Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.
He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon’s business practices weren’t considered “extortion,” and compared the monolith to the Mafia.
That was a decade after Johnson’s first spat with Amazon, when Melville House’s books were pulled from the site completely until Johnson paid what he referred to as “a bribe.” More recently, he and the team at Melville House have spent plenty of time tweeting and blogging criticisms of Amazon’s new physical bookstores, which they take issue with because they’re run algorithmically and don’t employ booksellers. At the London Book Fair in March, Johnson live tweeted the pitiful traffic to Amazon Publishing’s booth, which some weirdo decided to set up directly across from Melville House’s.
Amazon isn’t the only big kid that the small team spends their days needling online — their tweets work in tandem with the revived MobyLives blog, where everyone on staff takes turns dissecting issues around publishing, politics, and culture. They had words for Marvel after it blamed declining comic book sales on its more diverse roster of superheroes. And for Hachette Australia when it wanted to tattoo a dragon on a real woman’s back to promote the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment. And for Simon & Schuster when it offered Milo Yiannopoulos a reported $250,000 for a book on free speech.
Johnson and crew have built a reputation for tweeting whatever they want: the lyrics of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” at Bill O’Reilly, an animation of Elon Musk’s embarrassing list of personal favorite books being launched into space, and three or four really rude Vines before the platform died. It seems, at times, incoherent, but it ropes a lot of people into the conversation around the future of books.
The Verge sat down with Johnson and Melville House’s director of marketing and publicity, Julia Fleischaker, to talk about Amazon, Trump, the internet’s warped idea of “censorship,” and how to build a brand centered on, of all things, anger.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
To start out, we need to know, who writes the tweets?
Dennis Johnson: There’s a bunch of people writing everything here. The whole staff for example, writes for the blog. A lot of that turns into the social media. There are three or four of us that can jump in on Twitter. For example, a lot of it is one guy named Chad Felix, who is in charge of library marketing. He gets a lot of help from Peter Clark, the head of sales, he gets a lot of help from Ian Dreiblatt, who’s the editor of the MobyLives blog. I jump in now and then. It’s really a group effort and in fact, with Twitter, we’ve had several different primary Twitter-ers over the last four or five years and I defy you to tell when we changed personnel. It’s been really consistent.
So the Twitter account is obviously an offshoot of the blog; the voice is pretty harmonious. Would you be able to explain the history or the mission of the blog?
DJ: I had a newspaper column in the ‘90s called “Moby Lives” and it was just a column about the book business that I syndicated to newspapers around the country and in Canada, and at some point I realized that people were reading it online. I started this blog in 2001, and on September 10th, 2001, Yahoo, which was like Google then, picked it as the website of the week. So the next day, on September 11th, I had this enormous new following and I kind of live-blogged about things related to the attacks. My wife Valerie [Merians], and I eventually decided to turn that into a book, the book was successful, so we just kind of kept going. We never set out to start a company, but we just kept having book ideas. They were all informed by the attitude that had inspired the blog.
I was upset about what was happening to the book business in this country. Random House had just been taken over by Bertelsmann, Amazon was new and being really weird, so I just kind of started commenting on all that. I felt like nobody was really talking about these things in the mainstream media. It was just kind of sad to see what was happening to these great, historic publishing companies. We’ve been lucky to link up with people who share that attitude.
One of the things you guys talk about a lot is the rise of Amazon, and recently the Amazon bookstores. Could you talk a little bit about that rivalry?
DJ: Just comment on our opinions about Amazon? Well, they’re kind of obvious, aren’t they? They’re the 900-pound gorilla in the business, they’re a monopoly, they’re a very treacherous company, and yet they’re the biggest book retailer and we can’t live without them. Just like we can’t live with them. I’ve been writing about them for years now. They make life difficult, at the same time that they get books to places that people used to not be able to get books to. They’re really wreaking havoc not only on the book industry but the retail culture in a lot of different ways, and that’s something we feel like the mainstream doesn’t cover enough, and so we do.
You’re pretty well known on Twitter for the “fights” you pick with other publishing houses. Can you tell me whose idea that was, how it started?
DJ: Which one? We pick fights with so many people. We’re very crotchety over here. We’ve had some epic ones with HarperCollins. The HarperCollins logo, nobody could ever figure out what it is. We called it Olive, we just started referring to HarperCollins as “Olive,” and I see everybody does that now. We won that war on Twitter. We had a big one with Random House, that got a lot of press. We won “Argument of the Year,” I think. That’s something I’ve wanted my whole life! I’ve wanted to be in the argument of the year.
Julia Felischaker: I don’t know if we can speak for the big publishers, but for us it’s just spontaneous.
DJ: I was surprised that they were able to play with us that way, I don’t know if those people got in trouble or not. I hope not. Some of [the fights] were going on and I had no idea. I try to give the staff as much autonomy as possible and they try to take as much as possible, so it’s a nice match-up.
To me, it’s surprising how forthcoming you are about your opinions on certain issues. For example, calling for a boycott of Simon & Schuster or trolling Sean Spicer and Jeff Bezos. What’s your reputation like in the industry?
JF: It’s a little bit of like, not the id of the industry, but we say a lot of things that other companies and employees of other companies wish that they could. We have that freedom because Dennis and Valerie created the company around that freedom. I think people are happy that we’re here.
DJ: A lot of people stop me at industry events, and thank me for things that we’ve said. I think it generally is known that we’re the one company saying what every company feels about the industry but they’re afraid to say. They’re afraid of retribution. They let people like us go out and say it, and then they thank us later in private.
When I visit friends or I’m conducting business with one of the five big publishers, it’s about 50-50. Half the people there will clap me on the back and say “thanks, keep it up” and the other half will run away very quickly when they see me coming. It’s like, speaking publicly about the Mafia. It makes a lot of people very afraid to do business.
Melville House really stands out as the publishing house that “gets” the internet.
JF: It goes back to what Dennis was saying before, it really did come out of the blog. That’s the lifeblood of the company, you can see it in the books that we publish, too, that we have a point of view, so that’s going to be clear in our internet presence as well.
“we’re just doing something that all the great, famous American publishing houses did at their beginnings.”
DJ: We’re doing something that publishers used to do. We get a lot of credit for being very edgy, state-of-the-art, digital hipsters, and I feel like we’re just doing something that all the great, famous American publishing houses did at their beginnings, when they were all privately owned companies. When Random House was owned by Bennett Cerf, when Knopf was owned by Alfred A. Knopf, when Simon & Schuster was owned by two guys named Simon and Schuster. Now those companies are completely different, they’re conglomerates and they have to be more concerned with their bottom line. Not that I’m not concerned with our bottom line, but I do feel like the company should express its passion, and that makes for great publishing. That’s how all the publishers I admire started.
Social media is fantastic if that is your attitude about publishing because there’s so many more ways to get your passion out. We can’t make books fast enough to cover the kinds of things I think we need to cover. We get a lot more done by social media that we do, by the blogging in a very in-depth, particular way, but also by Twitter, Instagram, you name it. I’m delighted, really thrilled that we’ve got people here who are as into it as I am.
I’ve been following your “Publishing During Wartime” series, because we’ve also had to cover some of these issues, particularly as it pertains to the alt-right and the strange, willful ignorance people have about what “censorship” and “free speech” actually mean. What do you think the publishing industry’s role is, going into the next four years?
DJ: [Milo Yiannopoulos’ book deal], that was kind of a crucial incident I was very sorry to see pass as it did. I feel like the publishing industry had its first opportunity to fight the Trump administration and it failed miserably by essentially supporting Yiannopoulos. I was shocked by that and extremely disappointed that such a great, historic publishing company like Simon & Schuster went there. But they did. I was unable to foment a boycott of them because apparently they also publish some good books and people felt like that was reason enough for them to be allowed to publish really heinous hate speech by a fascist.
It’s interesting to observe, and fair to observe, that none of the other big publishers did that book. They all did the right thing, they all turned it down. Some giant international conglomerates are better than others, I suppose.
But as to where the industry’s going, I think everything’s different. The media is suddenly very different, tuned differently. We’ve been doing a whole bunch of books, for the last year or so, what I call “crash books” — books that you make in a month or two as opposed to the normal 18 months. And it’s a really different kind of publishing. The business is not built up to support that kind of publishing. You’re supposed to have much more time for editing and production and salesmanship and pre-publicity, pre-marketing. We’re kind of changing everything for these books. The neat thing is that people really dig it. People in the industry are really responding to that, our sales team gets really excited. It makes their lives harder to do these books and they don’t have enough time, yet they’re very excited to handle books like that.
We do feel like we’re energizing people with that kind of publishing.
“the publishing industry had its first opportunity to fight the Trump administration and it failed miserably.”
JF: It’s really hard to exist in the world that we’re in now and not be engaged with it. I think that there’s a hunger for people or companies that have morality and an ethical viewpoint. And people are more vocally appreciative of that now because it feels so much more important than it did even six months ago.
Are you talking about What We Do Now — political books?
DJ: Well, there was that one, or last spring I looked around and I realized there weren’t any critical biographies of Trump, for example.
JF: Unless you count The Art of the Deal.
DJ: Exactly. There was a great book by the Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett, who died recently, and that was it for critical books about Trump. And that book was out of print. So I called a guy named David Cay Johnson who had been reporting on Trump for years as a New York Times business reporter and I said, “Are you interested in doing something really quick based on your years of reporting about Trump?” And he said yes, and he wrote the book in about five weeks. He’d been reporting on Trump for about 30 years so he was ready to go and he had a lot of stuff that he could just write out. We had, from that phone call to getting the book in the bookstore, a period of about two months.
That book became a best-seller. Because it really filled a need. Booksellers were very enthusiastic to have it. When we were planning what to publish during the election season, when we were planning that two years beforehand, nobody saw Trump as a being a player. We were thinking about all kinds of other books, and that’s true of all the other publishers. Nobody really had anything prepared for the moment. We were able to kind of drop everything and fill that need. That book is still selling, and it’s sold around the world, it’s one of the biggest books we’ve ever done. The whole staff had to drop everything to do it. That’s when you feel like you’ve got a good job, you’re doing a good thing for the country and the culture. I could sense the whole staff was really excited.
Similarly the What We Do Now book that you mentioned, that came about because we came into work the day after the election, and it was a grim place. Valerie and I called everyone into the conference room and put a few six packs on the table, and I said, “Fuck it, we’re not going to get any work done today, let’s just talk. What do we do? We’re a publishing company, what do we do?” And we came up with What We Do Now that very day. We had it out in bookstores in a little over two months.
Booksellers were over the moon to have something so quickly to give to their customers, because, as it turned out, traffic in bookstores was way up. People were going there like they were sanctuaries. They just wanted to hang out and be someplace that made sense. Maybe because of a distrust in mainstream media, which just so badly called the election, but people were turning to books for something more than solace — for information, for a deeper understanding of what happened.
So for those kinds of books, you don’t have time to set up a huge publicity campaign. How much do those rely on social media?
JF: Social media is a vital part of our marketing program. We do traditional marketing, we do traditional publicity, but social media is kind of the final tier on the cake, if you will. It helps us amplify our message, it helps us have a sense that we’re talking to people, that there’s a community that’s talking about going to bookstores. We try to re-create that solace on social media. We do all the traditional stuff, and then we’re also out there talking to people directly on social media.
How would you describe your audience? It seems like you have a fan base. What kind of people do you hear from?
DJ: We hear from a lot of wackos. We have 78,000 followers on Twitter — is that a fan base?
JF: I think we do have a fan base, I’m not sure exactly how I would describe them other than the smartest, most attractive, best people... I think it’s a pretty varied group. There are a lot of authors that follow us and engage with us, there are also people who stumbled across our book in a store in Iowa and like what we have to say.
DJ: We have this kind of recognizable, snotty attitude that’s a mix of humor and anger and passion and intelligence. And we publish a lot of different kind of books. We are not a niche publisher. We publish fiction, we publish translated fiction, a wide variety of nonfiction on a lot of different issues — politics, current events, science, memoirs. We publish cookbooks, we have a classics line. We have a series called “The Never Sink Library,” which is books that went out of print that shouldn’t have, so we brought ‘em back. It’s a very wide-ranging list, a very eclectic list.
So we attract a lot of different people — people who like to read kind of artsy fiction, or serious intellectuals who might read the history books, it’s a pretty wide variety and I think the social media following reflects that as well.
I’ve seen on Tumblr that there are a lot of teenagers posting about the novella subscription series — I think because they’re so aesthetically appealing. And I noticed that you guys experimented a little bit with Vine before it died. Do you have a lot of young people who are interested in Melville House?
DJ: Oh, I think absolutely. First of all, I think the demographic for books is a lot younger than statistics claim. I think the people that are reading some of the more interesting things that we do, such as maybe the translated fiction or the avant-garde stuff that I like or the edgier political stuff, that’s probably a very young readership for the most part. And by “young,” remember: I’m extremely old.
When we started the company, Valerie and I knew nothing about publishing. So we were always going to people and asking for advice, and I remember everyone telling us that the way you sell books was through word of mouth. You could never see it, or know how to achieve it, but if a book sold well you would just assume you had it. Nobody could tell you how to generate word of mouth.
Now, with social media, you can see the word of mouth on your books, and I’m thrilled by that. You can actually see what people are saying about your books, you can try to converse with them. Publicists today, or a marketing person today feels much more creative and integral to the process. All of it has to do with seeing the person on the other end of your tweets, which is a totally new thing in just the last five years. I don’t think most publishers have really grasped that yet, so for us that’s an advantage.
JF: It’s the coolest thing, to be able to go and just do a search on Twitter for people talking about the book and what they’re saying. The authors are on Twitter, too, and they’re talking to the people who are reading their book, and it’s a much cozier environment than it used to be.
DJ: It’s a much more open kind of scene now, a much more creative scene.