The book business in 2015 is pretty much a crapshoot, but it’s hard to believe that even the canniest insider could’ve predicted the sales success that indie publisher Melville House has had with The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture.
The report itself was made public in early December, but only via an unwieldy and low-res PDF. Melville House, based in Dumbo, moved quickly into action, line-editing the document, formatting it, and getting it printed and in stores by December 30. The motivation for that mad dash was twofold: to publish the public document before competitors, and to help prevent the report from fading in the public eye. Melville House, which largely specializes in literary fiction and political nonfiction, was successful on both counts. The initial print run of 50,000 copies was shipped, and the publisher has moved on to a second printing.
Speaking on the phone from the publisher’s offices, co-founder Dennis Johnson talked about why Melville House published the book, the impassioned responses, and the moral decisions behind its release.
Tell me about the decision to publish the report.
Well, it’s in our wheelhouse. My wife and I started the company in 2001, animated by the rise of Bush and 9/11, so we did a lot of activist books, particularly ones on torture and rendition. We were interested in these areas, and we’ve always wanted to do one of these report books, you know, like The 9/11 Commission Report or The Financial Crisis Committee Report.
What had prevented you from doing those before?
Those were always inside deals. The government always struck a deal with a big publisher to do those books, which always kind of pissed me off — they are public documents, the government shouldn’t do that. Publishing that kind of book is a great public service, and as the torture report was unfolding, I saw some stories planted by the publishers, I assume, about Senator Feinstein not cooperating and not giving give them the report ahead of time or any kind of exclusive deal. In the past, the government has actually given money to publishers to do this. They gave money to Norton, for example, to do the 9/11 Commission book.
So you saw an opportunity?
As [December 9] unfolded and we were looking at the report and trying to read this really terrible PDF, I realized, oh, nobody is going to publish this. You know the big publishers didn’t get preferred treatment, so we just decided on the spot we were going to do it, and off we went.
And there were no rights or clearance hurdles you needed to jump in order to publish the Report?
No, it is a public document. The citizens paid for it, and the citizens own it. That’s why I thought it was so egregious that the government cut insider deals on previous commission reports. That’s why I applaud Feinstein for her not allowing anybody to get preferential treatment this time. But it was still hard for us to turn it into a book. The government released a really unreadable — and unsearchable — version. [Melville House has also released a searchable electronic version of the torture report.] Obviously, they weren’t interested in broadcasting this information very much. It’s just an impossible time of year to circulate a book for all kinds of logistical reasons: Stores are full, trucks are full, warehouses are distracted. But we felt it had to be done. The report had to be out there.
It’s obvious that you felt a duty to publish the book, but did you also see a market niche for it? The 9/11 Commission sold well, too.
Oh, sure. There’s huge interest in this. One retailer who ordered a couple hundred copies of the book told me that she expects interest to just increase every week as her customers, as she put it, come out of their holiday coma. The enthusiasm for it is like nothing I’ve seen since, you know, we were doing books about why George W. Bush should be impeached.
What do you think is fueling that interest?
There’s a history of interest in these books, whether it is The 9/11 Commission, the Warren Report, the Starr Report, the financial-crisis report — all of those books are still vibrantly alive in bookstores. They don’t go out of print, and that really speaks well of the average American reader. I think there is this natural interest in these documents, and I also think the torture report is maybe the most important document of our generation to be released by the government. It’s a lesson in democratic transparency. People now have an opportunity to see what their government did with their tax dollars. It’s normal for there to be interest in that.
Just for context, how does the demand for the torture report compare to the demand for a “normal” successful book for Melville House?
It is really early to tell for sure, but this book seems to have shipped really well to all the possible markets. International interest is huge. We have been shipping lots of books overseas, and not just to English[-speaking] countries. Those are ship numbers I’m talking about, not sale numbers, but they are certainly among the highest of any book we’ve ever done. That’s what I’m judging by so far. We are not a best-selling house — we don’t normally do 50,000 books at a time. Ten thousand or 20,000 is a very big print run for us. So we have the demand, and it’s really hard to believe that that level of demand is not going to result in a similar level of sales. And I think that’s great news for our democracy.
Do you feel any ambivalence at all about profiting off of the torture report?
No, I don’t. I feel like we have done a great public service. You can read it for free online if you want to, and if you do, you can see the value of what we’ve done. We are a mission-driven company, and we want people to read this because we think it’s important for democracy. We did it as a moderately priced paperback, and we are going to have to sell a hell of a lot of books before we talk about making money on this — we’re not. My wife and I, this is our company, we put up our dough to print this book. We printed 50,000 copies of this book. Do you have any idea how much that costs? It’s in the six figures, and that’s just to print the thing. That is not counting the fact that we dedicated our whole company to this book for a couple of weeks, and that’s a significant investment, too.
So there was real financial risk for you in doing this?
Yes. This book represents a great risk for us. If we make any money at the end of the day, we’ll have earned it.