The last three years have been eventful and productive for Microcosm Publishing, an indie publisher based in Portland, Ore. Over that period, the house has merged with Elly Blue Publishing, consolidated its office and warehouse operations into a new building in Portland, and moved its distribution to Perseus’s Legato Distribution.
The house will celebrate its 20th anniversary in February 2016, a milestone it will mark after two years of big sales gains. According to founder Joe Biel, total revenue in 2014 was just under $390,000, and he projected 2015 revenue to be more than $470,000. He said that “2014 was our best year ever, with a 28% increase in dollars over 2013,” adding that “we are expecting another 23% increase [in revenue] by the end of .” The house has added staff, which now includes eight full-time and three part-time employees, after hiring Thea Kuticka, former Dark Horse Comics business development director, as its new sales director this year.
Microcosm will release about 20 titles in 2016, including Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s, by Biel, a memoir and business book. The book details Biel’s diagnosis (at the age of 32) of Asperger’s syndrome, 15 years after he founded Microcosm, and offers his story of building a company despite being “inflexible and difficult.” As he explained, “for most of my working life, my Asperger’s made it much more difficult to have relationships with my coworkers. I only heard words; I could not detect facial cues.” Recalling a failed marriage, years of frustration, and emotional conflict with friends and family, he said, “You know you’re different, but you don’t know why.” Biel spent three years working with a cognitive behavior specialist to learn how to “mimic neuro-typical people.”
Other books coming in 2016 include Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking by Anne Elizabeth Moore, a work of graphic nonfiction about the connections between the global fashion market and the sex trade, featuring such comics artists as Leela Corman and Ellen Lindner; Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation by Emilie Bahr, a look at women and biking in Portland; and The Post-structuralist Vulva Coloring Book by Meggyn Pomerleau.
Biel founded Microcosm in 1996, in his bedroom. The house first published zines on punk rock and distributed zines, books, T-shirts, and alternative cultural manifestos to a network of retailers that include record stores, bike shops, clothing shops, and festivals. Today, the house has evolved into an eclectic but growing indie book publisher, publishing a range of books (and graphic novels) on alternative culture, environmentalism, history, and feminism. The company has also been innovative in finding new markets. Biel was interviewed while attending the Oklahoma Bike Summit, a bicycling advocacy event, and he brought along about 150 Microcosm books to sell to the 500 attendees. The house also regularly uses Kickstarter to fund titles. “Kickstarter is a movement building tool that helps you create buzz around new books. It gets pre-sales up and gets fans involved,” he said.
Biel has said that “the underground is bigger than the mainstream” when it comes to Microcosm titles. Only about 5% of the company’s sales come from the bookstore market, so Biel is focused on raising its profile—and revenue—in conventional bookstores, a goal that prompted the move to Legato in 2014. Legato has already affected the Microcosm frontlist: “We’ve seen a 900% increase in advance sales of our frontlist,” Biel said, with a focus on the backlist coming next. “Legato is the first distributor that understands us. They aren’t trying to turn us into a boring conventional publishing house,” he said. Among Microcosm’s bestsellers are such titles as Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills (106,000 copies sold), Wild Fermentation: A Cultural Guide to Do It Yourself Cultural Manipulation (45,000 copies), Zinester’s Guide to Portland (74,000 copies); and Making Stuff and Doing Things (27,000 copies).
In 2013, Microcosm bought an old medical building in Portland, consolidated its offices and warehouse there, and opened a Microcosm store. In early 2015, Microcosm merged with Elly Blue Publishing, a small press focused on women’s issues, feminism and bicycling, a fast-growing category of books at Microcosm. In addition to merging the two businesses, Biel and Elly Blue became a couple as well as co-owners of Microcosm Publishing. Elly Blue Publishing is now an imprint of Microcosm, and Blue is marketing director of Microcosm as well as a Microcosm author (Bikenomics: How Biking Can Save the Economy).
To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Biel wants more than a big party. He's thinking about organizing a “mass read-in”—getting together Microcosm fans to “go and read somewhere.” Biel compared Microcosm’s fans and their support to his own struggle with Asperger’s, explaining that “they’re people who feel they don’t fit in, but feel comfortable with what we do.”