How I Got My Start: Melville House

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How I Got My Start is a new series where YPG talks to trailblazers in the industry, across houses and departments, about their career trajectories, what they’ve learned, where they see the industry going, and wisdom they’d like to share with those of us at the beginning of our careers.

 

Behind the shelves that make up the Melville House bookstore are the publishing offices of the independent publisher whose timely Antifa book made a political splash last year. Up a spiral staircase is the glass-walled publisher’s office, which looks over the first floor. In December, Melville House founders Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians were kind enough to sit down with YPG and discuss how they stumbled into the industry and the importance of publishing impactful books.

With no direct publishing business experience (Merians was an artist and Johnson a short story writer), the two of them started Melville House soon after 9/11. Johnson’s book blog, MobyLives, was receiving numerous poetry submissions after the attacks, so they decided to publish a poetry book and a volume of literary criticism.

When asked about the hardest part of entering the publishing industry, they both laughed. “Everything,” they replied. If they had known how hard it was going to be, they may not have started a publishing house. But not knowing anything about publishing may have worked in their favor, especially when it came to business decisions. “There were plenty of things we didn’t know about, so we just didn’t do them,” Johnson said. They applied their business intuition to traditional publishing practices and revamped the idea of royalties and sell-ins. In every area of the business, they insist on doing things differently. They crash a lot of books, by virtue of the intense eye they keep on market trends. The short lead times keep everyone in their office excited about the books. They encourage young people to innovate and look at things differently, as the route that has been traditionally taken may not be the best one for business. When asked if they would have done anything differently, the “No” was emphatic.

As for advice for people at the start of their careers? “There are a lot of different types of publishing. You can become a cog quickly, but there is a world of university presses and small presses. Ask yourself whether you want a corporate job or something different,” said Johnson.

Merians also discussed the importance of working in a bookstore. “It’s truly where the rubber hits the road.”

Despite the changing publishing environment, they advise young people in publishing to follow their hearts. “The book business is full of places where you can feel like you’re doing good work.” They also suggest that book-loving individuals should think about going into government to advocate for the publishing industry, and to push against monopolies like Amazon. “It isn’t going to get easier if people don’t stand up for what is right.” They are outspoken critics of Amazon, which is easy to see from their hilarious Twitter feed and scathing blog posts. They encourage people in publishing to remind friends and family to buy books from local booksellers rather than Amazon, and to skip out on the rest of Amazon’s product options, too.

Melville House’s select list represents the political and literary good that they want to see in the world. Even if they think a book will be a commercial success, they will not acquire it if it compromises their publishing mission. As such, their list is political, and feminist, and full of stunning literary fiction spanning from short stories to work in translation.

You can get more information about Melville House’s list on their website (https://www.mhpbooks.com/) and follow them on Twitter @melvillehouse.

 

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