Joe Biel is a writer, publisher, activist and teacher. He’s founder and owner of Portland-based Microcosm Publishing and has been in the publishing business for 17 years. In this Q&A, he shares how Microcosm came to be, challenges he’s faced, and where he thinks the direction of publishing is going.
Killer Creatives: How did you get your start in publishing?
Joe Biel: I was a teenage punk rocker that went to an overcrowded and poorly-rated high school [and] I didn’t get a single book assigned for me to read. In 1994 I discovered zines as an extension of punk and I found them to be absolutely fascinating in a way that I didn’t realize was possible with reading. Quickly, I made zine distributing my hobby and was making my own zines.
Within a year I was “publishing” zines by other people about all kinds of subjects—well, I was organizing the production workflows, stealing the photocopies, and doing the distribution. Within a few years of that, I found out the brutal shortcomings of zines (length, insular audience, development of writing, etc.) and I simultaneously worked to have zines taken more seriously and to publish actual paperback books. I had no idea what I was doing and worked within the record label model for publishing and distribution that we more or less still use today, more than 15 years later.
KC: What were the biggest challenges you faced in Microcosm’s beginnings, and how did you overcome them?
JB: In the beginning, the hardest thing was my own depression. I grew up in an environment that was the opposite of encouraging. Everyone wanted to tell me why something couldn’t work. Why I should just work at a steel mill like everyone else. But I had my punk music and my friends and a social scene and a whole lot of stubbornness. And those factors built an insular cycle of encouragement into what I was doing at a very formative time in my life. I was still a teenager when I started so that came with all of its own best and worst aspects. I actually had the best paying job of my life delivering pizzas so I was able to fund the initial startup costs through that.
But honestly, starting a publishing company in my bedroom in a way that was self-directed and required focus and time management skills when the world was telling me that it was a mistake, that was the hardest thing. But those factors allowed me to manage my expectations in a reasonable way. Since I was told it was supposed to fail, the simplest successes were quite rewarding and compounded to help me believe in it and put more and more time and effort into doing things right.
Since I was told it was supposed to fail, the simplest successes were quite rewarding and compounded to help me believe in it and put more and more time and effort into doing things right.
KC: How has the publishing industry changed in the past 10 years? What do you think it will look like in another 10 years?
JB: Right now, the big thing is the recession. Indie retailers are disappearing left and right. We’ve probably already seen the worst of it. We lost half of our staff because we simply couldn’t afford them anymore as every single expense seemed to increase by 20% each year. We didn’t get our first real distributor until 2011 when we began working with Independent Publisher’s Group. That helped morale quite a bit and after all of the cutbacks we had built a pretty robust foundation and 2013 has actually been a very good year for us. We are slowly rebuilding.
The scary thing is that retailers are less and less willing and able to take a “chance” on most titles, which leads to pretty barren record and book stores. You can no longer walk in looking for a specific title that you read about on a blog. You now essentially have to order it on the Internet. And the worst part of this is that it’s a downward spiral that’s making indie retailers less and less relevant and seeming more and more like a doomed operation.
There aren’t easy answers here but what’s clear is that the edgier and newer models are replacing the old. We’re seeing big box retailers become browsing showrooms for shopping online and a bigger and bigger share of the market moving to online retail, which hurts us in numerous ways—it makes it harder to (a) meet new people with common interests, (b) discover new things you’d be interested in by chance, and (c) support the community-based institutions that had built a strong resistance to corporate bookselling models. I think this shift will continue to progress in this direction where the innovative stores that do a lot of impulsive crossover will thrive while the more traditional bookstore will become a hobby project. For example, the stores that have the best success selling our books tend to be garden supply shops, record stores, clothing stores, or sometimes even stranger places—for the simple fact that it’s both a novel thing to discover in a coffeeshop and also because they aren’t competing with numerous other books.
The real things that the publisher offers are an existing network of relationships with people who provide services and get the book to the reader. The biggest mistake I see is the author thinking they can do it all.
KC: What are the benefits of going through a publisher as opposed to self-publishing?
JB: It depends what you want out of publishing and what your natural skill set is. With publishers taking on fewer and fewer new titles and authors, if you have the skills to write, get publicity and distribute yourself, you may be better off than working with a publisher. But in most cases, authors can’t simply work both ends like that or work hundred hour weeks. It’s hard to be motivated on both right and left-brained tasks like that.
The real things that the publisher offers are an existing network of relationships with people who provide services and get the book to the reader, whether that’s journalists who get inundated with books but are familiar with the publisher, or stores that are familiar with other books that the publisher has done, to editors who know how to properly develop a book to read well, avoid tangents, and be interesting and properly formatted, or even just connecting a book to the right illustrator or co-author.
I’ve taught on how to publish and the essentials of developing an audience for your work and creating something worth reading and the biggest mistake I see is the author thinking they can do it all or taking on too much of a risk, not understanding how to approach their audience, or giving up too soon if they don’t succeed in the first year or first book.
And because publishing is an isolated pursuit that doesn’t often involve working within a community, having a staff to work with every day at your publisher is helpful and can help with things like morale, focus, decision making, and energy.
KC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JB: The best thing about being a young punk publisher was being able to dive right in and make lots of mistakes even though that sounds totally inadvisable in hindsight. I managed the organization myself for the first 10 years even though I did not have proper training or a lot of previous experience in management, and I think it allowed me to understand a lot of my own personal communication weaknesses which allowed me to develop as a person in ways that have become very important years later and significantly in other aspects of my life. I wouldn’t trade that in for the world.
Microcosm Publishing is a radical departure from conventional publishing, dedicated to literature about DIY, self-empowerment, fostering creativity, and more.