Melville House to Publish CIA Torture Report: An Interview with Publisher Dennis Johnson


In what must be considered a watershed moment in contemporary publishing, Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House will release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of a government report — “Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program” — that is said to detail the monstrous torture methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency in its counter-terrorism efforts.

Melville House’s co-publisher and co-founder Dennis Johnson has called the report “probably the most important government document of our generation, even one of the most significant in the history of our democracy.”

As of Friday afternoon, the small team at Melville house had been working around the clock (without sleep) since Tuesday in order to get the summary report — which comes to more than 500 pages — to the printer. Johnson has chosen to publish the book on December 30th — a near-impossible achievement — because, as he told the New York Times, “Our fear was that, with all the distractions of the holiday season, the report would fade quickly from the news cycle.”

The sheer size and complexity of such a publishing project typically precludes independent publishers from releasing historic government reports. And, as I discovered, the government almost always avoids independent publishers in favor of the complicity of larger houses.

I briefly interrupted Johnson by phone on Friday to ask him a few questions about Melville House’s historic, ongoing publication of the CIA Torture Report.

Flavorwire: Just to be clear, you’re publishing the summary of a much larger report?

Dennis Johnson: We’re publishing what the government released, which is called the “summary report.” The full report is over 6,000 pages. The report that the government released is 524 pages.

What accounts for the massive disparity in page count? What’s in the full report that is not in the summary?

We can only guess. This is all that’s been declassified. The full report is based entirely on the internal CIA documents. That’s why so much of it hasn’t been declassified. They were not allowed to do interviews or do anything more than look at these documents because the Department of Justice is conducting an investigation where they [are/were] the only ones allowed to do interviews with the respective personnel.

You are guys are publishing this very, very quickly…

Yeah, we are. In the past, with these kinds of reports, for example with the 9/11 commission report or the senate investigation of the financial crisis, with those reports, the government gave preferential treatment to certain big publishers, whereby they gave them the reports early so that they could be published simultaneously with their release to the general public. They also gave some of those publishers money for production. I don’t know how they justified that. It seems illegal to me. These are public documents.

In this instance, Dianne Feinstein seems to not have wanted to do that. She didn’t want to give preferential treatment to anybody. So she didn’t do it, and those publishers seem to be in a huff to me. They’re not going to do it without certain advantages. When I realized that’s what was going on Tuesday — as the report was released — and I started seeing stories I thought were planted by those publishers — I decided that we would jump on it. And that’s what we did.

There are other reasons they may not have wanted to do it. One thing is that it’s really hard to put this thing into a book. They physical making of it is very difficult. The government released a very low resolution PDF that is pretty much impossible to scan or search or do any editorial work on. We had to virtually retype the whole thing. It was tricky because a lot information was redacted. Things like that became issues for us.

It’s been a difficult production project. We’re still not quite done. Nobody here has been to bed for a couple of days. It’s pretty wearying.

You’re doing a digital version and a print version that will come out at the end of December?

Yes, we’ll actually have the books printed and shipping in a little over a week. But it will take a while to ship it around the country, so the proper publishing date is December 30th.

You plan on doing a run of 50,000 copies?

That’s right. We’re already thinking we might have to up that. We’re overwhelmed with orders and responses from booksellers, librarians, academics, Barnes and Noble. Everybody wants this book. We’re hearing from independent stores that want hundreds of copies. The people in the industry seem very keen to work with us to get this out. They seem very energized to sell this book. It’s what we do. We’re in this for a bigger cause than to just make money. This is one of those books that resonates with that impulse that most of the people in the book business have.