 2015