Written by A. Iwasa
A review and summary of a highly recommended read for fellow DIY publishers, written by the founder of Microcosm Publishing, Joe Biel.
It turns out that even the most profitable publishers' profit margins are only about 10%, so author Joe Biel emphasizes the need to actually care deeply about what you print to succeed as an independent publisher, along with the nuts and bolts of running a business in publishing now.
Biel founded Microcosm as a teenager still living at home, and proudly admits the publishing company is modeled more on do-it-yourself (DIY) punk labels such as Discord, SST and Lookout Records than other publishing companies, even the other small indie presses like Soft Skull or Seal.
After moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area as an adult to work in publishing, I was eager to compare my experiences at Slingshot and Little Black Cart with Microcosm's model. I'd also been able to talk shop with AK and PM Press folks a bit over the years, while frequently reading about print projects past and present.
Microcosm has also made an abundant number of articles related to this topic available for free online, and I read them all before turning to the book. There are also podcasts, but I'm a reader first and foremost, so I'm saving those for later.
There are a lot of statistics to get lost in, if you, like me, happen not to be a numbers person. However, Biel keeps the text alive by frequently intertwining not just stories from Microcosm, but a number of other independent publishers.
"Caffeine runs in the veins of the industry," and occasional similar comments keep it light and readable. It's true in my experience.
Workbook-type pages for visioning and self help style lists probably aren't for everyone, depending on how far you plan on going into publishing. But creative layout and different formats throughout help keep the book's momentum. Personally, I'm reminded how I wish I'd been able to read Grow by Eleanor C. Whitney and Stolen Sharpie Revolution by Alex Wrekk years before I did, because all three of these books contain a lot of lessons I've learned the hard way over the last couple of decades and some years of intermittent, independent publishing. Though A People's Guide to Publishing deals far more with areas I haven't yet, so it was still very inspiring.
For me, the book really hit its stride by chapter 3, "Printing Books." Digital vs. offset printing, print vs. e-books, and an in-depth examination of choosing a printer include explanations of all the jargon. Also, as the chapter progressed from printing to layout, I started taking actual notes as opposed to mental notes since I was trained in type setting, but it has never been my strong point. For example, Scribus is a free alternative to Adobe Indesign, and full color and gray scale images should be at least 300 dots per inch (DPI), but black and white art with no gray should be 1,200 DPI.
The following chapter is on marketing and was a bit of a drag for me. But parts relating to book touring were exciting, since that is something I'm very interested in. There's also the occasional, anecdotal gem such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul guys, Canfield and Hansen, were turned down by a whopping 133 publishers before going on to sell over 110 million books world wide.
I slogged through what I'm sure is very valuable information for someone with a much larger vision for what they want to do with publishing. Much to my dismay, the next chapter was also about marketing, pivoting from where to sell books, to how to sell books. At least this time I was a little more engaged since some of the stories dealt with projects my interests are closer to, such as the Whole Earth Catalog's scrappy beginnings and how Aaron Cometbus developed his zine distro network.
The book picked steam back up for me with the next chapter, "Doing the Labor." It was interesting to read about how other print projects divided up the work that's been all volunteer in my experience, or what I've read about other print projects. I had actually applied to intern at Microcosm while working on my zine, Clevo Style, with them. I had also hung around their office a bit when it was in Liberty Hall in 2005, and I've read a good number of their titles, so I had a bit of insight into their inner workings. I hadn't gotten the internship I'd interviewed for, and the editorial process for my 'zine had been beyond exhaustive, but since folks at Microcosm had been friendly and professional throughout my dealings with them over the years, it's been a worthwhile relationship. I can't write the same about other print projects, and frankly I don't think there's a correlation between running things well and who is a collective, who is radical, who is non-profit or whatever. Some simply make a point of being respectful to writers and fans, and others take us for granted. Emphasis on having good relationships with your customers and others in the industry is throughout the book, but really comes to a head in this chapter when having workers, even just yourself, is the subject.
In this chapter there's also an almost passing reference to mentorship, a paragraph where Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press talks about peer membership organizations PubWest, IBPA and Women in Portland Publishing, literary agents and her business strategist, Nikole Potulsky, who was part of the inspiration for Stanfill creating the Main Street Writers Movement. Since I think some of my best work has been done either in collaboration with older folks, peers interested in advancing together, or forged in the flames of chaotic trials, I've been a long time advocate and participant in a number of different kinds of writers' groups, and I'm always excited to read about others.
Subsequent chapters on connecting with authors and ownership were more interesting to me as a writer than as a sometimes publisher.
These chapters were followed by one on contracts, where Biel returned to the record labels that influenced Microcosm's beginnings with the story of Manchester's Factory Records, who put out Joy Division, Happy Mondays and New Order. The context here is Factory rejected contracts, as did Microcosm for their first ten books.
Since local hardcore bands in Clevo were my original inspiration for developing my own path, it had followed that I was also largely inspired by bands that started their own labels, especially those who released other bands' material. Learning from those and other small labels' mistakes is almost as important as their successes, so reading about how Microcosm developed their contract process was very interesting.
Biel also goes on to write a little more in depth about literary agents: "I'm proud to report that every time Microcosm has worked with an agent it has improved and smoothed over the acquisition process because they know what is expected, fair, and reasonable." while admitting. "Of course that's not always the case." before describing other people's bad and mixed experiences.
The next chapter is "Publicity & Launch." As I suppose it should be, it's very lively and thought provoking. Its lessons, especially on crowd sourcing, can probably be applied to any sort of public campaign. A little more about touring for books was particularly interesting for me. The catalogs section reminded me of the hours I spent going through Alternative Tentacles, Dismal Records and Century Media catalogs as a teenager, and AK Press catalogs in my 20's. For what it's worth, AK Press also has its roots in the punk rock, and you can read a killer interview with its founder, Ramsey Keenan, who also started PM Press, with V. Vale in one of his ZINES! books (I think it's Vol. 1... sorry, even Consulting The Oracle didn't make it clear which volume it's in). Vale also did a stellar interview with Henry Rollins where he talked extensively about his publishing company, 2-13-61, in Real Conversations No. 1.
"Organizing a Bookstore Release Event" is a particularly interesting section. Some of the advice can translate easily to other sorts of venues, but some of it was very specific to bookstores, and in turn very insightful. This section was actually written by Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press, and is followed by an "Organizing a Book Tour" section! This was probably the highlight of the book for me, since I have long wanted to participate in a 'zine tour, and it seems like a great deal of what Biel wrote here would be applicable.
In the final chapter, "Money", Biel gives voice to a couple people, who like me, simply print what they like. Otherwise, the chapter was largely over my head because Microcosm operates on a much larger scale than I envision for my future. Though Biel eventually returns to the subject of mentorship and how success can kill a project, so the chapter was still well worth reading. I am stoked beyond words to have this to share with the print project I am currently focusing my writing for.
A People's Guide to Publishing by Joe Biel is available for purchase here.