Posts By: Joe Biel

Daily Cosmonaut: Ruby The Wonder-Couch Sharer

deskrubyOn Valentine’s Day in 2013 I finally brought home Ruby, my medical alert service dog, after years of meetings, phone calls, paperwork, and interviews. She’s been a wonderful angel for most of the time since but every day when we go to work she would be stuck sleeping on my the floor next to my chair. She would periodically look up at me, pleadingly. One thing that I hadn’t realized when I had applied for her was that a dog’s range of emotions is identical to a human’s and that Ruby and I were in a committed relationship. I had to look out for her, make her feel loved, and take care of her.

 

Fortunately, I took quite naturally to this situation. She sleeps in bed with me, leaning against my leg. When I sit on the couch she wants to be napping on my lap. But our work arrangement was not as easily resolved as our home life. I began letting her nap on my lap when I was sitting in my office chair. But she would nervously perk up whenever the chair rotated or leaned and my legs would go numb under her in less than an hour.
I knew that the situation called for desperate measures. Ruby’s work and our relationship allowed me to safely go places unescorted. I swapped out my desk for a series of filing cabinets, attached a monitor arm to one of them, and ordered a mounted swivel tray for my keyboard, mouse, and beverage. I swapped out my chair for the office futon and now not only can Ruby and I take office naps but she can sit next to me all day long and snore as she leans against me, still paying attention to my blood glucose. When we arrive at the office every morning, she immediately bounds over to the futon and pleads me to join her.

NOW HIRING: Part Time Illustrator / Designer

A new friend

Microcosm Publishing is an independent publisher of nonfiction books in Portland, Ore that has been chugging along for over 20 years. We’re small, flexible, data-driven, resourceful, and scrappy. Microcosm emphasizes skill-building, showing hidden histories, fostering creativity, and challenging conventional publishing wisdom with books and bookettes about DIY skills, food, zines, and art.

 

We are seeking a new person to design book covers, illustrate interiors, create ePub files from Indesign, and create the visual feeling for our ethics, subject matter, and all things empowerment! We’re looking for someone who is an enthusiastic fan, an avid consumer of media, and can tell the reader what the book is about just by gazing upon its cover.

 

You’ll often be working independently and should be self-motivated, able to work within a team, creative, and know when to ask for help or clarification.

 

Qualities of the ideal candidate:

Basic computer skills; plus Indesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator.

Follows directions and gets each job done right the first time.

Creative thinker

Understands a visual way to tell a story

Works well with others

A diversity of styles so that every project does not share aesthetic qualities

Can accommodate people with special needs

Sense of humor.

 

Cultural knowledge and a progressive outlook help—it’s best to know your DC hardcore from your NYHC and a Cometbus from the city bus. Is there a vegan cookbook next to a pile of zines on your shelf (you have a bookshelf, right?)? Is a bicycle a freedom machine or a death trap? What would make a book of feminist science fiction even better? (Answer: zombies. And bicycles.)

 

Big Picture Thinking is very necessary here to see the forest through the trees to create the right look for each project, even if it’s not always the most beautiful work of art.

 

Creativity! But also efficiency and a willingness to do the leg work. For every brilliant idea, there’s a ton of follow-through required.

 

We’re hardworking and really value the work that we do. And maybe most importantly, we’re a small company working towards a common goal. We believe in what we do and need you to do the same. We are growing and want someone who will commit to growing with us.

 

We are based in Portland but you can work from our office or from home, even if that’s in another state.

 

Position is part time and pay is based on experience and efficiency.

 

Benefits include: Joy, fun coworkers, satisfaction of doing life-changing work, snacks.
To apply: Please write a cover letter about your background and interests and send over samples of both your design and illustration work. Submit by mail or our website form, using the “Send us a note” function here, and selecting “Other Questions.” We will confirm receipt of all applications.

 

We are accepting applications until May 1, 2016. Interview finalists will be hired to do one paid job for us and then one person will be offered the position. People of color are particularly encouraged to submit as are anyone whose experiences are not represented in the publishing world in general.

Daily Cosmonaut #18: Artifacts of Hood River

IMG_0625On a rainy day in the year 2000 I received a phone call from a man desperately trying to convince me to let him come visit Microcosm’s warehouse. Microcosm’s warehouse at the time was a 12×6’ room in the basement of my home and doubled as my office. A little nervous, I agreed but made him wait in my living room while I grabbed everything. It would be difficult for both of us to fit in the Microcosm room without first removing my desk. Tom bought over 90% of the zines and books that I had in stock. He also asked about many things that I was sold out of. I had to literally reorder everything that week.

 

I figured that I’d never hear from him again but a month later he called, asking to come back. This time I let him join me in the Microcosm room. Despite being 6’7”, Tom did not bat an eye at having to crouch under the ceiling that I had built to be exactly 6’4” over my head, so I would only have to dodge the bare light bulbs. Tom again bought almost everything and this cycle continues sixteen years later. Only now he visits our store weekly and still leaves a lack of books in his wake.

 

You see, Tom refuses to use the Internet. Hell, he refuses to even look at a screen. He lives in a cabin in the woods without electricity or running water. His neighbor criticizes him for having a store-bought plastic cooler. Even as modern books couting has evolved into an Internet hunt, Tom has remained refreshingly analog, just like books. He claims that even Aaron Cometbus, a longtime holdout against using computers, finally gave in and expresses regret to Tom for doing so.

Tom is clearly inspired by the book hunt and his built a weekly routine of coming into the city every Wednesday and buying books. He constantly sends customers our way for an “authentic Portland experience” and brings us freshly picked huckleberries from the woods. Tom’s ethics and routines are a firm reminder of why we do the things that we do at Microcosm: to create resources for people who don’t have access to them otherwise so they can change their lives for the better. And while his bookstore, Artifacts in Hood River, has gradually been treated more and more like a gift shoppe for windsurfing tourists, we can still achieve our missions together. Perhaps it’s the perfect irony that Tom will never be able to read this love note.

Daily Cosmonaut #17: Coloring Books To Challenge Paradigm

coloringIt’s estimated that last year adult coloring books added $50M to publishing industry sales, creating a record sales year. But Microcosm sort of operates like that island in Lost where we hear only infrequent communications from the mainland and happily can focus on the kinds of things we want to say to the world rather than responding to every peculiar news cycle. And one day, under those conditions, we realized that the Cunt Coloring Book was constantly out of stock so we decided to produce The Vulva Coloring Book to be more factually accurate but also because the former was over 40 years old.

 

Naturally, within a few weeks Elly had the idea to add post-structuralist theory to the book and it became The Post-Structuralist Vulva Coloring Book. Slowly, as we learned about the huge adult coloring book trend, the book became a way to challenge gender stereotypes and make commentary about how women are shamed about their bodies in so many ways and it can often be difficult to discuss these things.
The book slowly became (as far as I understand it) a way to make fun of the inherent meaninglessness of post-structuralism in a way that could read as “authentic” to people who were actually familiar with it while challenging people’s conceptions of bodies and gender. And for once we happen to be synched up with the trends to get a few more inches on our agenda with this book!

Daily Cosmonaut #16: Values v Money

valuesI work twelve-hours almost every day, including weekends. Almost every time that I explain how little I earn to the people who see how hard I work, they are puzzled. How do I make it work? Why would I make these “compromises?” What if something happens to me? What am I going to do for retirement?

 

It’s been a long time since publishing has been an industry that people pursue for money. But what the above (well intentioned) concerns don’t take into account is that there are far  more important things than money.

 

To me publishing has always been about pursuing my values without compromise. It’s a way to give rise to voices that don’t get heard. It’s a way to challenge popular but stupid narratives. It’s a way that I don’t need to seek outside approval or funding to tell the world what I think is vitally important. And those values are so much more important to me than money that I’ve worked without any compensation at all during three different periods in Microcosm’s history. It was more important to continue to do this work than it was to get paid even though that meant that I had to work a second (and sometimes third) job to make that happen.
These days, things are a bit more relaxed. I’ve been trying to take the weekends off with varying success. I recently have been quizzing people about what others do on vacation and everyone tells me a variation of “Impulsively do exactly what you want, when the muse strikes you.” But that’s what I do every day.

Daily Cosmonaut #15: Privilege, Disability, Intentions, & Resolution

Last night I did an interview about Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s for New Noise Magazine that ran about 75 minutes. We talked about the motivations for Microcosm and quite a bit about how Asperger’s affected my life and compared stories about other people that we know with Asperger’s and how it affects them.

intention

It struck upon a thought that I’ve had for a while. As a person with Asperger’s I’ve often found myself upsetting people for reasons that I couldn’t understand. But the more that I learn about the incredible complexity of emotional communication, the more I realize how contextual it is. The average person has no idea what it’s like to navigate the world with a disability but even after I explain that what someone perceives as rudeness or insensitivity is a result of Asperger’s Syndrome rather than my own callousness, their feelings are still hurt. Their feelings are also real and valid. They don’t simply go away once someone can intellectually understand what caused them. I’ve learned the hard won lessons that more often than not, other people want to feel heard rather than to resolve whatever transgression has happened between us.
And similarly, I’ve watched hundreds of people slowly learn the lesson that they can hurt someone’s feelings even if their intentions were good. Our intentions don’t change the harm that we can cause to other people. And given that my empathy is product of my intellect rather than a natural process transferred from the mirror neurons in my brain, this confuses me. But at least knowing this stuff helps tremendously as life moves on not to harm other people.

Daily Cosmonaut #14: Privilege & Tokenism

neurodiversityLast month I was invited to speak on a panel about the arts. I agreed and a month later I received another email, explaining that a woman panelist had canceled and had been replaced with a man. The curator was concerned that having a panel with four men and only one woman might appear to have a lack of diversity. It’s certainly an important thing to consider when putting on a public event. The recent social justice movements around race and gender have gotten gears grinding in people’s heads. At the same time numerous people have expressed to me just how patronizing it feels when the stated reason for sending them an invitation is because of their race or gender, rather than the merit of their work or just how brilliant they are in the first place.

None of these ideas are groundbreaking or unique, but they keep leading me to another thought: When considering public perception of the composition of an event or organization, curators and boards think of diversity in terms of a visual analysis rather than a contextual one. On the surface I’m a white man. At the same time I would bet you that I will be the only panelist that didn’t go to college, let alone one that cost more than my annual income. I suspect that I will also be the only neurodiverse panelist and the only physically disabled one as well. I can tell you this because it’s been true of almost every panel that I’ve been on in my life. The room often gets awfully awkward when people try to compare childhoods or stories with me, because, frankly, my life is so different from almost anyone that tries to relate with me—especially other people that work in publishing or bicycle advocacy.
Obviously these lived experiences inform my perspective and sensitivities but also my take on any subject that I discuss. And often the behaviors that I exhibit as a result of these things is the very reason that I’m not invited to be a part of speaking events in the first place. Social justice movements have done a tremendous service for society by creating an awareness and new language around inclusion and I’m proud to be part of the leading edge of challenging around class and neurodiversity as well!

Daily Cosmonaut #13: How We Decide What To Publish

store side viewAbout six years ago, after much confusion and disagreement about how to decide what Microcosm should publish, I created a set of guidelines for institutional memory in our staff manual.
1) How does this title teach self-empowerment? Does it fit Microcosm’s mission?
2) Will this title consistently exceed minimum sales benchmarks over more than five years? (1,000 copies in first year, halving for each consecutive year)
3) How is this title notably different from existing work on the same shelf?
4) Do we expect this title to turn a profit for Microcosm?
5) Is this work of particular merit? Why?
6) Is there an identifiable and reachable audience of at least 5,000 people who will buy at least 3,000 books?
7) Does this book challenge popular narratives about the subject?
8) Will the author be cooperative and hardworking towards mutual goals?
9) Have the competitive titles sold at least 3,000 copies in Bookscan?
10) Does the market allow U.S. based printing and production costs at competitive pricing to the comps?

A book needs to meet at least seven out of ten of these criteria.

We had published some books that were incredibly successful and others that were great but undiscovered or poorly received. Sometimes we simply were not the right publisher for a given book or couldn’t properly find its audience. But we didn’t always have the same motives. Not every book is designed to make money and the above criteria help to point that out. A book could actually be a financial loss but an important voice in the conversation among its peers and pass a sufficient number of criteria for us to publish it. Similarly, a book might be truly fascinating to a small number of people but not quite right for us or have a big enough audience to make sense. Sometimes a book has such a hyperlocal appeal that the author can’t understand that the entire world isn’t hung up on the same trends or that they’ve grown cold.

My younger self often feared that the market-based and political interests of a book were in conflict. But most of the time we’ve found that the books that we are excited about are also the books that our enthusiasm can visibly propel a book to sell well and become even politically important in the broader conversation on the shelf. And that might have been the most fascinating lesson that I’ve learned in twenty years of publishing.

Before March: Get Your Nate Powell History (This Year Only!)

soophie nun squadBefore they’re gone forever, get your deeply discounted copies of Sounds of Your Name!

I stood slack-jawed as Nate Powell’s legendary band, Soophie Nun Squad, whooped and cinderblocked through a set at More Than Music Festival in 1998. His earnestness and zeal were a refreshing break from the increasingly common “we don’t put our band name on our record cover” genre of pretentious fashion punk that was increasingly bumming me out. I wrote Nate a fan letter in 1999 and Microcosm started to distribute his comics shortly thereafter. Nate and I shared the heart-on-sleeve DIY transparency of artistic youthful expression and in 2002 he booked Soophie to perform at my wedding. So Naturally, in 2006, when Nate expressed frustration that Soft Skull had again delayed the release of his third book, Sounds of Your Name, I agreed that Microcosm could publish it.

soyn1
What I didn’t know about at the time is what Providence artist Mike Taylor refers to as “The Nate Powell Curse.” Taylor mentioned this to me casually when I was on tour in Providence later that year like the curse’s legend was as widespread as detergent samples and cereal box mascot lore. When we received the first 4,200 copies back from the printer, they were all were misprinted with the wrong line screen applied to each page and the cover, making every image appear grainy.

It was incredibly frustrating, costing Microcosm over $18,000 and drying up ten years of savings. It was also the physically largest book we had published and the boxes created a wall in the basement next to our office. But never fear, Nate Powell came to the rescue, creating an elaborate coupon scheme to sell off the first printing at half price with a redemption offer to purchase a corrected printing for $10. We joked that it would become the biggest punk scam of all time with bootleg coupons appearing in Kinko’s next to illicit free ice cream and Odwalla coupons. In reality fewer than 100 people ever took us up on it.

In a 2009 interview with me, Nate describes the situation thusly:soyn2

Nearly every comic I’ve had published in the last five years has been dead in the water—that is—it has some printing or distribution flaw or it’s overlooked by the publisher and immediately pulled out of print. Please Release by Top Shelf was the only exception. It came out perfectly. Sounds of Your Name took the curse to a whole new level—all 4,200 copies were horribly pixelated and non-returnable. They were sold at discount with an explanation and stuff, but the damage was done.

Slowly, new problems emerged. What is now called “metadata” became our newest, greatest foe as databases began warning buyers to avoid buying the book due to the misprint even after we had issued a new printing and a new edition with a new cover and ISBN. We had listed everything correctly but yet the data propagated incorrectly all over the Internet. It felt like banging my head against a brick wall once per month for about five years.

Again, from Nate’s 2009 interview with me:

I grew up believing I would never be able to make a living as a cartoonist, then fumbled a few chances to get on “the train” doing books for Vertigo or Dark Horse, and now I’m almost positive I’ll never be able to just draw for a living.

autopilot

 

By the end of 2009, Nate had won the Eisner Award for “Best Graphic Novel” for his follow-up Swallow Me Whole. He was nominated for the LA Times Book Award as the first graphic novel since Maus. He had become a household name in comic stores.

None of us easily deterred, I met with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf who had since become Nate’s publisher. Brett suggested printing a postcard, offering a discount, and including a signed print to remind people about the book and get stores to stock it. Nate happily complied with creating a limited, full-color print and signing and numbering 200 of them. We launched the campaign and most buyers responded, asking if they could buy the book from Diamond Comics, the wholesalers who distributes to most comic stores.

I had to mail copies to Diamond three separate times before they were convinced that theSounds of Your Name books were properly printed. But by that point a year had passed and Diamond now took up the argument that fans weren’t interested in Nate’s early work.

soyn4

Still, the availability for Sounds increased when Microcosm signed distribution deals with Independent Publisher’s Group and Turnaround UK in 2011. And Nate was making so many conference appearances that fans were clamoring for his “lost book.”

But even three years later when Nate was signed on as the artist for Freedom Rider and Congressman John Lewis’ March, we still could not convince stores to stock Sounds. Finally, in 2014 as Nate was featured in virtually every mainstream publication, was doing interviews on CNN, and became a New York Times bestselling author, Barnes & Noble bought several hundred copies of Sounds. Naturally, they ended up returning most of them over the following year.

 

So we’ve all clearly given the book our best effort but still excited fans of Nate’s are just discovering that it even exists every day. This story isn’t new or unique to this book by any means, but it’s been incredibly frustrating to witness it so closely and firsthand.

 

At long last, after ten years, we are finally letting the book go out of print for good, with the hopes of a new publisher repackaging parts of it with other odds and ends from Nate’s past sometime in 2018 or later.

 

What this means is that we have deeply discounted the final 500 copies as a get-it-while-you-can rare item and on February 10, 2017, the book will be out of print forever.

 

It’s really been an honor to be a small part of Nate Powell’s story as his talent and work reach awe-inspiring levels, that he now rightfully earns his living from drawing comics, and as he receives more and more opportunities and achieves greater success than he even aspired to in 2009.

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