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Microcosm Publishing: Expanding the Literary Universe

By Frankie Harnett, Chloe Marshall and Natalie Klinkenberg 


Bold, vibrant and utterly authentic, Microcosm Publishing is a staple among Portland’s independent bookstores. Starting as a tiny record store in founder Joe Biel’s bedroom, Microcosm Publishing has steadily grown over the thirty years into one of Portland’s most established and well-loved bookstores. Exploding in colour and character, this bookstore blossomed slowly in the background. The business started to pick up pace in 2002 when the National Book Network picked up its publications for distribution, shifting its focus to book publishing exclusively. Since then, it has grown substantially, having been named Publishers Weekly’s fastest-growing publisher in 2022. To this day, the publisher has stayed true to its grassroots history and continues to function as a non-profit, balancing production costs with fair wages. 


Brightly displayed in colourful zines and bold titles, Microcosm centres its publications around self-empowerment. From teaching DIY skills, art, gardening and cooking, to championing underrepresented groups as authors and partners, Microcosm empowers authors and readers alike. The publisher describes itself as a “vertically integrated publishing house that equips readers to make positive changes in their lives and in the world around them.”


What started out as a DIY operation from a “fanny pack full of zines,” is now an established distributor of alternative content. In the creative and skill-building spirit of Microcosm’s philosophy, zines are a huge part of their mission; “challenging conventional publishing wisdom with books and zines about DIY skills, food, bicycling, gender, self-care, and social justice.” Microcosm’s collection of zines is a testament to its continued support of affordable counterculture, with retro zines dating back to the early nineties, with the chance to bulk buy an assortment of zines from over the years in  "superpacks."


Zines are a critical choice for Microcosm as a form through which the punk rock subculture found its expression; inexpensive, easy to make, and traditionally self-published, they originated in 1930s science fiction fandoms that evolved throughout counterculture movements of the subsequent decades. The Guardian stated that zines are a highly “democratic” art form, communicating the politics and aesthetics of a subculture, generally representing fringe perspectives. Although originally produced on a small scale and reproduced using a stencil duplicator, this method of distribution was replaced by the photocopier in the seventies and eighties. Past zines are often available through digital archives curated by libraries, independent publishing collectives, or even museum exhibits. Nowadays, zines make their way around online and in print through initiatives such as Microcosm’s. By retaining “a focus on communication, expression and community for their own sake,” the distributor/publisher avoids the mainstream commercialisation and popularity contest that would ultimately negate the purpose of the zine’s form and flexibility; an invitation to share the niche. 


Gina and Joe Talk About: Queer Horror is a zine recently published, written by Joe Carlough and Gina Brandolino for anyone who loves the genre. Composed of personal essays, recommendations, and illustrations, the duo talk about hidden queer subtexts in the genre while shining a light on LGBTQIA+ representation in horror media. 


One way that Microcosm is changing the game for independent publishing houses is by rolling out WorkingLit, the cloud-based software that they owe their success and independence to. In 2001, five years after Biel founded Microcosm, he began to work with a team to develop WorkingLit to automate processes and manage their inventory. Years down the line, Biel and Elly Blue, Microcosm’s vice president and co-owner, realised how helpful WorkingLit would be to indie presses in the industry. In fact, Biel considers WorkingLit to be the cause of Microcosm Publishing’s fast growth because managing product and author metadata, tracking expenses and calculating/tracking royalty payments to authors are tasks that Biel and Blue no longer have to do manually. This grants Biel, Blue and other employees freedom to devote their time to business development and running their warehouse. 


Working with a distributor can be stressful for publishers due to its overwhelming nature, but WorkingLit ensures all sales are on record when they want to change distributors rather than starting from scratch. WorkingLit has given Microcosm the independence from distributors since they don’t outsource their products. By making their own software available to users on a monthly subscription, Microcosm Publishing is giving publishers – whether they are small or large indies – the ability to have the tools to grow their businesses and perhaps even change the way that the industry is run. 


So, how can people get involved with Microcosm? The publisher relies upon a series of community support programmes that anyone can get involved with. Their BFF Program is a huge aid, allowing them to front the costs of zines and books before publication. This subscription sends out at least ten new titles over six months to supporters. More information on their BFF Program can be found here. Public support for their Kickstarter projects goes a long way in helping with costs and growing an audience for new titles. 


The other, more obvious way to get involved with Microcosm is as a writer; to get published! Any author with a passion for DIY books, zines and card decks can apply. Submissions must fit into one of the key topics, such as; how-to magic guides, DIY, self-care, bicycling, mythology, scene history, queer short stories, punks and comics. The publisher emphasises strong visuals, leftist views and, above all else, originality. The full details of submitting to Microcosm Publishing can be found here

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