Paralleling the Dinosaurs or How To Be The Biggest Small Publisher You’ve Never Heard Of
As Microcosm enters our 19th year, we hear nothing but doom and gloom about the publishing industry, but 2013 was our best year since 2006. Through business savvy and hard work, we paid off our old debts, re-instituted raises and a year-end bonus for our staff, published twenty new titles, and moved into a new, larger office that we are working towards owning. And we did all of this without a single book selling over 5,000 copies.
Publishing is like gambling. And just the same there are things you can do for a better bet. But in the end it’s still a gamble. In the past we’ve relied upon a single title to sell over 10,000 each year and if one does not emerge, we can be sunk. Having a positive relationship with the right printer, 350 books that each give us a steady trickle year after year, constantly re-checking the math on our spreadsheets, keeping track of who is buying our work and what kinds of things they like best, working with great self-promoters, building relationships with blogs, and putting attention into production, design, and all of the little details has allowed us to be successful on our own terms while having the privilege of avoiding Amazon’s creepy influence on books. Because our background goes back to a seventeen-year-old punk rocker in a bedroom, we have chosen to stay independent of outside financial pressure and influence for over eighteen years and continue to publish twelve to twenty new titles per year.
While some people love to argue with us over whether this is possible or not, we can print each book for between 40 cents and $2, with the vast majority costing 70 cents each. I believe most publishers are looking at the wrong number: The total of the printing invoice rather than the cost per book. This is done through printing between 2,000 and 10,000 copies per printing. Sometimes it’s a careful balance of calculating how many copies of something we could reasonable sell to avoid over printing. But when we do need to reprint, that’s an awesome success!
More like Dischord or Lookout Records than even Soft Skull Press or Seal Press, we have always operated in parallel to the publishing industry. In 2011, a confused Calvin Reid from Publisher’s Weekly exclaimed “Why have I never heard of you?” when we were signing with Independent Publisher’s Group. We had gone fifteen years without a proper trade distributor, because we didn’t need one. Instead, we’ve built our ground game, doing tours through small towns where we set up a pop-up bookstore, having fans pass out our catalogs in far-away cities, appearing at events where we have the only books on site, and building a movement of people who believe in the work and subjects that we promote, like self-empowerment, gender, punk rock, and bicycling.
We still focus 95% of our efforts on print because it is more environmentally responsible, gives us much more freedom in where we are sending our money, and because books like ours just don’t sell in electronic formats. In 2011 they represented 8% of the total market and that shrunk to only 6% of sales in 2012. Despite the hype about this being the future, we’ve been raised to see these as having little or no value and most people are not willing to pay more than $2.99 for an eBook, unless it’s something they’d be embarrassed to read on the bus—“romance,” thriller, murder mystery, throwaway science fiction, or serialized fantasy novel. You could wax philosophy all day about the tangible nature of books, but let’s face it, it’s much harder to build a movement digitally, where you are reliant upon artificially underpriced data flows and major corporations.
While more and more publishers rely upon Amazon or bemoan it’s market dominance, it has little effect on us because we exist in parallel to the industry, rather than inside of it or in opposition to it. People buy our books because of their practical content and value, frequently motivating the reader into action. Because of all of this and our talented pool of authors, we still feel like a little fish, but together we just might be able to make it work!
Read more about Microcosm and the publishing industry in Joe Biel’s book, A People’s Guide to Publishing.