A decade ago, Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians were just starting out—a husband-and-wife tandem hoping to stretch their careers as artists (he, a short story writer; she, a sculptor) into the publishing world. In 2001, they founded Melville House, an independent book publisher, in New Jersey.
"We weren't business people," says Johnson. "Both my wife and I were middle-aged and had had a good career as artists, and when we found ourselves with a publishing company, we thought we should just follow our gut the way we would making art."
Today, the small publishing company is a small-business success story. It's outgrown its original digs and moved into a new home in Brooklyn, N.Y.—thanks to its founders' somewhat unconventional approach to a traditional business model and, in part, to one specific project that helped put Melville House on the map.
In 2004, Johnson and Merians rolled out the first batch of their Art of the Novella series—a collection of shorter, lesser-known works by famous authors bound in beautifully clean, matching covers.
"We just thought we could sell enough of them to stay in business, that was really our goal," Johnson says. And they certainly achieved it—and then some, he's quick to add.
By repackaging already discovered, sometimes centuries-old works, this young beacon of the independent book scene with a culture of creativity has unwittingly fashioned itself a case study in smart marketing and design.
"In retrospect, it was a good idea by accident for reasons we didn't think about," Johnson says. "It's a great design, and the design really kind of speaks to a nice idea in publishing which is to let the text speak for itself."
And Johnson and Merians have a lot to show for it; the recognizable Art of the Novella collection has expanded to include more than 40 titles, both classic and contemporary, with another couple of five-book batches scheduled to debut in the near future.
All this, somehow, without a robust background in publishing or business—and, perhaps most notably, without a solid marketing or design plan to speak of. Instead, Johnson and Merians credit their success to a firm conviction in their creative approach and desire to spin out a good product that the market had been missing.
"We were young, inexperienced publishers and just kind of publishing from our gut and publishing books we loved, and we hoped we could make that work," he says. But it didn't take off right away.
Getting the first round of novellas onto bookstore shelves wasn't easy. At the first meeting with sales reps, Johnson says, "we were almost laughed off the stage." They thought the idea—under-appreciated novellas with stark, ultra-simple, text-only cover art—was too plain to interest consumers.
"It's nice to stick to your guns against criticism and to see the thing work nonetheless," Johnson says. "We've certainly made our share of mistakes, too, when we probably should've listened to people and we didn't. So on the whole, I think it's worked for us more often than not."
The challenge is negotiating that gut feeling that something will succeed with the outside feedback that says it won't. For Johnson and Merians, it's all about considering a few important influences that make striking that balance more feasible.
First, he says, they've got the wisdom of age and the benefit of previous careers. Both of those factors mean they each had a certain confidence level by the time they launched their publishing venture, something that might be less characteristic of younger entrepreneurs.
Second, he says, money was never the driving factor.
"We were used to starving to make art," Johnson says, and producing a quality artistic product was always the primary objective with the Art of the Novella series, and at Melville House in general.
And then, there's tolerance and the willingness to learn.
"Having a high pain threshold is very important when you start a new business," Johnson says. "We moderate [our] ideas just by our growing understanding of how the business works and our growing circle of work partners, people that we consult with that we really respect."
Those factors have combined, along with successes like the Art of the Novella series and other Melville House products, to create a brand that's emerged as a standout in the independent publishing world. And the method for reaching that status is, in its own way, unique to small business. At the very least, it reflects a definite advantage that smaller, locally-owned and managed businesses have over the big names.
"When there's one person, or in our case a couple, calling the shots, then the company is going to reflect those characters and those personalities," Johnson says. "It's going to, I think, have more of a unique brand."
And Johnson is counting on that to define Melville House's future success, which should be traced back to the some-would-say unlikely success story of the Art of the Novella project.
"If you do a thing and you do it right and it has good quality and you've clearly put care into it, I have to believe that reflects well on all of your books," he says. "I hope that's true and that it brings people to the company, or to our website, or to the store here in Brooklyn or wherever, makes them walk up to a clerk in a store and say, 'Can you tell me some other books by this company?'"
Photo credit: flickr/Imira