An Interview with Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing

Ed Battistella: How did Microcosm Publishing come about?

Joe Biel: ​I grew up in Cleveland​ during the bankruptcy and recession​ in the 70s and 80s. ​My upbringing was abusive, I was uneducated, and I had autism that wasn’t diagnosed until my 30s. Being involved in the punk scene led ​me ​to Harvey Pekar, the Dead Boys, Dennis Kucinich, and a long union history of corporate hegemony versus public power. I was desperately lacking necessary resources that I needed to be a functional person. I had a problem with alcohol from age sixteen and could see that crime was the easiest path for someone like me. I drunkenly confided to a peer at the punk club that I was involved with as a teenager that I was going to start something. ​Soon thereafter, I began creating the kind of resources that I needed as a child about gender, mental health, grassroots organizing,​ punk rock,​ history, queerness, ​political power, race and class, and analytical skills. I founded ​Microcosm with any money leftover from my job delivering pizzas. ​Microcosm was a matter of desperation; of nothing meaning anything at a time when I desperately needed it to and it still is.​ We made a comic about our story, with the publishing industry portrayed as dinosaurs and ourselves as rats. Oddly, not much has changed in 22 years other than Microcosm has made my life much more stable. I wrote a book, Good Trouble that details this history in greater depth.

EB: What sorts of things does Microcosm publish? There seems to be quite a range.

JB: All of our books originate from a single point of criteria: “Does this book empower the reader to make positive changes in their life and in the world around them?” If so, our staff does a thorough comp analysis and finds if demand and a niche exists. We aren’t terribly concerned about what subject or shelf the book will land on as you have pointed out. We publish about 20 books per year so our diversity also helps to keep our staff learning and interested. I am autistic, which leads me to be plenty stubborn and to really enjoy the challenge of the changing landscape ​in publishing. I now understand the role of my own meaning and purpose and see suffering as opportunity instead of pain.​ We use data to make decisions in a pretty intense way and communicate internally more like a technology company than a publisher. ​Creative projects move quickly through a pipe with everyone offering feedback and giving their touches.

Some examples of books that I really love:

​​Soviet Daughter looks at the history of Soviet Ukraine and growing up Jewish there before emigrating to the U.S. and becoming a radical occupier! It’s the first-ever graphic novel to be published in the Ukraine!

Things That Help is your guide to self-care in a Trump presidency.

​The Prodigal Rogerson is the first look at the life of the songwriter, bass player, and forgotten member of The Circle Jerks.

Unfuck Your Brain gets to the nerve of how we can unravel neuroscience and be happy!

Chocolotology is a critical and deep taste of how imperialism made chocolate so bittersweet and delicious.

​Basic Fermentation ​is the first book by world fermentation expert Sandor Katz that he sent to us with a very modest letter in 2001. It’s now one of our top ten sellers.

​Henry & Glenn Forever depicts Rollins and Danzig in the ultimate idol killing environment: a bare, romantic relationship where egos are visible and emotions are raw. ​

Sick compiles stories of people living with illness in the most compelling way that evokes sorrow and sometimes hope in the way great literature should.

Xtra Tuf is the story of one woman fishing in Alaska during labor stand downs ​while dissent brews.

White Elephants is a story of dealing with recovery and loss through picking through yard sales.

Cambodian Grrrl provides ​a new perspective on what it’s like to be a student at Cambodia’s first college for women and how history and social mores continue to play a part of a generation that wasn’t even aware of their own past.

F​irebrands collects heartwarming, powerful stories about radical visionaries who left indelible marks on their societies and our world with a portrait for each from the Just Seeds art collective.

EB: Microcosm has been around for over twenty years. What does it take to be successful In the publishing business?

JB: The issues that Microcosm’s list engages on are just as relevant as they were in the 90s and my heart gets more invested as my developmental senses improve. I think the key is to service a niche, both in terms of having a clear audience and a clear editorial niche; one that is both vacant but has adequate demand.

I often hear pie-in-the-sky ruminating about how the industry should be, which I just don’t find helpful since a few monopolies maintain such stringent control over so many aspects. My decision making is so intellectual and analytical that I only focus on actionable choices with impact. I understand that this is a very emotional time in publishing as things change but I enjoy it quite a bit. The changing game has kept me interested in something that I’ve done for nearly 22 years while not getting comfortable or bored. Our average book sells more than the industry average of 3,000 copies and we have five titles that have sold over 50,000 copies and one that has sold over 100,000 copies. These books pay for ones that we really lose our ass on, which fortunately only happens once per year and those books eventually recoup across years as we find their audiences. Our sales in 2017 are on track to exceed $750,000 and we are gearing to exceed that this year, which would again make it our best year ever. Granted, we didn’t always have these titles and so my punk rock intuition told me never to invest too heavily in any one title and to try and treat them all equally like children.

EB: What do you look for in a book or author?

JB: I’ve spent this past month overhauling our trade catalog grids for our Fall 2018 catalog. Part of my process has been seeing how companies that I respect and appreciate highlight their frontlist. And the results are fascinating. I’m watching more and more of them develop titles as we have for the past decade.We’ve worked with numerous New York Times bestselling authors and we have the best success working with first-time authors. For a new title, we are looking for a book that is similar but not identical to three titles that we’ve done in the past five years and fulfills a vacant niche for a clear audience. “A Guide to the Trees of Portland,” “The Story of Service Dogs in America,” or “A Graphic Novel About the History of Jesus People USA.” They are all have a clear audience and are developed around the reader’s benefit instead of the author’s expression. Every book here gets more or less the same treatment and attention. Putting tons of money behind something with bad development will never sell books. Being comprehensive in title/subtitle/cover development to clearly communicate the emotional payoff of each book is what makes a title successful as well as ensuring that there’s room for it on the shelf in the first place. We publish all of our numbers annually and now we even produce charts and graphs.

EB: Can you tell us about some of the books and zines you’ve designed?

JB: Yes, I’m not sure how this happened but my principal duties are in finances, management, acquisitions, and design. I really enjoy the design aspect of the job though it certainly requires understanding each title and creating something representative that also feels professional. Some of my favorite projects are the entire works of Dr. Faith Harper, Homesweet Homegrown, Basic Fermentation, this poster about being a successful artist, and these tote bags. I love it that I get to incorporate the aesthetic of my punk youth into these projects that legitimately address and help people with their problems. That gets me out of bed every single day.

EB: What do you enjoy most about the publishing business? What’s most challenging?

JB: Almost everyone that I interview for an internship wants to be an editor. That job has no appeal for me. It’s so stressful and socially isolating. I love the books and I find them much more enjoyable if I can read the final draft like it was an effortless endeavor. I really like hammering out strong identity graphics, videos, and clear values that tell our audience what we care about and where we are coming from, artistically and politically. Mostly, I like helping people, whether that’s creating useful work or helping someone who has a specific question about a specific project that I can draw on my experience to answer. There’s a ton of potential for small presses and it’s more fun than ever.​

Microcosm has been growing faster these past five years than the seventeen years before that. The reasons are multifold, but it ultimately come down to the fact that there are very few independent publishers left that are about our size. Most of our former competitors have either been sold to bigger companies or gone out of business so we don’t have to compete for titles like we used to. So honestly financing our own growth has been the most challenging thing these past few years. We need an additional warehouse to keep up with the sales that we could be managing so ultimately we are losing sales because we can’t grow as fast as the industry demands us to. That’s been frustrating and stressful, especially this past year. At the same time it’s important to stay independent and it’s completely satisfying to know that there’s more demand for our books than we can satisfy!

EB: Microcosm Publishing bills itself as “a vertically integrated publishing house that equips readers to make positive changes in their lives and in the world around them.” Can you tell our readers a bit more about that mission? Is that part of the future of publishing?

JB: We strive to make all of our offerings made the reader feel good about themselves while offering tools and perspective to create the life that they want for themselves while changing the world around them. We offer sliding scale pricing on our website so that everyone can afford our books. We work hard to challenge an industry that is 88% white and has a bigger pay gap for women than the U.S. average. ​All of this results in many heartwarming phone calls, emails, and pieces of fan mail.

​Even 22 years later ​I ​still think of Microcosm ​like the punk band Black Flag on those trailblazing tours where they created a DIY punk touring network of rental Halls and teenage promoters. We’ve done many book tours in a similar fashion and even made a new board game about that. I also still think of myself as the taste barometer for most of our books. What books would I find interesting? What would alienate me?

Our mission was initially just a way for me, a depressed kid without options in life, to find meaning and purpose in the world. Since then, as a result, I’ve met a lot of other depressed kids without options and we’ve been able to grow together and challenge each other. What I didn’t count on is that because of my editorial focus and interests, the majority of our customers are low income women of color below 30. In hindsight, this was an audience that few people were speaking to or respecting so, in a way, it makes sense that they latched on so hard to Microcosm. And having autism, I can totally relate to few written works respectfully speaking to my experience or goals. And now, 22 years later, this is called the “diverse books movement.” So apparently it is part of the future of publishing!


EB: You also co-founded the Portland Zine Symposium. What’s that?

JB: Back in Olde Portland, I was part of a growing countercultural self-publishing movement borne of sci-fi, wrestling, and punk obsessions. Eleanor Whitney, Nicole J Georges, and I wanted to recreate the feel and politics of the music festivals of our teenage years so we founded the Portland Zine Symposium in 2001. Portland soon ascended to become ground zero for zine publishing and within a few years when we asked people how they had heard about the event, one respondent said “It’s like FAMOUS!” I was involved for five years and we grew the event to attract thousands of people each year and we would house and feed everyone. At that point I felt like I had accomplished everything that I had set out to do with the event and resigned. I believe that PZS is still happening but it’s begun to chew on its own tail and seems more content shrinking attendance and infighting than bringing the movement to new people.

EB: Microcosm seems to be a whole community. Who are some of your collaborators?

JB: We now have a staff of 13, an office, a warehouse, a book store, about 100 authors, and a booming distribution business. We work closely with numerous stores when we are developing new titles or to manage sales at events in their neck of the world. At one time our biggest customer was a taco shop in Tokyo who focused on American tourists. We are a diversified publisher, wholesaler, and distributor so we sell books from a wide variety of publishers to better explain the core​ messaging of our mission and values. I wish that Microcosm had more peer publishers as even in a busy office the work can be pretty isolating, though I’ve always really been a loner.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JB: Thank you! I’m gearing up to spill the beans on how to mimic our success with my new book, A People’s Guide to Publishing in 2018!

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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