Interview with Melville House Founders

Anne K. Yoder over at KGB Bar’s journal interviewed Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians of Melville House.

I don’t know when this article came out, if it’s recent or not. Speaking again about the divide between art and commerce, here’s the most interesting part of the interview for me:

KGB: Do you deal with agents at all?

DLJ: No, not very regularly. Occasionally, but the pie just isn’t big enough.

VM: We’ve had agents mess up deals that both we and the author wanted to happen. We try to work with them sparingly. Although there are some agents out there who seem to understand the pressures. And I imagine you would need an agent. But at the same time, those writers who are not, should we say, fodder for the big houses are still operating on the model that they need an agent, which is really not the case.

DLJ: It’s no criticism of them, though. They are what they are. They have businesses and they need to make money, and they need to survive. But there are two publishing models, and in this model, the agent is another person with needs that don’t benefit their client. And they can’t admit that. If you need an agent to deal with Melville House, then Valerie and I are not doing our job.
We have had many instances of writers, even well-known writers, bringing us a book project that no other publisher would do because it’s small or different or weird or out of their norm. And we’re happy to do it and excited to do it, and an agent will step in and say, “If you can’t give us an advance, you’re not getting that book.” And we won’t get that book and so that book is never ever made.

VM: They’ve actually just finished off books in their entirety. Not like it will be sold to somebody else, but it just won’t exist.

DLJ: This is what happened to Stephen Dixon. He fired his agent to come to us. That’s the state of the art at the moment. Agents are the most fascinating turf in publishing right now. They really are defining the differences between independent publishing and conglomerate publishing in a more definitive way than the Hudson River is. It’s really the battle ground, and how that all shakes down in the future.
Another aspect is thinking about writers: most writers hate their publisher and love their agent. The day may come when they regret that. If a big publisher drops them and they have to go to an indie, it takes some understanding and a leap to be prepared and to navigate that journey.
There’s an innate distrust of publishers, and that’s because for the last twenty years the big houses have behaved despicably. There was an instance in 1995, or some time in the first half of the nineties, when HarperCollins—in one fell swoop—dropped 100 writers. One hundred so-called mid-list writers. It was big news at the time because there were some very big names on that list. And they were just dropped because their books weren’t selling so well—it’s not that they weren’t making a profit, but that they weren’t making enough of a profit. Shit like that should make you distrust the big publishers. There should have been a revolt. People in those publishing houses should have revolted the way André Schiffrin revolted when stuff like that started going on within the Random House empire. But his reaction was a rare one. So I understand the distrust. But if you think about independent publishing as a kind of mom-and-pop business, and start seeing yourself as a partner in that, it’s a much more traditional model for publishing and it’s not too hard to comprehend.

VM: And it’s a lot more fun.

DLJ: It’s a lot more fun to be more involved with your book. Once I asked Stephen Dixon how this is working out for him, how he thought about working with Melville House. He said he loved it because it was the first time in his career that he’s been able to get the publisher on the phone.

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