Microcosm Publishing Pairs Do-It-Yourself Aesthetic with Do-It-Together Ethic
For the folks out there who relish the tactile and fret over the replacement of books with an electronic facsimile: listen up. For everyone who appreciates a DIY ethic in a mass produced world: you are not alone. And for burgeoning writers with something insightful to say but lost in the sea of blogs: you have a choice. The answer to all three quandaries and more is Microcosm Publishing.
What began as a record label out of founder Joe Biel's basement 15 years ago, Microcosm Publishing has evolved to be something rare in the publishing world: an independent publisher and distributor, a retail store and a promotor of small press specializing in zines, patches, stickers and DIY centric books. Operating as a not-for-profit (though technically not a registered 501c3), collectively run group with profits being directed back into the organization, Microcosm is proving that any niche can support a well run organization. There is a small staff of just six members—three in Portland, Oregon and three in Leavenworth, Kansas—collectively making all business decisions, including publishing, together. Because Microcosm is a small press distributor and space in a city core is at a premium, the organization decided to move half of the operation and staff to Leavenworth, Kansas where space is more plentiful. The Leavenworth office handles the warehouse and distribution, plus the press and publicity arm of the organization. Facilitating collective decisions and business across state lines hasn't hampered the success of Microcosm. As a collective, each member has not just the passion for the organization, but also the responsibility to ensure that Microcosm continues to be the unique model it is.
I am fortunate enough to live within a few bike lanes of the Microcosm retail store on the cusp of downtown Portland. I stopped in recently to browse the shelves and meet with Rio Safari who, among various roles at Microcosm, manages the retail store. With an exterior adorned with tomato plants, green beans and sunflowers and an interior laden with tall bookshelves showcasing the various facets and interests of Microcosm, one instantly feels that really cool things are happening in this well lit space. Like some curated exhibit, hand painted signs direct browsers to topical books, while zines titled "Shut Up & Love the Rain" and "Rad Dad" demanded my immediate perusal. Amongst the plethora of DIY manuals are guides to fermentation and homemaking, scattered between homages to mix tapes and whales. Piles of stickers and patches declare such truisms as "Fix Shit Up." One could easily pass an afternoon among the stacks of zines and books admiring all of the creative works supported by Microcosm.
Before the existence of the retail store, the space was shared by a couple of print shops; once one moved out, it allowed for a retail space in the front. With big windows and a central location, Microcosm can display and sell directly within the space. The back half of the space remains a working printshop with Eberhardt Press, the printer of most of the zines, and Matter Screenprinting, producer of the patches, operating a large share of the space. Having a press onsite is something that very few publishers large or small can boast, and it creates an ease in which something can be published and sold without ever leaving the building. The cohabitation with both a printer and a publisher creates face to face contact and cohesion, sharing and supporting; the retail store and building itself work as a model of collaboration.
Rio and I sat down to discuss Microcosm and the success of the organization in a quickly changing world. The base of the Microcosm business is the zine. A zine loosely refers to any self-published work that is printed in smaller quantities and often with a specifically focused topic. Zines come in a variety of formats and styles from a visual comic style to pamphlets. The medium of a zine is all about accessibility: one doesn't need a computer to publish, simply paper, scissors, glue and a pen. In this simplified sense, a zine is the root of Do-It-Yourself publishing and expression. Zines tend to focus on the less common topics that are of particular interest to Microcosm, from bike repair to gardening. I asked Rio if he was worried about the zine becoming a relic in the techno-centric publishing world. "We occupy such a niche,” Rio explained, “that enough Luddites will continue to support us and we can stay in front." A book or a zine is so much easier to share, and once purchased, the reader owns the book which will grow more valuable over time. Zines are tactile, even hand bound with twine, that they require care from the creator. With zines, "You care so much more when the person who has made it cares."
Born long before the computer, the zine medium doesn't appear to be fading. Despite the spate of blogs, zines are moving into schools and libraries which pay for zines up front—a bonus for the creator and distributor. Microcosm encourages the continuation of zine creation by teaching classes and supporting the Portland Zine Symposium, or by peddling the Microcosm tricycle to community oriented events and showcasing the newest titles. Their message is that zines can be an excellent medium for empowerment and sharing, and can make the creator feel like their ideas are worth expressing and distributing.
To support the publishing arm, Microcosm recently launched BFF, a CSA-like program (Community Supported Agriculture wherein you get a share in a farm in exchange for a box of food), that is a subscription of books. As a BFF member, you receive a package every month with a hand selected book by Microcosm. This selection may be the same for all BFF members, or you may get a personal selection based upon your preferences. BFF is a 6-month subscription costing between $10 and $15 a month. As Microcosm has established a well-deserved reputation among readers, an audience exists that will support something simply because it is published by Microcosm. Microcosm also offers a sliding scale for publications, allowing the purchaser to pay for what they think a book is worth. The average book price is between $8 and $9, versus $15 to $16 elsewhere, but increases sales allowing more zines to be published. Other small publishers have similar programs and policies.
So, how does one publish or distribute with Microcosm? Microcosm receives submissions weekly, 90% of which tend to be non-fiction. Book and zine topics tend to be light instructional yet "off-the-map". Many of the relationships with authors begin originally in distribution. Often a zine author will self-publish and then use Microcosm to distribute the zine through the store, online or through the catalog. Distribution is a lower risk way to develop a relationship with an author prior to publishing. Many of the published authors begin their relationships through distribution and then continued on to publication. Microcosm is happy to place things in the store from frequent contributors or even from people just passing through town.
Microcosm Publishing can be a model not just for collective small press publishing and distribution, but for many small organizations. By focusing intently specific niches and collaboration, Microcosm has continued to succeed in the age of rampant industry/cultural change. Microcosm is not just a collective organization but strives to build relationships across the publishing spectrum. By encouraging the small press and zine culture, Microcosm will succeed for years to come as new audiences appreciate the medium. The etymology of microcosm means "small world", but it seems that this particular Microcosm could serve as model for the larger world.