Posts By: Joe Biel

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.

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.



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.


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.

soyn5 soyn6 soyn3

Daily Cosmonaut: Amica’s World intersecting our Small World

amica-coverOne day I received a phone call from Meadow Shadowhawk, a Native American woman who explained that she had a children’s book about a gigantic bird that lives in their suburban home that was seeking a publisher. I explained how our submission process worked and that we don’t publish children’s books. A few days later she called again, explaining a bit more about her family and her son and the awards that he had won, including one from Dr. Jane Goodall. Meadow explained that Dr. Jane would be willing to contribute a foreword.

I was intrigued enough to google the bird, which was a rhea, a South American flightless bird that is mostly raised for meat in the U.S. Their family had rescued one and she began sending me photos of it in their living room. By chance, I was heading to South America later that week so I told her to email me and that I would think about it.
IMG_4187By the time I returned to Portland, with even more photos of the rhea, Amica, in my inbox, I realized what bugged me about an illustrated children’s book: It would be lost in the end matter that the story was real. I decided that it would make a lot of sense to do a photo book of Amica because he is quite idyllic and the story was so interesting and unusual. The family and Dr. Jane agreed and a near-miss was turned into a very exciting book prospect for this November. I hope that you can enjoy these photos of Amica as much as I do!