After a period of software testing begun in 2022, Portland, Ore.’s Microcosm Publishing is rolling out WorkingLit, its cloud-based system for small, independent publishers. WorkingLit, an expansion of the toolkit Microcosm uses in its own operations, allows indies to streamline product databases, manage orders, complete accounting and invoicing tasks, and calculate royalties, all in one place.

Additional features in development include e-commerce tools, print estimating, and tools for managing distributors’ statements. Microcosm’s team intends to work cooperatively with monthly subscribers to create user-specific tools for companies at different scales.

“Everybody I talk to uses three or four cobbled-together systems to achieve what this does,” said Microcosm founder and CEO Joe Biel. “We assumed that everybody had something like this, but of course they don’t—this is such a weird Microcosm thing to do. But this is the reason that we quintupled our sales,” by automating basic processes and saving time. For instance, he noted, “we don’t need an accountant, because it is the accountant.” Recent years have found Microcosm consistently among PW’s fast growing independent publishers, and Biel just received PubWest’s inaugural Innovator’s Award.

Independent publishers rely on too many “redundant systems,” and “WorkingLit is a way for people to recenter their data and sales in their own hands,” said Elly Blue, Microcosm’s co-owner and v-p. “Because we’re not doing a ton of data entry or number crunching, Joe is able to focus on business development, and we’re able to run our own warehouse and ship everything in-house.” She feels that WorkingLit “has made it easier to integrate all our processes, including our shipping functionality,” noting that small publishers often outsource and overspend on fulfillment.

Chris Vega, publisher of Blue Cactus Press, and Vicki DeArmon, publisher of Sibylline Press, have been among WorkingLit’s early adopters. Vega said the system "saves me hella time (like days) when I’m calculating royalties twice a year. And it keeps track of royalties and advances against royalties." Vega hopes the system will give Blue Cactus "a better picture of our sales data, like best times of year for sales pushes and which sales reps are performing well."

DeArmon heard about the software at Winter Institute 2023, and “as a new publisher, I wanted a robust system for reporting royalties to our authors,” she said. “Everything else I had investigated was hugely expensive and way more than we needed.” Biel and Blue were looking for startup publishers, and DeArmon liked the all-inclusive system. “What I love is that in building it out, they are totally responsive to what our needs are [as independent publishers], which includes feeding in our sales reports from PGW so we can provide detailed reports to authors,” she said.

New Tools for Indie Publishing

Blue called working with distributors another one of the “pain points for our publishers,” because of the overwhelming details and likelihood of errors. “We see a lot of people that will only sell through their distributor,” said Blue. “Like, even direct-to-consumer sales will go through their distributor, because that’s the simplest thing.”

Biel agreed, adding that WorkingLit ensures data is retrievable when a publisher wants to work with a new distributor. “The issue I run into over and over is that publishers treat their distributor’s platform as their record of sales,” he said. “This obviously creates a huge problem when publishers change distributors, because then it's like nothing that happened prior existed.”

At the American Booksellers Association’s recent Winter Institute, Biel and Blue talked with a publisher who needed to retype years of metadata by hand after switching to a new distributor. “People have a hard time envisioning it being different than it is now,” Biel said, and WorkingLit is Microcosm’s effort to make independent publishing more efficient.

Biel, who founded Microcosm in 1996, began working with staff in 2001 to develop WorkingLit. His production team thought that they should build “a relational database” and automate processes, and “within four or five years, it was managing our inventory, our reprints, and our royalties,” Biel said. “I didn't foresee that. A lot of it was just the people we were hiring, and the fact we had somebody that had an interest in learning coding languages. Honestly, at that time, it was pioneering to have e-commerce at all.”

As Microcosm grew, Biel and Blue recognized that WorkingLit could benefit other small independent publishers as well. “We were trying to solve our own problem initially, and then we were trying to open avenues for other publishers to change the thinking in the industry,” Biel said.

WorkingLit developer Rucha Mehendale and the Microcosm team now are focused on making WorkingLit compatible with other software, to ensure error-free uploads and downloads. “So long as the software can produce a CSV export, we can get it into WorkingLit, no problem,” Blue said. Publishers can use WorkingLit to track sales and expenses, manage customer accounts, and create targeted reports about particular sales channels or books.

Users subscribe to WorkingLit on a monthly basis, based on how many products they list; the software is free for up to 10 products, and an unlimited plan is available to those with more than 1,000 products. “We’re built for publishers to scale,” Blue said. “One of our goals is to give publishers the tools they need to grow as much as they want and be as independent as they want.”

For a smaller press, Biel said, “the advantage of WorkingLit would be to have tools that you wouldn’t have access to” without a much more costly platform. But larger indies are welcome as well. Microcosm is “in the middle of the sizes of publishers that this would be useful for,” he said. “And, you know, we aren’t intending to stop growing either.”

This story has been updated with additional information.