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So What Do You Do, Charles Melcher?

An innovative book packager prepares to turn his company into a full-fledged publishing house.

By Chris Gage - April 6, 2004

Book packaging is the art of conceptualizing and producing an interesting words-and-pictures volume that a publishing house will want to manufacture, and Melcher Media is a book-packaging firm that has built its reputation on innovative, sometimes out-of-left-field concepts and productions. Why should Melcher have made a cheap paperback South Park tie-in, for example, when instead it could resurrect the Colorform? Why make just another pop-psychology book when you could instead make a pop-up book about phobias for an adult audience? While devising new, creative ways to make its clients' products stand out in the staid medium of books, Melcher Media even invented a tear-resistant, waterproof, and infinitely recyclable book format and then put out a collection titled Aqua Erotica.

Charles Melcher started in publishing as a college student, when he created a photography magazine. "I used to fancy myself a photographer," he recalls, "and then I learned enough to know I wasn't." When Melcher graduated, he decided he would investigate publishing and spent a few years doing custom publishing for schools—calendars and such—before taking jobs at Aperture and, later, Calloway Editions, where he was the publisher for Madonna's Sex. When he launched Melcher Media more than 10 years ago, the company's first job was to create an imprint for MTV. MTV Books, which," Melcher says, "I affectionately describe as an oxymoron," turned out to be very successful venture for the new company. Published by Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books imprint, MTV Books produced four New York Times bestsellers in its first few years—and sold nearly two million books. Since then, Melcher has produced a range of other successful titles, including books for Harley-Davidson, Rent, and Sex and the City.

Now, as he's preparing to turn his packaging firm into a full-fledged publishing house—which means Melcher Media will soon be fully responsible for its books' publicity, sales, manufacturing, distribution, financing, everything—Charles Melcher recently welcomed to his office, on the first floor of the brownstone he owns just off 6th Avenue, to talk about packaging, publishing, and women in bathtubs.

I've seen book packagers getting small credits on covers, but, other than that, they seem to operate in the shadows of the publishing world. What exactly is a book packager, and how do they operate?
"Packager" is a word that has come to describe a lot of different publishing and editorial services. Sometimes designers will bring a writer to a project and call themselves a packager; or you'll have an editor who originates an idea and hires a designer and then calls himself a packager. There are a lot of different people who kind of use that word loosely, but traditionally a packager is somebody who creates the layout of the book, the content of the book, and then delivers it to a publisher.

Do packagers originate ideas, or are they hired by publishers who already have something in mind?
Sometimes they are originating ideas and bringing it to publishers; in other cases, publishers have ideas that require a lot of time and skill to execute, and they'll find someone to do it for them. We've been something between a packager and a publisher, because we have been responsible for more of the publishing responsibilities than the normal packager. Not only are we originating ideas and doing all the editing and design, but we also have followed it through with the manufacturing, and, in many cases, we will then segment markets and sell the book to a North American publisher, a British publisher, a book club. You could almost think of what we do as publishing, but we only sell to a few key distributors, on a nonreturnable basis.

Nonreturnability is important—because traditional publishers can have their books sent back to them and they have to absorb that cost.
Yes, but that's part of the model. We're selling a product to the publisher: 200,000 of this book. What the publisher does with the books is up to them to decide. What's delineated us from being a full-fledged publisher is we haven't been responsible for the sales to the bookstores and we've not been the one taking the financial risk.

Why doesn't a publisher just do all this itself? Why do they hire you?
A lot of the big houses are set up to move volume. They don't have the time or resources to devote to making the books the way we do. We average six or seven books a year—publishing companies do thousands a year—so we can put more time and energy into the books. Our philosophy is always less is more: If we focus, choose carefully, and help to support it, we could make a high percentage of our books work and work big. That's the opposite of the normal book-publishing philosophy, which is do as much as you can, throw it all against the wall, and hopefully something's going to work, and that will pay for the rest of them.

So, is that model, the traditional publishing model, dead?
No, I wouldn't say it's dead. The downside of that model is that you put out a lot of stuff that doesn't necessarily deserve to go out there, and you don't do it that well because you're too busy. What I have seen is that some houses are trying to pare back their lists, to be more focused. The dirty secret in publishing is that no one ever knows what's going to work.

You've had a lot of success—your Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell is on the New York Times bestseller list—and you've had some impressive sales numbers with other books. How have you escaped that pitfalls of the "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" model?
There are certain things that are more likely to work than others, and that's easy when you're talking about a South Park or a Sex in the City. But you don't need to be a genius to know that's going to sell. The places where you need to have confidence or belief is when you do something like Aqua Erotica or the Pop-Up Book of Phobias—they're not guaranteed bestsellers. But they're situations where we played with the format in a way that made sense with the content and the form. When we went out there with a $30 elaborate, humorous pop-up book for adults, there wasn't a genre. So there are safer bets and then there are the things you just have to believe in. And with enough experience, and with the help of our publishers, we hope to turn those into successes.

Do you have other unexpected ideas coming up?
We're doing Fortune magazine's 75th anniversary book. They have the most incredible photo archive of any magazine. Their historic photography rivaled what's at the Museum of Modern Art: Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, people you would not associate with a business magazine. But the beauty of it is that Fortune in its heyday was one of the most beautiful magazines ever printed. They weren't just a magazine about business. They were a book about society; they also covered poverty, labor conflict, arts. So there's a lot of stuff in there you wouldn't assume would be in Fortune. I think people will be very surprised with that book. And that there were great photography you've never seen: color Robert Doisneau, Ansel Adams portraits of titans of industry.

South Park: A Stickyforms Adventure, which is a book of Colorforms, is a particularly good meeting of form and content. Who came up with it?
In this case I did. When I first saw South Park, I thought: Colorforms. I love it because I like to play with the media. Here's an opportunity to create a book that's an interactive experience; you offer your own stories, we just supply some backgrounds and 150 sheets of vinyl stickers. But it wasn't the obvious thing. A lot of people would have done it as a cheap paperback, and we wanted to come up with the appropriate thing for the property.

One of the things that we've done well is to help translate things into the print media. We do work with a lot of properties—Rent, television shows, magazines, films. We're there to figure out how that's going to make a unique, interesting, valuable experience in book form. Sometimes that's an obvious answer and sometimes it's not, but when you do it right you create an object people want to have and a book that competes with other media for the attention and dollars of the consumer.

You're particularly keen on innovating and looking at the media in a new way.
A lot of our books create an experience that you can't replicate on the screen. I hope that that means we're helping to create the future of books. As digital media comes in, publishing needs to learn lessons from that and adapt, and I think some publishers are scared and fighting it and not interested in adaptation. And they're not going to be around. A while ago people were saying books are dead. Books aren't dead. Radio, for example, isn't dead. Books are going to have to move over to make room for their digital neighbors, but they're going to have to play to their strengths and figure out what makes them really special and what makes them work. There's no doubt that the physicality and the tactile quality is one of the things.

Why then do you think electronic publishing has been unsuccessful?
I think the biggest problem with electronic publishing or e-books is that there haven't been authors who've grown up and learned to use the medium correctly. If you're using e-books, the biggest advantage is not, "Oh look, I can get 12 of them on one disc." The real advantage is that you can make it sing and dance and come alive in ways that are hard to do with a book. And no one's really using the medium correctly yet. It's similar to when the motion picture camera was invented and they set it up on a tripod and filmed a play. That's basically where e-books are now. They're setting it up and they're filming a book.

Your most radical innovation is the DuraBooks—the waterproof, tear-resistant, unbreakable books.
It's an idea that came years ago when I was reading an article in the Times in the Home and Garden section. It was this article about people who like to take baths, and I was struck with the similarity of the demographic of the typical bather, that it was almost the exact overlap of the typical book buyer. I thought, "What a shame that these adult women can't take a good book into the bath with them," and that set me on the course to try and figure out how to make a waterproof book for adults that would be durable, tear-resistant, and up-cycleable, which means that you can melt it down and make another book out of it in perpetuity, unlike paper which you can only recycle two or three times.

Is it possible that this could catch on in a bigger, mainstream way?
Right now our biggest problem is price. We don't do that many, so the costs are substantially higher than paper. I do believe that if we could get the print run up, we could get the price down, and if you had the choice between a traditional book and this one, you would always choose the DuraBook. There's no loss in the functionality or the printability, but you can do so much more with it.

Can you even use the same equipment? Or is that all part of what makes the larger price tag for creating these books?
You can use the same printing presses, it prints a little bit more slowly, it dries a little more slowly, but nothing that would prevent you from having everybody do their books on this. We have a marketing issue too, that if you see these books next to each other you have no idea the difference between the two. We did offer fish tanks to bookstores with a book submerged in them. A couple hundred stores took them and that worked, but you don't get the other features. It's about educating the consumer issue, and, for the first couple of years, we decided to do just a few things that were good uses of the medium and would help to build the awareness of it.

You do have the problem of moving it from the gimmick books to the traditional books.
These aren't necessarily gimmicks, because the contents and the form have a reason to go together. This really is to be read in the bathtub. That's the point. We're looking for a place where it will fit, where it adds some value to the experience.

That's going to be the trick, isn't it, as you go into publishing?
Our biggest challenge is, can we be as creative in promoting and selling as we are in making them, can we innovate there. We'll see. That's our challenge.

Chris Gage is a production editor at John Wiley & Sons.

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