Founded in Cleveland 16 years ago in Joe Biel’s bedroom, Microcosm Publishing is a “self-empowerment” and alternative culture publisher and distributor in Portland, Ore., and Lansing, Kansas. Originally a distributor of zines and records, Microcosm has grown into a company with a knack for selling alternative culture books.
Biel recently signed with IPG to distribute Microcosm titles to mainstream book retailers, but Microcosm will continue to distribute its titles to its own network of unconventional accounts. In a phone interview from Portland, Biel joked that, for his books, “the underground appears bigger than the mainstream.”
Founded as a publisher of zines and self-published short works on a wide range of topics, especially underground culture, comics, music, and politics, Microcosm sells what some might call eccentric books for very economical prices. Among its bestselling titles are Henry & Glenn Forever ($6, from Biel’s Cantankerous line) by Tom Neely, Scot Nobles, and Igloo Tornado, a hilarious 2010 comic book sendup of notorious muscle-bound rockers Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig as a gay couple; it’s sold 50,000 copies. Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills ($7) by Raleigh Briggs has sold “70,000 to 80,000 copies,” and the Zinester’s Guide to Portland ($5.95) by Nate Beaty and Shawn Granton has sold 40,000 copies since it first came out and is going back to press for another 10,000 copies.
Microcosm authors get “a small advance” (if the author makes all deadlines) on book-length works and a 15% royalty. Authors can purchase their books at cost, he said, “as long as they don’t try to compete with us in our sales territory.”
Biel’s early student infatuation with zine culture has grown into the basis for Microcosm’s publishing program. A typical Microcosm title, Biel said, often starts out as a “zine we like,” and then gets expanded.
Titles focus on “self-empowerment,” and their catalogue lists works on everything from feminism, punk lifestyle, and comics to race, veganism, radical parenting, activism, and zombies. The publisher avoids overly topical political titles, but political activism is definitely on its list. Microcosm has published about 150 titles (about 12 books a year) including about six–10 titles a year from Cantankerous Titles, an imprint directed by Biel that offers graphic novels, books, and videos on topics “for understanding the world.”
Biel said Microcosm distributes a combination of titles (books and zines) and other merchandise (T-shirts, videos, buttons, and patches) from as many as 2,000 publishers/suppliers to a “ram-shackle”network of bike shops, records stores, “off-kilter” clothing shops, and festivals of all kinds. For distributed works that Microcosm doesn’t publish, Biel said, Microcosm pays 50% of retail within 30 days. Most of Microcosm’s books are not sold through traditional bookstores, Biel said. Microcosm has such loyal customers, he said, the publisher even offers a “BFF Line” (Best Friends Forever), a subscription service for $10–$30 a month in which Microcosm sends the subscriber “whatever we publish that month.” And integral to Microcosm’s success has been its Web site (microcosmpublishing.com), which offers both retail and wholesale online purchasing.
Microcosm is best described as a “philosophical nonprofit,” which means it’s a collective run by its six full-time staff people, but it isn’t a formal 501(c) 3 nonprofit—Biel says nonprofit rules prohibit collective management—but, rather, a for-profit store run as a nonprofit. “All profits are spent on future projects within the organization,” Biel explained, “and the owners and collective members receive no profits beyond salaries.” But no matter what it’s called, Microcosm is profitable, with 10%–20% revenue growth year to year, according to Biel.
Microcosm has a physical retail store in Portland, Ore., and offices and warehouses in Lansing, Kans. (where a Microcosm co-owner lives and handles fulfillment) and Portland. It also has the occasional touring “pop-up” store.
Biel said, “We built Microcosm as an alternative to, not in opposition to, traditional publishing. It’s still fun. That helps a lot when it gets stressful around here. It’s still rewarding.”