Publisher of Mueller and Torture reports comes to Greensboro
“I think the government very purposefully doesn’t make their documents searchable,” said Dennis Johnson, whose renowned indie press Melville House published the Mueller report as an inexpensive paperback and an even cheaper (and easily searchable) e-book.
Johnson will be speaking at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, as the keynote event of the ongoing Writers as Witness: Reporting an America in Crisis series held in collaboration with Greensboro Bound and PEN America.
In a recent phone interview, he talked about his company’s race to get the historic report in print, as well as the importance of doing so.
Johnson pointed out that, not only was it impossible to search the PDF released in March by the Justice Department, but said that document is hard to read online, takes time to download, and at 448 letter-sized pages, costs more for most people to print than the $7.99 price of Melville House’s compact and easy-on-the-eyes paperback edition.
Johnson described the process of publishing the report as “extremely stressful,” initially because nobody knew when the DOJ would release the document or how long it would be.
“If it was, say, 6,000, or even 600 pages, we’d not have been able to do it. So, it was all pins and needles until it came out. Even a day or two before, they were still talking about 600 to 700 pages. When it was finally released at under 500 pages, we knew it was workable.”
But he and his staff also knew they had some big competitors racing to get it out as well. Simon & Shuster was bringing out their edition in collaboration with the Washington Post, with annotations based on the Post’s reporting, and Skyhorse Publishing announced one with an introduction by Allen Dershowitz.
“We decided that we wanted to do what we called the People’s Version, that wouldn’t have any kind of bias, just the report and nothing else, as opposed to the Simon & Shuster one, which some people might think reflected a media lefty bias, or the Skyhorse one with the introduction by Dershowitz, who is a Trump supporter. We believed our readers didn’t need to be told what to think.”
He and his staff also quickly decided to do it in what he called “a classic American format,” that of the traditional 5-inch by 7-inch, mass-market paperback- a size that led to such editions being called pocketbooks in the 1940s. “We figured that would allow us to do it at as low a price as possible.”
They figured correctly. The Melville House edition sports a list price of $7.99, whereas the Simon & Shuster trade paperback lists for $15 and the Skyhorse lists for $12.99. The Simon & Shuster and Skyhorse e-books are $7.99, whereas the Melville e-book is $1.99.
“I think another thing that made our book different was the process for making it,” Johnson said. “We actually laid it out, whereas those other two editions were just kind of photocopied from the PDF.”
He said that the hardest part of laying it out in type was the redactions. “There’s no way to typeset those boxes, you have to actually go in and do it by hand, and you want it to be exactly the same length as it was in the PDF because often by the length you can often tell what was redacted.”
He said this painstaking process was done by hand with old-fashioned character spacers. “We had a bunch of volunteers come in and got it done in three days over the Easter weekend, with us all sitting at our conference tables with rulers, and our designer laying the pages out as we completed them on the spot. It was very old school.”
Melville House has become famous for its quick turn-around of important public documents. This began in 2014, with the Senate Intelligence Report on Torture, an investigation of CIA interrogation and detention programs after 9/11, which the Los Angeles Times called “the most extensive review of U.S. intelligence-gathering tactics in generations.”
“That was another government document that was kind of dumped on a Friday night in the holiday season, during the run-up to Christmas that December,” Johnson said. “We knew nobody else was going to do it, and it seemed a shame, as it was such an important document, so we camped out in our office and got it out by Christmas day.”
He explained that publishing the report as a book greatly expanded its readership. “When you have a print version of something, you can get it out there to people who aren’t going to try to find it on a government website.” He said that, immediately after its initial release, the Mueller report was actually very difficult to find online. “You had to know to go to the DOJ website, then to the Special Counsel’s pull-down menu, and so on.”
Soon after Melville House published the Senate Torture Report at the end of 2014, Johnson heard from representatives of the ACLU and Amnesty International. “They thanked us for making a searchable document they could cross-check with other databases. It’s a useful tool for scholars.”
What really surprised him was when Melville House was contacted by Daniel J. Jones, the former intelligence committee staffer and FBI agent who headed the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the wake of 9/11, and who is played by Adam Driver in the film The Report (in the onscreen title, the word “Torture” appears before “Report,” but is marked out).
“Daniel Jones; name didn’t initially ring a bell, as we thought we’d published just another government document out of Feinstein’s office, but after he actually contacted us to thank us for helping with its distribution and I finally realized who he was, it gave the entire staff a real-life to know we’d done something that important.”
Johnson said that, because The Torture Report “made us really feel like this was an important thing to do,” Melville House followed it up with other documents that seemed “hidden” by being released at times that seemed calculated to draw little attention. “To hide its dramatic findings, the government buried its mandated Climate Assessment Report on Black Friday while everyone was out shopping. Melville House rushed the report into print to broadcast its devastating findings about the causes and impact of global warming.”
Melville House also published the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality. “And we published the DOJ’s Federal Reports on Police Killings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago.
He said he would love to publish whatever sort of impeachment report may be forthcoming from the U.S. House of Representatives. “I have no idea what that document would be like. There weren’t really a lot of such publications around the Nixon impeachment, so we’re watching very closely to see if anything is generated that we can help get out there.”
Melville publishes a lot of books each year, fiction as well as nonfiction. “But these reports really kind of suit us, as we know how to do them now, and we have a reputation for them.”
Melville House was founded in 2001 by Johnson and his wife, sculptor Valerie Merians. “Before that, I was a freelance journalist, mostly writing about the book business. When I realized I had a lot of readers online, I became one of the first American book bloggers.”
The blog he started, “Moby Lives,” is now the oldest surviving book blog, although these days it’s mostly written by Melville House staff and contributors rather than Johnson himself.
“On Sept. 10, 2001, Yahoo, which was kind of the google of that time, said this is the best website of the week. So overnight, I suddenly had tens of thousands of new followers. The next day, of course, was 9/11.”
Because they lived directly across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center, Johnson and Merians were witnesses to the tragedy and panic. Their local T.V. and radio transmitters had been on the top of the Twin Towers, so they found themselves cut off from broadcast media, and started reaching out to others online. “A lot of people who followed the blog were witnesses of one kind or another, so I had a lot of literary people writing witness accounts, which I started posting.”
Then, President Bush came to New York City. “When he climbed up on the rubble and said somebody is going to pay for this, Valerie, who was looking over my shoulder, said, ‘you know, the stuff on the blog is really more the story of New York than this let’s-go-kill-somebody stuff.’ So, we gathered that material and wound up with the book Poetry After 9/11.”
The blog had already gotten much media attention from NPR and the Associated Press. “So, it just all gathered steam, and we found ourselves, as we were making the book, getting more and more attention for it, and we eventually had to form a company to publish it. Up to that point, we just thought we’d make a chapbook and sell it out of an empty chair in the back row at poetry readings or something. It was very successful. I think we were the biggest selling poetry book of the year. It felt good, and we had other ideas and said, ‘let’s try to keep going with this.’”
How does Johnson think traditional publishing is doing as the third decade of the 21st-century looms?
“I don’t think it’s going away, but it’s definitely changing. It’s kind of the generic problem of capitalism; everything’s getting too big. I feel like our problem as a little publisher is having to play in a marketplace that’s controlled by the giants, whether Random House or Amazon. It’s a very tough marketplace for the little players to exist in, but it’s hard for anybody to exist in, so I wonder how long that will last for those big houses.”
“There’s a lesson there: Independent booksellers are doing better than most of the other elements of the publishing ecosystem because there’s an affection for them and a need for them, which is evidenced in the fact that Amazon is now opening brick and mortar bookstores. They need that as part of the process even to sell online. It’s a real tragedy for the culture and for democracy when something happens like Borders going out of business, or the very real chance of Barnes & Noble going under. Thousands of bookstores have vanished from the landscape, meaning kids walking down the street downtown aren’t being reminded about books or seeing them as a respected part of our culture.”
He said that, because of this, he’s glad to see Amazon opening bookstores. “Even though they’re weird bookstores that seem to be more about capturing information than professing a love of books, it’s still important. I likewise hope that Barnes & Noble doesn’t go out of business. But meanwhile, the indies are thriving and having a real comeback right now, and that’s the heartening story of the book business.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.