Interview with Joe Biel, Founder and Manager of Microcosm Publishing

Today Emily interviews Joe Biel, Founder and Manager of Microcosm Publishing

We’ve talked to ghostwriters, publishers, self-published authors, editors, project managers, print managers, and this time we’re talking with someone who’s done all the above for quite a while. Joe Biel founded Microcosm Publishing when he was just a teenager, hauling zines in milk crates and getting bombarded by echoey punk music in a concrete bunker. From there, he spent 23 years building a robust indie publishing company, now based in Portland, OR, that knows its audience inside out.

Fortunately for us, he’s written a book called A People’s Guide to Publishing, which goes into the nitty gritty of what it takes to build a publishing company. And we’re talking EVERYTHING. That might sound daunting, but he’s got some pretty fun stories from his own and other publishers’ experience to keep us hyped.


Joe was nice enough to invite us to Microcosm’s office for an interview about his experiences running a publishing company that stays true to its audience. We kept a pretty good balance of fun and informative, addressing questions of book and list development, and publicity in its wackiest forms (i.e., a very cranky Henry Rollins…but then, when isn’t he cranky?). Plus, if you want to know what it looks like when a publishing company decides to divest itself of the Amazon behemoth, read on.

4:33 —

Joe provides his origin story, from growing up in the bleak setting of 1970s Cleveland. Surrounded by massive unemployment, a sky alternating between orange and grey, and parents and adults that preferred him to go off and do his own thing, he felt as if he could get out there and do what was meaningful to him.

8:20 —

The year is 1991 and the cool kids are putting together concerts in a concrete bunker on the beach. Years later, people he knew back then claimed he had been drunkenly babbling about what would later become Microcosm as early as these teenage years.

10:58 —

Joe elucidates what a zine is for people who might not remember the 90s.

12:59 —

Sometimes writers are advised to “write the book you needed when you were younger.” Publishers can do the same thing.

14:00 —

Shape editorial strategy and find books in a unique niche by putting fans and readers first. Joe explains different methods of acquiring, and explains why it’s a bad idea for authors to do “blanket pitches” to a bunch of different companies.

18:28 —

Did you know that “no one has done this before” isn’t actually that good of a pitch? That’s because comp titles are a must. Here’s how to do your research.

23:38 —

As per Corinne’s request, we talk about Henry and Glenn Forever, a parody by Tom Neely about an imagined romantic partnership between Glenn Danzig and Henry Rollins. The idea of “all publicity is good publicity” applies. And Hall & Oates might actually be Satanists?

37:03 —

Joe talks about alternative ways of funding a book. He goes into detail about Kickstarter being a way to get a book off the ground and a way to learn about demand in a particular demographic of reader who doesn’t frequent bookstores. (Speaking of reader demographics…black women over 50 buy the most books of any demographic. Take note, big 5.)

47:30 —

A bestseller doesn’t always depend on how big an author’s platform. In fact, that attitude can be a trap.

58:18 —

How a small press—not just an author—can create loyal fans, and then in turn be loyal to them.

1:03:28 —

A cautionary case study of a book endorsed by a big name author flopping due to a wrong fit. A book can still fail even if its foreword is written by a world famous naturalist and is about a young boy who brings a large bird to live in his house.

1:10:24 —

Biel talks about Microcosm’s big move to disconnect from Amazon completely. And guess what? It’s going great. More people should try it.

1:21:31 —

Biel gives his main piece of advice for people who want to start a publishing company: find your perfect niche. And keep that ground game strong—selling books is about much more than just SEO. (Also we talk about the bizarro fiction press, Eraserhead, who gets it just right. What is bizarro fiction you ask? Well…just go check them out.)

If you’re ever in the magical vagina that is Portland, OR, be sure to visit Microcosm at:

2752 N Williams Ave
Portland, OR 97227

They’re also online at:

microcosm.pub and on
twitter and facebook

You can enter here to win a copy of A People’s Guide to Publishing until February 28th or go buy it from them yourself here.

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