Laura Stanfill has built a movement of authors and publishers in Portland into a coherent force. Whether that’s a product of her own publishing efforts with Forest Avenue Press or working to demystify the reality of publishing and setting proper expectations, she’s smiling, shaking hands, and introducing new allies!
Our newest staff person is editorial and marketing assistant Tomy Huynh! Tomy (his name is pronounced as though it’s spelled Tommy) manages our data, which despite his modest description is a huge and daunting multi-faceted task full of highly contingent details which few people, no matter how brilliant, are able to wrap their brains around.
1. What do you do here at Microcosm? What kinds of projects are you excited about right now? How did you end up here?
I’m the editorial and marketing assistant at Microcosm. I manage our marketing data, convert our current and future titles to eBooks, deal with trademark-infringement cases, do light editorial work, and offer support to anyone here who needs it. I started at Microcosm as an intern last December and was honored when Joe and Elly offered me a job after my three-month commitment was up, especially since I really enjoyed working with everyone in the office, and I truly believe in the organization and its products. (Is this answer sycophantic enough so far?)
Initially, I was primarily doing editorial work (copyediting and proofreading). However, I’ve been more involved with the marketing aspect of the business, focusing on data management (something I didn’t realize I really enjoyed doing until I started doing it).
2. What books have you read and loved lately? Do you have a favorite Microcosm book?
As of late, I find I have less time to devote to reading lengthy books (my attention span is shot); I’ve been reading more magazines, news articles, and short stories to get my reading fix. That being said, I’m finishing up an amazing book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Also, at the behest of my English-professor friend, I finally decided to tackle Marcel Proust (starting with Swann’s Way, which I hope to be done with by the end of this year). Regarding Microcosm books, I really like the Railroad Semantics series (makes me nostalgic for my train-hopping days, and it’s very well written), the Henry and Glenn Forever series, the no-nonsense therapy zines by Dr. Faith, and the upcoming book Cats I’ve Known by Katie Haegele.
3. Where are you from? What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and lived there until I graduated from high school. Since then, I’ve moved around quite a bit, ultimately ending up here in Portland. In my mid to late twenties, I desperately wanted to move east—mainly Chicago or New York. But, for whatever reason, I was compelled to stay on the West Coast. (The farthest east I’ve managed to live is Las Vegas, which was where I lived for seven years before I moved to Portland in 2013.) At this point in my life, I’ve pretty much set down my roots. I guess that makes me a quintessential West Coaster, having lived in every West Coast state in the contiguous United States (California, Oregon, and Washington).
When I’m not at work, I enjoy gardening, biking, hiking, reading and writing, watching CNN, and hanging out with the hubby, our three pukey kitties, and our goofy, accident-prone dog.
4. Tell us a funny story about bicycling, food, or Portland.
Hmm… I can’t think of any funny stories involving bicycling. I have a few getting-hit-by-a-car-while-riding-my-bike stories that might be considered funny to some people, though those incidents were not so funny for me in the moment. I’ve been food poisoned (that’s kind of funny, right?).
A funny story about Portland… I met my husband here in 2011 while I was visiting my brother, who lives in Vancouver, WA. Actually, I met him when he and my brother were on a date (I was dating a Vegas magician at the time). Lots of hilarity, awkwardness, and drama ensued. And a few years later, my brother officiated my marriage.
When I first got to know Microcosm, it was largely run by two good people: Jessie Duke and Adam Gnade. I never got to know them very well, as they moved to eastern Kansas shortly afterward, with Jessie opening a Microcosm office there. At some point after that things went sideways. The company split in half, names changed, sharp words were committed to the Internet. The details are out there for all who care to google, and Joe Biel wrote about the events leading up to this in his memoir, Good Trouble, which came out earlier this year. The important thing is that we’ve resolved our differences and have returned to focusing on the work that brought us together originally: publishing books that change lives.
Here is our joint statement:
“Microcosm Publishing and Pioneers Press are pleased to announce that we have reached a settlement regarding our past disagreements and the division of debt between our companies. No money will change hands, and neither company will pursue further legal action against one another with respect to past events. We wish to take back all of the hurtful, disparaging, and damaging things that were said by both sides. Microcosm Publishing and Pioneers Press both strongly encourage you to support each other in every way possible in the interest of independent publishing.”
We mean every word. The work we both do is too important to get lost in the shuffle of personal and professional differences. The world would be a worse place without our colleagues at Pioneers, the work they produce, and the community of authors and readers they have built.
You have a great intro in each book about its origin story. What’s the short version of the story of how these two works went from idea to zines to books.
The short version is basically me dealing with poverty and heartbreak through art. I couldn’t afford to eat and drawing these pictures of my idols comfort eating amused me and served as an almost type of therapy. Turning them into zines to sell made it so I could afford the luxuries of eating. Having those zines turn into cookbooks was the thanks of you dearies at Microcosm as well as Joshua Ploeg. It’s one of the few artistic projects of mine that went somewhere and actually had a happy ending. Usually my creations die in obscurity or my ideas go unnoticed. This has been a great change of pace.
The response to these books has been tremendous! Have you had any particularly funny, touching, hostile, or weird encounters as a result of the books (or zines)?
Hahha. For the most part, I have been really floored by the support. There have been a few Morrissey fans not so amused by it but I expected as much. Honestly, I was really worried about the timing of the Nick Cave one since these were made before he lost his son and I didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. Fortunately most people get that this all came from a humorous place of love.
You do a lot of music and video art. What are your other projects? What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
Right now I have a one woman band called Lacey Spacecake where I write and record all the songs, play the instruments, sing, and make the videos.
I’m also in a band called Bat Fancy. Unfortunately none of the members live in the same state so we are temporarily on a hiatus but here is a spooooooky Halloween video I made for us.
I’m also doing the art for my friend’s documentary about The Cure’s fans. She’s been working on the thing for 16 years.
Other than that, I do a lot of comedy videos and have a day in music segment (From Day To Zingg) every Tuesday for my buddy Kurt’s WFMU show. It’s never scripted and I usually say a lot of nonsense ranging from accusing Meatloaf of the assassination of JFK to telling people that if you play Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” backwards, it’s actually Peter Cetera’s recipe for grits.
But you can find most of my art, musings, videos, words, and projects on my website.
What’s next? We hope you’ll draw more rock icons eating…
Definitely more zines and definitely more rockstars consuming things. Currently I’m working on an “Adult Activity Book” with things like “YO MAMMA JOKES WITH JARVIS COCKER” and “HANGOVER CURES WITH THE CURE.” I’m also doing an illustrated guide to these bizarre weather reports I used to write in LA. What else? I’m trying to get a public access show in Queens where I play the part of a sad bear that asks artists and musicians really existential questions. It’s called “I CAN’T BEAR THIS.” I’m still looking for the perfect bear costume. There are worse problems to have.
(P.S. You can also watch an election video Automne made for Kickstarter right here! You too may find yourself supporting David Boowie and the Ghost Formerly Known as Prince on the 2016 ballot.)
We got word last month that Vegan Italy magazine would be featuring Cecilia Granata, the author and tattoo artist behind our recent cookbook, Mama Tried: Traditional Italian cooking for the Screwed, Crude, Vegan, and Tattooed. It turns out that she’s on the cover of their October 2016 issue! Cecilia sent us the cover this month, and a couple of the interior shots from the feature inside the magazine. All these spectacular photos were taken by Luca Boveri.
Since we can’t read the feature, she told us a bit about it:
“Vegan Italy magazine is the main vegan paper publication in Italy. It usually focuses on one personality (chef, artist, activist, celebrity, etc.) of the Vegan world (not just Italian) and then adds more articles about veganism, recipes, etc. They interviewed me and asked some photos and decided to put me on the cover because apparently I make a good character. 🙂
Basically the asked me about my life (moving twice from Italy to the US, how did that happen). How, when and why I became vegan; what are the main differences between veganism in Italy and in the US, including a perspective on which approach will be more successful for the future. And also how my passion for tattoos was born and how/when did it cross paths with veganism. A little bit about my art, iconography, inspiration, references, things I get inspired by. And how from there I also became a writer, with the publication of Mama Tried and to talk about the book.
Then a little bit about activism and they also published 2 fall recipes from the book, of which they took photos. Plus pictures of my book, art and tattoos. And me. 🙂
Veganism in Italy is exploding. In the last few years an unbelievable amount of offerings have been added to the market in a quantity and quality never known before. Starting from finding plant-based milks and breakfast in many coffee places, to ice cream parlors, bakeries, un-cheese shops, restaurants, public schools, supermarkets, tv shows, tv satire, you name it. I think the tendency will only increase and I am the happiest. I love Italian food and Italian products, whenever I go to Italy I bring back entire suitcases of food.
Italian vegan food making has definitely a “healthier” characteristic that is not always found in Vegan made in the USA.
The debate is opening up a lot too, many events and projects are starting up.”
Caroline Moore came to us with a book that really hit home: Punk Rock Entrepreneur: Running a Business Without Losing Your Values. We’re thrilled with how the book turned out. Moore’s examples are drawn from her own life, other scrappy entrepreneurs including bands like Green Day. This is like the anti-startup guide. Instead of coming up with an idea and looking for funding, this book is about turning your craft and art—what you would do no matter what—into a viable business without the benefit of having much (or any) money.
You can find out more about Moore’s design, illustration, and photography on her website, and check out her sweet goods (some of them Punk Rock Entrepreneur-related) in her Etsy shop. Oh yeah, and we still have a bunch of signed and doodled copies of her book. Order soon and snag one of them!
1. What’s the origin story of Punk Rock Entrepreneur? Where’d the idea come from? How did you end up with Microcosm?
Depending on how far back you want to go, the origin story is an interview I did with a group that focuses on entrepreneurship for teens. They asked what made me want to start a business, and I didn’t have a great answer for them, so I spent some time thinking about it. The truth is, when I started out, I didn’t even really think of it as starting a business, in an official way. I was used to my punk friends touring, starting zines, making and selling art, and that’s what I did—starting my photography business was very unceremonious.
After I’d put some serious time and thought into it, I found that a lot of what I knew about starting and running a business was from that DIY scene. I had been volunteering for a few years with Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, and it seemed like the kind of thing that would go over really well with their crowd. So I pitched it to Jeff Finley and Joseph Hughes (Jeff founded the Fest, and Joseph was handling the speaker lineup that year), and they let me have a spot on their stage. So the idea got upgraded to a 30 minute… well, it was supposed to be 30 minutes, but closer to a 40 minute conference talk. One of my favorite comments that someone tweeted about that was something like “punk enough to get kicked off stage, professional enough not to knock down the podium on her way out.”
My process for writing conference talks is that I basically write an essay, exactly what I want to say, and then practice that and make an outline to actually use as a reference on stage. Which meant that I had everything all typed up, so I posted it to my blog after I got home for anyone that had missed the talk. I was still doing contract work for a design agency a few days a week then, and my boss there said “you should turn this into a book.” I knew I had a ton of material that I had to cut for time, so I started putting together proposals to send out to publishers. I had heard of Microcosm because I’d done some interior illustrations for Bobby Joe Ebola’s book, which they published. After meeting with Joe and Elly at a Dinner and Bikes event in Pittsburgh, and looking over the catalog, the book seemed like a really good fit both for the types of books that Microcosm puts out, and the way that they do business.
2. This is your first book (congrats!). What has surprised you about writing and publishing a book? Any advice for other first-time authors now that you’ve been around this block once?
Thanks! One of the first things that surprised me was the sheer volume of words that I needed to write. It seems like you have so much to say, but then you type everything up and it’s six pages. I had gotten used to writing for blogs, for twitter, for conferences, for things that are meant to be short form. You have to be really concise and get to your point. Which is still important in longer form books, no one wants to read you droning on belaboring a point, but you do have a lot more room to really flesh out a concept. I also say something in the book, “you can’t edit a blank page, but you can edit a bad one.” Staring at a blank sheet messes with you, so just start putting words down. Even if they’re terrible, stupid words, just start writing for the sake of having something that you can work with. We learned to write in chunks when I was in college, and that’s still how I do it. The introductions are the last thing that I write, I start in the middle.
3. In Punk Rock Entrepreneur you propose the counter-intuitive idea that not having a lot of money or resources can actually be the best thing for someone starting a business. Can you elaborate a little bit on this?
It’s certainly not the easiest way. Having a huge pile of money to throw at a project would make things much easier. But not having a ton of cash up front does make you think creatively about how to get your business off of the ground, and it makes you look at the money and resources you do have VERY critically. In particular, you’re very thoughtful about what you’re getting for spending that cash. A band with a trust fund might be able to get an RV to tour in, spend a lot of cash on hotel rooms, food, top of the line gear, clothes, you name it. But that stuff might not be helping them bring in any more money (or fans). They have a lot of money going out, but may not have any more money coming in than the band that’s touring in their car and sleeping on floors. Those folks are keeping their overhead low, so they get to keep the money they bring in.
4. What are you listening to or reading right now that inspires you?
I’m actually giving a talk in Louisville in October (at MidwestUX) about how routine input leads to routine output. I’m really big on interdisciplinary education, because I think the bigger your pool of experiences, the more connections you can potentially make to create interesting work. I’m actually working on condensing that entire chapter (“We Live Our Lives Another Way”) down to a 10 minute lightning talk. I don’t have a ton of dedicated reading time right now (I have a 15-month-old), so I’m reading a lot of psychology articles. Why people behave the way they do is really interesting to me from both a human perspective and a business one. I just discovered the joy of Instapaper to keep track of all the things I want to read.
As far as music, I’m a little all over the place. My husband and I just discovered Smoke or Fire’s The Speakeasy, which is great because they stopped being a band in 2004, which is a recurring theme when we find albums that we both like. I’ve had that in the car on loop lately. I just picked up Signals Midwest’s new one, At This Age. We did a joint book launch/record release show, and I don’t have enough nice words to say about those guys or the music they make. And the last show that we went to was Sikth, which is sometimes hard for me to listen to, because they’re super erratic. But they’re doing some really cool things that I don’t hear much elsewhere, so I find it really interesting even though sometimes it makes me agitated.
5. What’s next for you, in business, art, and life?
This is always a super busy time of year for me, for some reason October is always booked solid. We’re taking our kid on his first plane ride, to go to his dad’s work conference. We’ve already done a work conference each this year, and we both have another one coming up where we’ll be separated. So for this one, we’re going as a family to spend some time together, plus also the hotel is right next to Legoland. I have a few events coming up, Whiskey & Words in Pittsburgh, then Midwest UX in Louisville. I’ve got a wedding to shoot, and I’m setting up mini portrait sessions to benefit Children’s Hospital’s Free Care Fund. Definitely more speaking engagements coming up, and some more events where I can set up and talk to folks about the book.
Things tend to slow down in the winter, and I can get into my “someday” list. Throughout the year I’ll have ideas for art that I want to make, and it just goes into the giant someday pile for whatever time I carve out for personal projects. Sometimes I don’t write up the best description, though, and months later I don’t understand my own notes (like that episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth has a notebook that just says “bird internet.”) I’m also rebranding the photography site over the winter, Ryan Troy Ford agreed to work on a new logo for me, and I’m pretty excited to update that. It feels weird to hire someone to design anything for me, since my undergraduate degree is in design, and I’ve spent a lot of years working as a designer. But designing for yourself is so much harder than for clients, and fighting the urge to just tweak it for all eternity is difficult. Getting someone a little more removed from it is definitely going to be good for the project.
For the business, this is the first time I’ve very intentionally done it part time. Even when I had a full time job, I was still really treating the business as a full time endeavor (which was not great for my health, but that’s a whole other interview.) Being our son’s primary caregiver, I can’t also work full time. We decided I was going to stay home with him, instead of doing day care, so my hours are limited. It’s a good balance for us right now, and I’m happy with the direction it’s taking. But the rebrand is part of a bigger theme of refocusing what I’m putting out there, so that I’m really getting the right clients to work with during those limited hours. Another thing that comes up in the book is how important it is to be attentive to your goals, and to revisit those goals to see if that’s still what you want. I can’t just look at someone else’s business to see what they’re doing, I have to really consider what I want out of my own business, and whether my actions are getting me closer to that.
We ask all of our interns to choose a book and review it for our blog. Usually, when tasked with this assignment, they head downstairs to the warehouse and deliberate for a half hour. Sometimes it takes them a few days to choose. Not Dylan. He immediately knew. Here’s his review, and an appropriately tough selfie with the book:
Tom Neely’s Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever is hilarious. The idea of taking two icons from the hardcore punk scene (which, at its height in the mid-80s, was taken over by macho assholes who made the scene about faux masculinity) and creating a fictional gay romance between them is just genius.
The thing I appreciated most about the book, however, is its constant references and jokes about not just The Misfits and Black Flag but about heavy metal and punk music in general. This is also, unfortunately, what limits the audience of the book, since your average reader probably doesn’t know who the hell King Diamond or Ian MacKaye are, but for people who do understand these references, they make reading this book all the more enjoyable.
I myself lost it when aliens brought zombies to life and announced that their prime directive was to “exterminate the whole fucking place,” as well as every time I noticed all the random 138s scattered about.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with reasonable knowledge about punk and metal music and culture.
All year, Microcosm is celebrating our 20th anniversary by putting the spotlight every month on a different independent bookstore that we love! Our indie bookstore heart in September goes out to iconic Chicago feminist bookstore Women & Children First—you can find them (and many woman-penned Microcosm books on their shelves!) at 5233 N Clark St. After they hosted the book launch party for Threadbare this spring, we asked them to partner with us for this month. Co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck sat down to answer our questions over email:
1. Tell me about Women & Children First. What is the store’s history? How did it get its name?
In the 1970s, Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon met while earning masters degrees in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Time and time again they would come across a woman writer they wanted to study, such as Virginia Woolf, Kate Millet, and Edith Wharton, only to discover their work was not available. Second-wave feminism was in full force, and activists around the country were starting collectives and businesses of all kinds, including feminist presses and bookstores. It was against this backdrop that Ann and Linda decided that how they would support themselves would also be their contribution to the women’s movement.
In the fall of 1979, in its original storefront on Armitage Avenue, Women & Children First opened its doors. The store’s mission was to promote the works of women writers and offer a welcoming community for all women. From the beginning, the store was committed to offering a wide range of programs, focusing on feminist and LGBTQ politics and culture. We are in a different, larger location now that’s in a more bustling section of Chicago, but our mission remains the same.
2. How did you personally get involved in books and bookselling? What is your favorite part of what you do?
I started bookselling part-time at Borders while earning my MFA in creative nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. I would later move on to work part-time at Barnes & Noble. While I had many issues with the corporate structure and impersonal environment of both of those stores, being surrounded by books all day was heaven. I always hoped that I’d one day work at indie bookstore. I never dreamed I would co-own one!
My favorite part of my current job is helping to promote the work of local and emerging authors whose work I truly admire. What I didn’t realize until recently is that booksellers have so much power in terms of shaping trends in publishing depending on what they choose to handsell. Everyone at our store is committed to handselling books by a more diverse array of authors—not only women authors, but authors of color and queer authors. We love encouraging our customers to be more mindful of reading authors whose culture or identity differs from their own. Listening to marginalized voices is integral to making the planet a kinder, more empathetic place.
3. Do you have a favorite Microcosm book and/or zine? What about other books generally, what are you most into reading right now?
Definitely Threadbare by Anne Elizabeth Moore and Learning Good Consent by Cindy Crabb. Our Social Justice Book Group is reading The New Jim Crow this month and I hope to finally finish it by then! I read a lot of memoir and essays, but I also can’t resist dark, character-driven, contemporary novels. Two of my favorite books that I read recently are Shrill by Lindy West and The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod.
4. How is the role of the feminist bookstore different and/or the same now as it was in, say, the 1970s? What is the future of feminist bookselling, or what do you dream it will be?
I believe we’ve built upon and strengthened our commitment to intersectionality. Feminist bookstores have always had a responsibility to actively challenge the traditional gender binary. Today, I believe we are more inclusive when it comes to trans, genderqueer, and non-binary identities.
Moving forward, my goal is to generate more effective strategies to have productive conversations with folks beyond our politically progressive base. We have a tremendously loyal community and I adore every single person who supports our bookstore. It can feel deeply empowering and exhilarating to have a passionate conversation with someone who shares your values and philosophy. However, when I read the news or travel outside of our largely like-minded feminist community, I often worry that I have become dangerously insulated. How do we begin meaningful dialogue—not shouting matches or Twitter fights—with those whose worldviews differ from our own? That’s what’s on my mind when I look to the future.
This is the ninth post in our ongoing Business of Publishing series. This edition tackles an important but more advanced question, “how much can I afford to spend on the book that I am publishing?”
While, on the surface, any answer to a question like this seems to be built from a steady diet of bullshit, books are remarkably consistent. Unlike cookies or soft drinks, most books are not branded. A book from a major house sits next to your book and others from indie presses. If you’ve successfully developed your book, you are providing each reader with enough information to make a choice based on their own experiences, observations, and tastes.
Let’s begin! For those following along at home, I’ve created this spreadsheet that you can download or duplicate and edit. And as you’ll see, there are fairly predictable formulas for everything.
The upper left hand corner begins with the title, author, and book’s release season. Lines 5 and 6 include retail prices for each format. If you’re doing a hardcover, you’d include that as well. Lines 9 and 10 list the author’s royalty by format as well as any advance payment that they receive. Traditionally this advance is your projected first two years of royalties paid in advance.
Line 13 is income from selling film or translation rights or foreign territory rights but it’s best not to plan for this in advance since even commitments can fall apart as the licensee changes their plans.
Beginning in column D, lines 4-5 predict what will likely be the sales in bookstores as well as returns and revenues. These numbers are based on your comparable titles and their selling habits. It’s best to be conservative here so that your expectations are reasonable and you aren’t shocked when you see your actual sales and returns.
Lines 7-8 predict similar sales in the direct market, which would include sales at your own events, via your own website, to non-trade stores that buy non-returnable, and books sold to the author. Again, these numbers should be conservative and based on figures in reality that you are seeing elsewhere.
Scooting over to column I, we’re looking at the publisher’s expenses for putting the book together from editorial to production to licensing to eBook conversion to paper, printing, and binding costs. Fiddle with these numbers to see what you can afford for a project before committing with an author.
Next, back on column D and lines 12-16, we’re looking at sales minus returns minus development costs minus author royalties. This will tell you what your gross profit is.
Next, we subtract operating costs (“the bottom line”), like rent, staff, telephones, envelopes, warehousing, etc. These should comprise every expense that you’ll have to pay for even if you don’t work on a book during a given month. Subtracting your gross profit from your bottom line will tell you how much actual profit the publisher is earning from each book. In this example, it’s less than $62. This example represents the most statistically likely outcome for a book like this. Publishing is about volume so to make up for these low returns, you can either produce tons and tons of books (called a “paper mill” in the industry”) or land a few heavy hitters every year. Your choice, kind of.
Another vital part of the P&L is to evaluate a year or two later how well the book did against expectations. If a book does not sell as well as expected, it’s important to figure out why. Was tons of new competition added? Did interest in the subject fade away? Was it revealed that the author’s cure for cancer was actually bogus and their credibility tanked? Was there a major developmental error in the cover/title/subtitle that confused readers about what the book offered or how it was unique? Answer these questions. Similarly, if a book did better than expected, it’s similarly important to figure out why and repeat these events with other titles.
Alternately, to demonstrate how these traditional contracts still benefit the author, I showed an alternate royalty model where the author takes 50% of the profit. But as you can see, comparing cell G29 to G15, 8% of the cover price ends up being more than 50% of gross profit in most cases until you really land a bestseller.
Due to Amazon’s immense marketing budget and campaign to convince authors that publishers are greedy and obsolete, many authors don’t understand why the traditional 4-8% paperback royalty is still much more in their favor than self-publishing on Kindle and CreateSpace so I’ve made a chart for that too.