When a young intern at Microcosm Publishing—an indie house in Portland, Ore., focused on books that empower marginalized communities—asked founder Joe Biel what she should read to complete her publishing education, Biel was stumped. “I didn’t know what to tell her,” he said.
With that intern in mind, Biel wrote A People’s Guide to Publishing: Build a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful, Book Business from the Ground Up, a comprehensive guide to launching a book publishing venture, which Microcosm will release this month. It’s the eighth book Biel has written and published at Microcosm.
Biel, who struggled to graduate from high school and has Asperger’s syndrome, said he wanted to write “something thorough and accessible” on publishing that would be useful to that intern. The book is also unconventional: Biel separates his approach to publishing from what he calls “the literary industrial complex’’—i.e., big New York trade book publishers and mainstream bookstores.
“I got a cold reception from bookstores when I started, so I would go to a nearby record store, and our books would sell really well there,” Biel said. His publishing credo is that the “underground is bigger than the mainstream” when it comes to books.
Microcosm began as an underground culture operation, publishing and distributing its own zines and books until it was big enough to attract a trade distributor. But after several years of being distributed by PGW, Biel is going back to self-distribution and will no longer sell to Amazon. Microcosm does a better job, he said, distributing its own books to trade bookstores and to the nontraditional retailers—record shops, bike shops, grocery stores, gardening and plant nurseries, and boutiques—that are its core market.
Microcosm’s program is also his book’s proof of concept. This year, it will publish 25 books and generate just over $1 million in revenue, a gain of nearly 35% over 2017. The house has 14 employees, a 5,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, and a bookstore in Portland. Three years ago, Biel said, Microcosm distributed books and merchandise to 600 accounts; today, Microcosm distribution has more than 2,000 accounts.
A publishing entrepreneur, Biel writes, should view a new venture as a “passionate hobby” focused on “something you care about so much you can’t stop thinking about it.” And publishing, he said, should also be a “movement”—essentially an extension of the passionate-hobby concept that “advances and offers new angles on the category.”
Microcosm, for example, publishes a lot of books on bicycling and sustainability. At a time when cycling advocacy, Biel said, had become stagnant, Microcosm published Bicycle/Race by Adonia Lugo, which examines racism and cycling advocacy. “Biking isn’t just for rich people,” Biel said.
And Biel believes that publishers should focus on underserved communities. “Middle-aged black women are the biggest readers,” he said, pointing to a community he believes publishers ignore. “Stop looking for bestsellers. Find an audience and publish for it.”