Microcosm Publishing, a midlist press out of Portland, Ore., will assume complete control of its own distribution in January. The company will also stop offering its titles for sale on Amazon.
Founded by the author and publisher Joe Biel in 1996 from his Cleveland bedroom, Microcosm has a staff of 14 and has been distributed by PGW/Ingram for the last seven years (with a distribution deal with IPG before that). To prepare for the switch, the publisher moved 16 pallets of zines across the country, threw impromptu “superpack” bulk zine sales online, and built two new sheds for its inventory.
“Now our warehouse is adjacent to our offices which is really convenient for every level,” said Biel. As part of its new distribution arrangement, Microcosm will work with regional sales representatives throughout the U.S.: Fujii Associates in the Midwest, Como Sales on the East Coast, and Book Travelers West in the Northwest.
Microcosm has sold over three million books and zines. Its bestselling titles include Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills by Raleigh Briggs (150,000 copies in print since 2007), Unfuck Your Brain (33,000 copies in print since 2017), and the Henry & Glenn Forever indie comics series by Tom Neely (150,000 copies in print since 2010), and more than 125,000 copies of Portland guidebooks.
Since the beginning, Microcosm has always controlled the lion’s share of its own distribution. Biel estimates that PGW only handled between 10% to 25% of Microcosm’s distribution over the years, and Amazon only accounted for 1% of the publishers’ net sales. The publisher has built its own network of record stores, gift shops, grocery stores, and other non-traditional bookselling locations that Biel calls the “underground” of bookselling.
The publisher keeps a database with around 600 in-business record stores that would be willing to sell books, in addition to a number of other more unexpected locations. “It has slowed down a bit, but for a while, our biggest account was a taco stand in Tokyo,” said Biel. “They would buy a thousand books at a time.” Distributors call this underground network the “parallel gift market”—a bookselling ecosystem that most publishers don’t tap.
“An enthusiastic music shop or comic store can be a better partner than a large, indifferent chain,” said Kristine Anstine, Microcosm’s major accounts sales manager, who spent two decades at Last Gasp Books before joining Microcosm. “Self-distribution through quality independent bookstores, zine shops, and non-traditional venues allows us to avoid the ‘books as units of product’ mode that pervades much of the industry.”
Biel also became a mini-distributor as he traveled with Microcosm’s zines and book and over the years, Microcosm distributed books from other publishers that ranged from mental health to sustainable living to punk rock. To this day, the publisher still hand-picks a few titles to sell. Most recently, his team has been hand-selling How To Talk To Your Cat About Gun Safety by Zachary Auburn, a Penguin Random House author who got his start making zines with Microcosm. “We sold thousands and thousands of those zines,” said Biel. “The book actually does the thing that it’s supposed to do—bring his zine to a new audience, rather than making the same people buy it again as a book.”
“We grow year over year, every year,” said Biel, noting that sales are up 52% this year. He wonders why not more publishers try to explore the “underground” market. “I see publishers competing dollar for dollar to get very limited shelf space. How does that make sense? I don’t understand it.”