The Passion of the Indies

By John Warren, Marketing & Sales Director, Georgetown University Press

Last week I had the pleasure of attending George Washington University’s 5th Annual Conference on Ethics and Publishing, an event with the theme of “Preserving, Protecting and Enhancing the Publishing Ecosystem” and featuring some of the bright minds of academic and general publishing. My friend Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Company, who writes the essential publishing blog The Shatzkin Files, had alerted me to the conference, but I was pleased to see some other familiar names and faces in the day’s line up.

Niko Pfund, President of Oxford University Press, offered a glimpse into Oxford’s strategy and some great case studies in e-book marketing. Shatzkin ran through a sobering summary of the Department of Justice’s case against the big six publishers and Apple, and discussed the possible unintended and negative consequences of the settlement for publishers, and by extension, for the diversity and health of publishing. (Shatzkin is quoted prominently in Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker article about the case.) An in-depth look at higher education and K–12 publishing was provided by Al Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University. I had a hard time, however, discerning the connection to ethics through most of these presentations.

The highlights came from two speakers on the indie side of the equation: Lissa Muscatine, who passionately described her and husband Bradley Graham’s decision to purchase, just over a year ago, the iconic Washington, DC, bookstore Politics and Prose; and Dennis Loy Johnson, president of Melville House, who quite eloquently articulated the passion, potency, and peril of independent publishing in the Kindle age.

The day following the conference, I was able to spend some time with Dennis. We’d met ten years ago, when we had neighboring booth space at Book Expo America, the nation’s annual publishing confab. That was shortly after he and his wife, sculptor Valerie Merians, had become publishers, a decision that emerged from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then, I couldn’t help but admire his fervor, which the intervening decade has not dissipated. Among other things, he told me about the remarkable story of publishing Hans Fallada’s novel, Every Man Dies Alone.  Dennis described how the novel, originally written shortly after World War II and overlooked for forty years hence, became a phenomenon largely due to the enthusiastic support of independent booksellers, stores such as Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC.

The amazing backstory of Every Man Dies Alone, and how the book came to be published, reminded me of a nonfiction work which Georgetown University Press will be publishing in early 2013: Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State. Melville House’s book is a novel, based on a true incident, while Georgetown’s is nonfiction, but both describe amazing acts of resistance, of passion and heroism in the face of Nazi oppression, and both are works being brought to new audiences in the digital age. Karski, a member of the Polish Underground, was one of the first people who tried to warn the West about the Holocaust. (Karski was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, on May 29, 2012.) I just finished reading the manuscript, and look forward to helping to bring Karski’s story, relatively unknown in the United States, the attention it deserves.

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