An interview with Dennis Johnson
For podcast release, January 16, 2012
KENNEALLY: Once upon a time, there were only two kinds of books – good books and all the others. In recent years, though, books have really started to branch out. Soon enough, it’s going to get pretty tough to say what is a book or what isn’t a book. Today there are audiobooks and e-books as well as enhanced books, combining text with video and music.
Printed books endure, of course, and the book publishing industry and independent booksellers continue to rely on print book sales for the lion’s share of their revenues. Many wonder all the same whether there’s room enough in the world for p-books and e-books. Answering that question with its own new books (inaudible) is Melville House founder Dennis Johnson, based in Brooklyn. Dennis, welcome back to Beyond the Book.
JOHNSON: Hi. It’s great to be here, thank you.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’re happy to have you join us again. You were on the program a couple years back, talking about one of your authors, Tao Lin, and his appearance with us at the Miami Book Fair. We’ll remind the audience that might not have heard that, that you, Dennis, are a Pushcart Prize winner for short fiction who, with your wife, Valerie Merians, started Melville House in 2001, and you’ve guided it over the last decade to acclaim from readers, authors, designers, and even other publishers.
In 2007, the American Association of Publishers named Melville House Independent Book Publisher of the Year. So quite a perspective that you bring to this question about the future of the book. And your answer to reconciling the either/or question is something of a compromise, and a fascinating one. You call it the HybridBook. What is a HybridBook, and why did Melville House choose to create them?
JOHNSON: A HybridBook is a print book that comes with a digital addendum. So if you buy the print book of one of our HybridBook titles, on the last page of that book, there is a QR code that you can scan, or a URL that you can go to, to get an accompanying e-book that we call the illuminations to the print title. So the way it works out is – take our most recent release, which is Bartleby the Scrivener, which is one of the biggest-selling books in our “Art of the Novella” series.
KENNEALLY: And appropriately, for a company called Melville House.
JOHNSON: Exactly right. And actually even more timely than that is this – with the Occupy Wall Street movement going on, this is kind of the book about the first Wall Street passive resistor. So in any event, if you buy that book, you get simply the text of the original story, and if you scan the QR code to get the illuminations, what you get are a few hundred pages of related contemporaneous material.
So you get things like letters that Melville wrote to his friends about the book that he was writing. His friends being people like Nathaniel Hawthorne. In those letters, he talks about the philosophy he was reading that was inspiring the story. We include the letters, the response to those letters, the philosophy itself. There are also things – illustrations, such as maps of Wall Street at the time, pictures of what New York looked like at the time.
We include something like a – we include a classified ad for a scrivener from 1851, and even recipes for ginger nuts, the things that Bartleby eats throughout the story. And as it turns out, they’re kind of the first really bad-for-you snack food that poor people bought.
KENNEALLY: First, but not the last. And –
KENNEALLY: And so, Dennis Johnson, why do this? I mean, I can understand that there might be a feeling that the printed book is facing some competition from the digital book, but you’ve got something more in mind, right?
JOHNSON: Well, there are a lot of things going on. For one thing, we were just interested in using the new media in an interesting way. And so what we did was – what we felt we were doing was kind of imitating the way we read, and enhancing the original reading experience. We call these enhanced print books.
When I read a classic book that I really like, I remain interested in it, You don’t want the experience to end. Maybe you want to know more about the writer, or the place, or some other thing that bears on the story, and so you research those things. Well, we’ve done that research for you, basically. So we’re kind of feeling like we are finding ways to extend the original reading experience, but taking advantage of the different ways we read.
We read a print book differently than the way we read on a screen. On a screen, we tend to scan more and jump around more, not read with quite the same level of depth, and so we think we’ve kind of balanced these two types of readings together. But the other thing we wanted to do was to promote print books, and give booksellers a way to say, you know, we’ve got more than meets the eye here.
There’s a real enhanced value to this book. If you buy it from us, you get something free from the publisher. And that was one way we thought we could help support independent booksellers.
KENNEALLY: Well, what’s so important? I mean, that’s really quite an ambitious mission, to save print books and save the independent bookstore culture both. What’s at stake here for someone like yourself, an author and a book publisher?
JOHNSON: Well, what’s at stake, of course, is that we’re making a significant investment in enhancing these books, and we’re not charging anything for it. So the risk is pretty much financial. But beyond that, there – you know, I don’t see how we can lose. We think it’s a really great offering, anybody that’s looked at it so far has been really excited by it. It’s gotten off to a tremendous launch, and we’re finding other kinds of interest that at first we didn’t anticipate.
You know, as it turns out, for example, teachers love it. They love the fact that this is a text that comes with that, you know. When we founded the novella series, I said, you know, we’re not going to include introductions and afterwords, because I never liked those things. I didn’t like scholars telling me what to think before I read a thing.
And as it turns out, academics don’t necessarily like that either, if it’s giving, you know, a viewpoint that they disagree with. But here we are, giving them kind of objective material to accompany their reading, and really making the experience more in-depth, and they’re loving it. So we didn’t quite anticipate that, that’s been a nice bonus to it all.
KENNEALLY: Well, you know, Dennis, I guess a question occurs to me about the nature of the illuminations themselves. How do you go about pulling these together? This is not simply what would happen if I was reading Bartleby, and finished the book, and decided to go and do some online research. I’d probably end up with more sites that would try to sell me more copies of Bartleby than anything else. How do you go about getting the kinds of material you describe, and can you tell us about this curation process?
JOHNSON: Sure, it’s very easy. You have to hire a genius. And as it turns out, we did.
KENNEALLY: I’m available, by the way. Just –
JOHNSON: So far we can only –
KENNEALLY: – on a freelance basis.
JOHNSON: I understand. So far we can only afford one genius at a time, but I’ll keep that in mind. We have a – our marketing manager here is a guy named Paul Oliver, and he’s really the guy that pulled all this together, and does all the editorial work on it, with some help from some others here. But he does most of the conceptualization of what would be good to accompany – what would be a good thing to include in the illuminations for a particular title.
That’s all his editorial domain, and he’s the guy making all those choices, and finding the material. You know, it’s something more than just like a curated Google search. We’ve got stuff from – for the most part, it is public domain contemporaneous material, but it’s not always so easy to find, and it could require a library hunt or something else.
I mean, right now, we’re putting together the illuminations for a more modern story, not one of our classics line, a book called Every Man Dies Alone, which is a World War II novel, written just after the war by Hans Fallada. And Paul is really looking into Fallada’s correspondence, and his memoirs, and things that other people wrote about him at the time to pull that together, and a lot of this stuff is not online, and it’s not in libraries. It’s in archives or hidden away.
So it’s a – you know, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of investigative scholarship, and he’s just really good at it.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’re talking with Dennis Johnson, founder and publisher of Melville House Books, and this new innovation from the house, called the HybridBook. And Dennis, one of the series of – in the novella project is a collection of books, all with the same title, The Duel. There’s The Duel by Chekhov, Conrad, von Kleist, Kuprin, and Casanova.
Besides the title, these books have in common that they are now also HybridBooks. What kind of material is included there, you know, and that actually kind of furthers this argument that there’s a real added value here?
JOHNSON: Well, there was so much stuff there, that we decided to do this kind of massive launch, you know, with five books at once. That’s actually how we began the HybridBooks series. One is, I just loved the idea of there being five books with the same title. I thought it would, you know, make an Amazon search really interesting, seeing if it would make Amazon blow up. I was interested in seeing what would happen with that.
But there was so much interesting material to accompany these books. I mean the – dueling was such a bizarre part of civilization for several hundred years, that there is a wealth of incredibly beautiful art. There is a wealth of very strange codes, the duellos, the handbooks on dueling, the rules of dueling. You know, just really fascinating stuff.
So take the Chekhov Duel, for example. You’d find yourself reading a classic Chekhov tale. And what’s the thing about Chekhov, it always seems like it could have been written yesterday, right? It’s so fresh and modern-seeming, and it’s over 100 years old. And yet in this particular Chekhov, the characters decide that the only way they can solve their problems is to have a duel, by today’s standards a totally bizarre reaction.
Well, we can really contextualize that for you, and give you lots of information about how that would have been typical for the time, and where were these people coming from? So as it turned out, it was both a very logical way to enhance the book, and also a very spectacular way to enhance the book, because we could include hundreds of pages of beautiful color art from some of the masters of 17th, 18th, 19th century painting. You know, stuff we couldn’t do affordably in a print book.
KENNEALLY: Well, you know, I’m beginning to understand the allure of the illumination, and of course, you know, there is an argument that in brief goes that readers are becoming so distracted today by all the online material that’s available, that they may wind up abandoning the book. Are you concerned about that, or is this HybridBook a recognition of the awareness that all that information online is so pervasive, there’s no way to kind of refuse it to the book reader?
JOHNSON: Well, my point would be that it isn’t entirely online, and if it is, you still have to go find it. In truth, some of these texts are available online as well, you know. We’re trying to put together a package that says both of these forms can enhance each other. We do believe that the print – the technology of the print book is still an amazing form of technology that publishers are a little too quick to throw out, I think, in the mad rush to embrace digital media.
We’re trying to make a bigger statement that they should coexist, and here’s a good way that they can, where you take the strengths of each format and put them together to complement each other.
KENNEALLY: And of course, one of the things that’s in danger of getting thrown out with the print book is the print bookseller. What’s been the reaction to HybridBooks from the independent bookstores that you work with?
JOHNSON: Oh, it’s been great. It’s been very enthusiastic for, I mean, a couple of reasons. One is just the quality of the work, which is what it comes down to, you know. If we don’t produce really good HybridBooks, it’s not going to work, and we have. So booksellers are very happy about that. But they’re also happy to have another tool to help them sell a book.
And I think they simply like that a publisher is looking out for them like this, and you know, the bigger statement there is that independent bookstores should work more closely with independent publishers.
KENNEALLY: Well, you know, I guess I’ll close things up with one of the illuminations in the Bartleby text, which regards ginger nuts. I understand the illuminations includes a recipe for ginger nuts. Have you tried that recipe yourself?
JOHNSON: No, I can’t say that I have. What it is, is – what we discovered with the ginger nut recipes is that ginger nuts, you know, when you read this book, most readers aren’t going to know what in the world that is, we don’t eat them anymore. But as it turns out, they were the scrap material at a bakery. And they would just throw it all in a bin, and it would get all moldy, and so they would throw a lot of ginger in to kill the mold, and then they would sell it as – as I said, poor people’s snack food.
And it turned out to be, you know, an aspect of the book that I guarantee you, 99.9% of any of the people that have read that book in the last 50 years had no idea what ginger snaps were. Now, they not only know what they are, but in a way that, you know, kind of embodies what I’m talking about. It enhances your understanding of this character. That’s what he had to eat. It was like he was living on a diet of Cheetos. And it’s really revealing of the character, and the situation, and the time, and the story.
KENNEALLY: Well actually, from the way you describe what ginger nuts are, it makes Cheetos sound downright good for you. They were a bit like the sausage of the cookie world, I think.
JOHNSON: Yeah. That’s a good description of them.
KENNEALLY: Well, Dennis Johnson, we’ve enjoyed chatting with you about this effort you have underway called the HybridBook from Melville House Publishing. We’ve been talking today on Beyond the Book with Dennis Johnson, founder and publisher of Melville House Books, thank you for joining us today.
JOHNSON: It’s a great pleasure to be on the show, thank you.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Web site, copyright.com/beyondthebook. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of BurstMarketing, my name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.