For the ninth-and-a-half entry to What Would Twitter Do? I interviewed my favourite corporate account: Melville House, which not only has a smart, fun and lively Twitter account, but is one of the most exciting and brilliant English-language publishers. My questions about their feed were answered by Alex Shephard, Melville House’s Director of Digital Marketing and founding editor of Full Stop (he is also a former bookseller for McNally Jackson and BookCourt) and Zeljka Marosevic, managing director of Melville House UK and one of The Bookseller’s 2014 Rising Stars.
– Sheila Heti
SHEILA HETI: I love what Melville House publishes and how Melville House appears online. Was there even an in-house discussion of the tone Melville House would take in its tweets, or are you both just being you?
ALEX SHEPHARD: Zeljka and I write most of the feed now; Dennis Johnson, Melville House’s publisher, also chimes in, as do some others. Melville House is a pretty collaborative place. Zeljka and I started a day apart last March. She started a day before me, something I’ll never forgive her for. Before that the Twitter feed was mostly Dustin Kurtz, who recently left the company to be a dad. I don’t remember ever really having a discussion about tone—when I started it felt a little like getting the keys to your parents’ car when you’re sixteen—but for me, the voice comes from two places. One is our blog, MobyLives, which was started by our publisher, Dennis Johnson, in 1998 (it predates the publishing house by a few years). That blog, which I currently edit, covers the publishing industry from inside in a way that’s insightful, humorous, and occasionally indignant—we stand up for what we believe in, but we try to do it in a way that’s fun and self-aware. The other is Dustin, who really helped build the account into what it is before Zeljka and I made it much better last spring. (Just kidding, Dustin! I love you.) Zeljka and I bring different things to the table, but we have similar senses of humor—we’re sarcastic and wry and like doing silly stunts. And what you see from the account is similar to what you see on the blog—I’m representing the company, but I’m also representing myself. Mostly I’m just trying to make people laugh. And buy our books, so I can keep goofing off on Twitter.
ZELIKA MARSEVIK: I remember an early email exchange when I started at Melville House which went something like,“easy on the exclamation marks, keep it interesting… you know the drill.” So it was more implicit than an actual conversation but there was immediately a sense of trust, which I think was really important. It’s a corporate account but I felt like I was being encouraged to be myself on it. We publish Bartleby the Scrivener, so that’s always given me an indication of tone and character when tweeting as Melville House. What I like is that we never really discuss our tweets but I know Alex (and Dennis, and other members of staff) will look at our feed when they wake up. So a lot of the time I’m just trying to make them laugh.
SH: Do you ever censor yourself on account of running a corporate account?
ZM: We pick our fights, and I don’t think we’re ever mean or spiteful. Sometimes I pause before I send out a tweet full of expletives and then think “what the hell” because I can’t resist the retweets.
AS: We definitely have the sweariest account in publishing, which I love, even if I get the (very) occasional note asking why we use so many “f-bombs.” I feel like if you don’t like saying “fuck,” you probably won’t like our books anyway. As for censoring in other areas, for the most part the same rules apply online as they do anywhere else: have a perspective, but don’t be petty and don’t be personal (unless you’re talking about, say, Jeff Bezos eating a cockroach). We take on controversial subjects—we’re one of the few publishing houses that openly talks about Amazon, for instance—and we do that with a sense of urgency, but also with a sense of humor. I try to have a sense of what’s at stake before I start making dumb jokes. Mostly, I try to make myself the butt of the joke whenever possible, probably because I’m a masochist.
SH: How do you balance promoting Melville House books and tweeting other sorts of things? Do you worry about the balance?
AS: Now that I think about it, a lot of what we do is promotional in one way or another—most of what we tweet about is either stuff we’ve written on the blog or stuff we’ve published. But it doesn’t really ever feel that way. I care about what we publish and I want other people to care about it too. I worry about finding the right angle or the right joke sometimes but I don’t really worry about balance.
SH: How come your feed isn’t ever annoying? Is your heart in the right place? What is the right place for the heart of a publishing or business feed to be?
AS: One of things I like the best about Melville House’s twitter feed, as opposed to other “brands” or whatever, is that you always have the sense that there’s a real, live human being on the other end. Zeljka and I (and Dustin, too, while he was here) all take on a certain Melville House-y voice, but when I scroll through our feed I always know exactly who wrote what (not like I’m keeping score, or anything). We’re never shill and, while we’re sometimes caustic, we’re never cynical. Our heart is with the books and with the business of making books and I hope that always comes across. Whether that’s the right place or not is anyone’s guess, but it sure feels like the right place. I’d definitely like to sell a lot of books and make so much money that I’m tweeting from a solid gold computer or something, but that’s not the most important thing by a long shot—if it were, I probably wouldn’t work in publishing. I work for Melville House for the same reason I used to work in bookstores and the same reason I started a site about literature with a group of friends: I care very deeply about literature and want to be a part of its future. Thankfully, it’s also easy to not be cynical about marketing books here, because the books are just really, really good.
SH: What other tasks do you have at Melville House besides tweeting? Do other people tweet, too?
ZM: If I’m tweeting from 10am – 3pm London time and Alex takes over at 10am New York time, we cover around 11 hours a day which is a pretty good show. Alex usually waits until my shift is over to insult England, and I only see those tweets when I’m going to bed at night. My other tasks are the running of the London office but I would say I take Twitter just as seriously as everything else. It’s one of the first ways that people meet us.
AS: I get in at 10 and tweet more or less continuously until I leave around 6. I also run point on most of our digital endeavors: I edit MobyLives, run direct sales, manage partnerships with other digital companies, update our website, and fix bugs when they come up. I’m basically in front of the computer all day anyway, so Twitter is always only a click away.
SH: Are there any other publishing house feeds you like? What do you think of publishing house feeds in general?
ZM: Other publishing houses provide me with rules for what not to do on twitter: no references to drinking tea, eating cake or photos of employee’s pets drinking tea, eating cake or “reading”. At Christmas, no trees assembled out of books. I try to avoid making publishing look like a twee pursuit. I think bookshops are currently doing a better job than publishers, perhaps because they don’t have to be as partisan: they can talk about books without being afraid of upsetting an author or agent and they’re public about their hatred of Amazon, which most publishers don’t dare to be. @LRBbookshop has character and the booksellers do a good job of promoting books they like in a way that feels genuine, @Foyles is fun and @WstonesOxfordSt has a very funny feed, which proves that you can have a sense of humour and a personality even if you’re the country’s chain bookshop.
AS: I could not second Zeljka’s “I try to avoid making publishing look like a twee pursuit” more heartily. I think a lot of publishing Twitter is bland and (understandably) self-protective; sometimes I think identity creation and maintenance—the sense of “being a book person”—comes before the books themselves, which isn’t something I’m particularly interested in. That said, there are publishers I like a lot. @HarperPerennial is great, and similar to us in a lot of ways. Our overlords at @Randomhouse have an excellent sense of humor and are always game. @GroveAtlantic is funny and clever. I like @graywolfpress a lot. I’m sure I’m leaving tons out, though (unsurprisingly) I have the most affection for other independent presses. Also, everyone should follow every independent bookstore for the good of mankind.
SH: Do you feel like your twitter presence creates a lot of good will towards MH? Do you have any evidence that it sells books? Does that matter?
ZM: A lot of people know us because of our twitter presence; in fact when I was working in another British publishing house it is how I discovered the company. Once I saw how Melville House was tweeting I couldn’t believe how honest, personable and scathing they were, and had trouble knowing which tweets to retweet/favourite: I wanted to retweet them all. A lot of people tell us how much they like our twitter feed; I was in a flea market carrying our tote bag and an old lady stopped me to say “I love your Twitter feed! That Dustin is a funny guy.” From my experience, it definitely makes people aware of us and our books, authors and events. When that all comes together, and maybe that’s over a period of time, that sells books.
AS: For the most part, if someone I’m talking to has heard of Melville House, the first thing they mention is the Twitter feed. As for selling books—well, it definitely sells some, though it’s not like every time I tweet about how Lars Iyer is a genius someone immediately buys his first three books from us. But I would bet that it has a pretty strong effect on sales in general. We’re basically handselling books and, from my experience in bookstores, that’s the second best thing there is. (The first best is stickers. People fucking love stickers.) I’m torn on the “Does it matter?” question. I suppose if it didn’t matter, we’d stop doing it—there’s always too much to do in publishing and at some point cost-benefit equations come into play. I’ve tried to do analytic/market research before and it’s always been a goddamn disaster. So maybe our Twitter is just its own reward.
SH: What advice would you have for other businesses, or authors, or publishing houses?
ZM: One of the big ways that we’re different to other houses is that our Co-Publishers, Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, understand social media and use Twitter themselves; at other places social media is consigned to the young people who “get” technology and management don’t chose to engage with it. This means that, more often than not, social media is done by someone junior who gets trapped in a paradoxical situation where they are (understandably) afraid to say anything that will get them into trouble, even though no one in management even looks at the account. I think this is why so many publisher accounts are so dull, which is a shame because I’m certain they have lively, interesting people behind them.
AS: To piggyback off of this a bit, I think that a lot of businesses see Twitter as another marketing box to check. For a lot of places, that’s probably fine. If you’re a monolith, you don’t really need a voice, and it’s possible that the risks outweigh the reward—you’ll read stories on Gawker about major corporations fucking up on Twitter, but you don’t see many about how hilarious Proctor & Gamble is. But for smaller places—especially places involved in the production of art—I think it’s really important to not just have a voice, but to actually interact with people. People are better than brands. And anyway, no one really cares about what you’re broadcasting—have a conversation.
SH: Do you have an imaginary person that you’re being when you’re tweeting?
ZM: On my own account, I am quite careful about what I tweet and how often, but it is freeing to tweet from the Melville House account because very few people know its me behind it. I don’t have a gender, age or nationality, which means I can play around with character.
AS: I imagine that I am a bald, 50-year-old man who lives in Seattle and is worth roughly $30 billion. Or, if there are enough candles and chalk in the office, I summon the actual spirit of Herman Melville and let him tweet through me.
Week 1: Kimmy Walters
Week 2: Kate Zambreno
Week 3: Teju Cole
Week 4: Mira Gonzales
Week 5: Tao Lin
Week 6: Christian Lorentzen
Week 7: Patricia Lockwood
Week 8: Crylenol/Sadvil
Week 9: Various
Week 9 ¾: Roxane Gay
Week 10: Kenneth Goldsmith