This week we check in with Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing
What excites you about working for a small press?
I’ve coped with a lot of darkness over the past 25 years and now I have a job where I get out of bed excited every single day to receive fan mail about how our books have literally saved lives. On top of that we are in the position where we get to help shape author pitches into functional books that can continue to help readers develop meaning and purpose in their lives, changing the world around them.
How did you get drawn into the world of small press publishing?
I grew up as an at-risk autistic youth in a broken home. I now get to create the resources that I needed for literally thousands of people all over the world. What’s better than being the solution in the face of the problem?
Many writers never consider submitting their work to a small publisher. What are they overlooking?
Publishing is a game of economics and scale. So essentially by working with a small press an author gets a lot more time and attention. The number of authors proportionate to the number of staff is much more in the author’s favor with a small press. More importantly, we are more inclined towards innovative solutions rather than throwing money at a problem or trying to compete in very crowded ponds. For our books to succeed, we have to think smarter, which is almost always to the author’s advantage: 99% of our titles outsell the industry average. We can’t afford for them not to.
What small presses do you love (in addition to your own)?
My love for Microcosm is complicated, so it’s easier to love other presses where I don’t have to witness what goes on in book development! I think it’s really neat how Akashic
invests revenues from Go the Fuck to Sleep
into debut fiction, which is a risky category. I think it’s mind-blowing how Forest Avenue
made the Northwest publishers into one big happy family. We’ve long had a relationship with the anarchists at AK Press
, which we used to see as an older sibling to look up to, and we’ve now grown up alongside them. It’s really neat to see Milkweed
finding their audience in such a huge way as well.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a small press?
Not publishing to my own tastes. I mean, to some degree, of course, everything we publish is to my tastes, but when I’m acquiring I have to think much more strategically and not fall in love too quickly. Some books don’t love you back in the right way and can seriously jeopardize our financial health. So a lot of it is research, moving slowly, and growing into a new title or subject. Right now we are starting to embrace queer romance and there’s a huge learning curve.
What’s the best part of being a small press?
As I’ve been doing this for nearly 25 years, my favorite part is being able to help publishers that are new to the industry. It’s a very tough business to get your footing in because most people’s initial instincts aren’t quite right. It’s easy to really lose a fortune before you know what you’re doing. Fortunately, I didn’t have a fortune to lose, so I had to learn things slowly and start very small. This was the best way as I had to find creative ways to succeed, which is ultimately what I still enjoy most.
Name a book or author from your catalog that you think everyone should read.
by the Justseeds Cooperative will tell you about every seriously important person in the history of the world that you will be inspired by to make your own impact. And while you’re at it, everything Dr. Faith Harper
has written will change how you see yourself in the scope of the world and allow you to be the best person that you can be.
Share a memorable experience you've had on the job.
In 2018, we were invited to Peerpocalypse, a conference in Seaside for people who use their real-life experience to help others going through similar issues. I’ve always felt like a bit of an odd duck in the publishing world, so imagine my joy when there were hundreds of hardcore readers there and they immediately embraced us as “peer publishers,” using our real-world experience to help people. That resonated a lot.
What do you wish more people knew about small press publishing?
I think too many people think of the small press as the very small or vanity press. In reality, small press publishing now outsells the big five houses, and not only as a sheer force of volume. It’s really satisfying, for example, to see how many small presses have had books on the New York Times
bestseller list in the past year, for example.
What makes for a perfect book in your eyes?
A new angle on a subject that I didn’t know was fascinating. I’m forever looking for the kind of desperation that I feel every day — the same thing that I still love about punk records in my forties.
Why do you think books remain so popular in the digital age?
People read to develop a deeper understanding. They want to figure out how they feel about things, learn about something new, or learn how to process a deeply emotional experience and a deeper truth. Digital reading triggers very harsh reactions in our amygdala — the part of the brain with the neurons that yank our control away from our thinking brain and tell us that we are under attack. When we read digitally, we experience cognitive bias and our amygdala fights allowing that information into the parts of our brain where we can absorb it and change or reinforce our views. This is the science of why it’s much more rewarding to read more complicated, challenging, and expansive ideas on paper. It engages a whole different neural circuit. Like handwriting instead of typing, anything that slows down our communication process is inherently more reflexive. We also retain this information better and can navigate long text in a satisfying and intuitive way.