To ISBN or Not to ISBN?

This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, Joe and Elly reveal the mysteries of the ISBN, aka the 13-digit International Standard Book Number you see on most books sold to the general public. ISBNs can be costly and a lot of new publishers aren’t sure when they should start using them. We offer some advice about when an ISBN is essential and when it isn’t.

Experiments in Publishing (and podcasting)

Hi all, things got a little wild over the holiday season. We kept posting new episodes of the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, but we stopped posting them to our blog. So here’s a big post to catch up with what you up on what you missed!

We talked about how book publishers can experiment in order to keep their business limber and growing (but without losing tens of thousands of dollars when those experiments don’t pan out):

We answered one of the questions Microcosm is most frequently asked: “Why have I never heard of you?”:

We tackled a reader question about a pretty weird scenario that happens more often than you’d think: What do you do when a publisher pays you for your book and then never publishes it?

We gazed into our crystal ball and made some predictions about how the publishing industry will change in the next five years:

We talked about sidelines! Stickers, buttons, patches, etc. Not very many publishers make this kind of merch to sell alongside their books (unless they’re heavily influenced by punk music culture… ahem) but it’s often a good idea:

And finally, we talked about how publishers can sell translations, foreign rights, and other licensing deals:

Microcosm’s 2021 Annual Money Report (with infographics! and a video!)

Wow! This marks the end of a year of more than doubling our previous “busiest year ever” with a growth of 119.24% over 2020.

At the end of the year, we planned a week of quiet respite. But instead, after holding our breath for a year, omicron hit, coinciding perfectly with a large part of staff going on vacation to cut us down to a rather stressed skeleton crew. But now we’re resting up, reflecting on the last year, and planning for the year to come. And that includes publishing our annual financial and business recap! Financial transparency is one of our values—it helps everyone! And this year, it’s extra nice to be able to show that all the news is good.

In February, 2021, we doubled our warehousing space (and shortly after that our warehouse staffing) with the opening of our Cleveland warehouse. And still, we struggled to keep up with shipping and receiving at the end of the year. Similarly, we had many system and software upgrades and we still couldn’t keep up with our new volume of orders and books. So naturally, we decided to keep it going by publishing 19 new books in the Spring 2022 season, and 23 new books next Fall. National conventions resume in a few weeks and lots of authors are submitting finished books that need attention, but maybe we can run a broom through here in the meantime and clear out the 2021 dust. 

Here’s what the last 3 years have looked like:

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a graph showing three years of income by month superimposed on each other: 2019 is the lowest, with the best month hitting $150,000. 2020 had somewhat higher sales almost every month, ranging from about $70k to $200k. And 2021 looks like a mountain range by comparison, with sales hitting $400k several times.]

When other publishers ask how we have been doing and I explain the above chart, their eyes light up in shock and they respond with something like “Well, that’s a GOOD problem!” Which it is, but it’s the kind of problem that resulted in six years without a slow season. For most publishers, January and February are marked by an inundation of returned, unsold books from the holiday season, while we receive restock orders instead. The reasons for this are 50% what we publish and 50% how we publish. Meaning that we mostly sell to stores who purchase all of their books from us and so our salespeople don’t stick them with hyped books that they cannot sell. And we can confirm that the practical skills and values in our books are what the world has wanted for at least the past 26 years. Probably longer. The need remains vast.

We have more than doubled our staff since before the pandemic and we welcomed Sarah as our seventh employee-owner in 2021. Thanks to your support, we were able to give our exhausted staff their largest rounds of profit bonuses ever—equivalent to a $3/hour raise for the last year. Our latest rounds of hiring have been a little too steady to continue to report each new worker, but we have gotten our about page mostly updated other than the three newest and a few people who have been here for ten years but haven’t sent a photo! Our newfound health insurance has been providing people with long-neglected (and sometimes life-altering) care. And we are ready to debut our software to allow other publishers to do what we do! Yet, the books keep arriving from the printer, just about every day—after these historic supply chain delays! It’s been a fascinating time to do what we do. And we are excited that this is finally the year where we will release the beta version of our software to empower other publishers!

And if you really want to get into the nitty gritty of publishing, check out our podcast.

But before we get too tired, let’s take a look at the numbers.

Our total sales for the year were $3.449 MILLION DOLLARS, with published books taking the largest slice of that pie, and finally exceeding distribution sales of the past few years:

And here are our bestsellers, by dollars earned (minus expenses like printing and cover design):

TitleISBNQuantityTotalRetailWholesaleDistributorWeb QtyProfit/Loss
Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers (Paperback)978162106304942,167$281,504.8414.958.97Z-MC-VERSA1316+4656.99 / month
Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers (eBook)978162106040653,280$63,994.3413.998.39Z-MC-VERSA6773+3208.21 / month
Unfuck Your Boundaries: Build Better Relationships through Consent, Communication, and Expressing Your Needs (Paperback)97816210610077,415$50,997.3414.958.97Z-MC-VERSA284+3.91 / month
Practical Witch’s Almanac 2021, The (Paperback)97816210665527,915$49,618.5413.958.37Z-MC-VERSA588+503.40 / month
How to Resist Amazon and Why: The Fight for Local Economics, Data Privacy, Fair Labor, Independent Bookstores, and a People-Powered Future! (First Edition Paperback)97816210670617,711$46,992.2112.957.77Z-MC-VERSA0+1.97 / month
Gold Lyre Tarot (Deck)97816210678702,748$43,592.5429.9517.97Z-MC-RR Donnelly52+848.86 / month
Boundaries Conversation Deck: What Would You Do? (Other)978162106370418,032$42,052.3514.958.97Z-MC-RR Donnelly43+394.32 / month
Unfuck Your Intimacy: Using Science for Better Relationships, Sex, and Dating (Paperback)97816210676275,257$37,007.5914.958.97Z-MC-VERSA248+886.88 / month
Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Triggers (audiobook download)9781621063049246,0621$32,777.8019.9911.99Z-MC-VERSA100+486.30 / month
Making Stuff and Doing Things: DIY Guides to Just About Everything (Paperback)97816210664773,538$26,403.9716.9510.17Z-MC-VERSA275+1138.62 / month
Unfuck Your Body: Using Science to Eat, Sleep, Breathe, Move, and Feel Better (Paperback)97816210632853,154$23,853.5514.958.97Z-MC-VERSA1592+208.77 / month
Unfuck Your Boundaries Workbook: Build Better Relationships Through Consent, Communication, and Expressing Your Needs (Paperback)97816210617624,941$22,760.489.955.97Z-MC-VERSA425+232.27 / month
Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills (Paperback)978097886656316,048$18,487.409.955.97Z-MC-VERSA145+3084.17 / month
Stoner Babes Coloring Book , The (Paperback)97816210643052,367$18,019.7214.958.97Z-MC-VERSA72+1.83 / month
Unfuck Your Brain Workbook: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers (First Edition Zine )97816210658907,749$16,968.144.952.97Z-MC-VERSA384+352.38 / month
Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever: Completely Ridiculous Edition (Paper over board)97816210684021,379$15,831.8525.9515.57Z-MC-VERSA159+437.76 / month
Green Witch: Your Complete Guide to the Natural Magic of Herbs, Flowers, Essential Oils, and More, The (Hardcover)97815072047191,424$15,321.0517.9910.7910+0.96 / month
My Vag: A Rhyming Coloring Book (Paperback)97816210689072,024$15,201.9114.958.97Z-MC-VERSA37+1.00 / month
Unfuck Your Boundaries: Build Better Relationships through Consent, Communication, and Expressing Your Needs (Ebook)978162106067336,814$14,615.269.995.99Z-MC-VERSA178+700.09 / month
Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills (Paper-over-board)97816210612501,941$14,500.0014.958.97Z-MC-VERSA1412+252.48 / month
You Are a Great and Powerful Wizard: Self-Care Magic for Modern Mortals (Paper over boards)97816210648311,599$14,483.3319.9511.97Z-MC-VERSA0+0.93 / month

UNF*CK YOUR BRAIN, which we published in 2017, is still outselling even our runners up by a wide margin—combined. Even if you ignore this aberrant title, it was a phenomenal year. We published 42-some new books and about twice that many zines. And healthfully, 87% of the titles holding sales are over a year old, meaning that they will continue to sell for years to come.

So where did all those millions go? (We still can’t believe we’re talking about our company sales with all these digits.) As is written into our company bylaws, we invested it all back into the company and into our workforce, much of it in the form of those profit-sharing employee bonuses mentioned above. Nobody got a yacht, but we all got by. You can see that piece of the pie alongside the rest of our outgoing money below.

Expenses for this year were $3.346M, including the purchase of the additional warehouse and inventory to fill it:

Thank you for supporting us, our authors, and our team in the last year, whether as a reader, partner, or member of our team. The last two years have been difficult in many ways, but it’s been heartening the way our entire culture seems to have turned to books for comfort, meaning, perspective, and a little bit of escape. We’re prouder than ever to get to play a role in bringing people and books together.

What forms a publisher’s point of view?

This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, Joe and Elly answer a reader question about the heart and soul of every publisher’s operation: what goes into your secret sauce? We all have a point of view, and a big part of your path to success is understanding what yours is, how it affects your publishing, and how to let it be your north star. They also talk about how your POV is different from your taste in books.

Staff Picks: Our favorite indie bookstores

It probably won’t surprise anyone that Microcosm workers love us some independent bookstores. In honor of Small Business Saturday this November 27th, we’re joining the American Booksellers Association “Indies First” campaign to encourage everyone to pay a visit to their local bookstore and pick up some holiday gifts (and reads for yourself, too, of course). Not sure where your nearest bookstore is? This map at is easy to use and decently complete.

Here are some of our staff faves, edited for length (most of us had several and it was very hard to choose).

Sidnee, operations manager: Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA. The multiple floors makes it feel so magical and their kid section is awesome. Such friendly employees and I always find great gifts there, plus they’re great about supporting local artists of color with readings and features.

Glenn, data and shipping assistant: Visible Voice Books, Cleveland, OH. My local go-to. On the top floor of a converted funeral home, with a pizza place below it and a basement BBQ restaurant. It is very small but really well stocked with selected fiction and some very deep nonfiction sections, especially music and politics and local Cleveland things. Also has a cafe space with coffee and tea and wine and beer, where I spend most Sunday afternoons.

Sarah, store and receiving manager: Rose City Book Pub, Portland, OR. I love it and the owner is amazing. They have a special shelf for local and self published authors. The owner is an incredible baker and everyday she brings in a different kind of pastry. The back patio is platonic Portland vibes with murals, overgrown plants, and fairy lights.

Rose, intern: Phoenix Bookstore, Burlington, VT. A community favorite that hosts great author events. 

Kristine, key accounts manager: Moe’s Books, Berkeley, CA. Great selection of new books (including, ahem, a good selection of Microcosm), great selection of used books (and very fair trade-in prices), great rare/collectible books & paper ephemera section on the 4th floor, 1st Amendment warriors (busted for obscenity for selling Zap and Snatch comics in ’68), terrific events (hopefully resuming soon), all around good people.

Lydia, publicity manager and editorial associate: Village Books and Paper Dreams, Bellingham and Lynden, WA. Village Books and Paper Dreams in Bellingham (and Lynden!) Washington are great. The cozy atmosphere, cafe and three (!) stories of books in the main shop in downtown Fairhaven are an absolute treat. They do good work too with local writers groups and host author events regularly, and have an incredible selection of new and used books.

Vevina, intern: Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, Portland, OR. I absolutely love Mother Foucault in Portland. The place is a beautiful mess inside and full of different books ranging from Kafka to Kristeva. But what I really love is that they have a lot of literary theory books.

Lex, editorial and marketing manager: Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, NC. Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. Great poetry section, great kids curation, always good conversation with the owners and staff and bar for working with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. They were my first point of contact in Greensboro.

Pandora, intern: The Corvallis Book Bin, Corvallis, OR. The Corvallis Bookbin! I’m biased because I work there but… it’s a good team and I love being here!

Kalen, sales director: Mutiny Information Cafe, Denver and Trinidad, CO. They’re a fantastic community hub here in Denver. In addition to a fun and unexpected selection of books and zines (lots from small presses), they have great coffee, Biggie Smalls the bookstore cat, and events from punk shows to candidate forums. They also have a community pantry out in front of the store and do a lot of mutual aid support.

Elly, marketing and editorial director: Main Street Books, Minot, ND. Very far away from anywhere else in the US, this cozy, homey bookstore does a fantastic job serving its community. We first went there when it was a venue for some of the more acoustic elements of the Why Not Minot Fest. They serve a community that’s deeply conservative but also home to workers who come from around the world and a left-leaning student population, and they manage this with grace.

Joe, publisher: Mac’s Backs, Cleveland OH. When I was a shorter person, trying to figure out why the books that everyone insisted on showing to me were so boring, Mac’s Backs began subtly showing me politics and history that I had no idea about. Like any great bookstore, I could quietly poke around and find things that suited my ballooning brain. And I can attribute 20% of my self-awareness to the topics that I uncovered there was well as the lack of judgment that I received at the counter.

The Future of Bookselling (an interview with

This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, we are debuting our first ever live show! Joe and Elly interview Sarah High, Senior Partnerships Manager at, the online bookselling site that is revolutionizing the industry by partnering with brick and mortar bookstores, supporting rather than disrupting them. We talk about how Bookshop came to be and a little bit about the future of the book industry, our big hopes for the confluence of books and tech, and how we can achieve it by working together and sharing our passion for books.

Also check out our last two episodes, about the failed Penguin Random House acquisition of Simon & Schuster and how publishers can use the powers of math to make better books.

Why isn’t cheap labor working anymore?

This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, Joe and Elly talk about the Great Resignation as it applies to publishing—specifically to the blue-collar warehouse jobs that our industry relies on yet often doesn’t acknowledge or respect. We brag a little on our own warehouse staff who are currently outperforming our industry fulfillment times by a longshot, and make the case for treating warehouse workers as equal parts of the team.

Self-publishing vs Traditional Publishing

This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, Joe and Elly examine the pros and cons of different publishing paths for authors. A listener wrote in to ask the age-old question of whether they should try to find a traditional publisher or go ahead and self-publish. We have an obvious bias, but we did our best to treat the question objectively, because there are a bunch of benefits and pitfalls for both.

Microcosm Cleveland is Hiring!

Full time position in Cleveland, OH. This is a warehouse and fulfillment position, helping people get their books and be happy. We practice mask-wearing and are set up for social distancing. You can get a sneak peek at the humble work place here. Position closes November 1st, 2021.

We need someone who can:

• Lift at least 50 pounds

• Demonstrate an exquisite attention to detail (we aim for 99.99% error free shipments)

• Work independently

• Believe 99% in what we do but is confident to identify flaws in the system, ask questions, and bring up their own ideas about how things could be better

• Listen and find solutions that work for everyone involved

• Be very comfortable with alphabetizing and similar data sorting

• Show up prepared and work hard for their whole shift

• Locate books and pull and pack orders four to five days per week (90% or more of their time)

• Work 40 hours per week on site

• Start as soon as reasonable and commit to at least two years


• All company profits are distributed to staff in the form of raises and bonuseswe aim for (and have been exceeding) 20% annual raises

• Health insurance after trial period

• Employee ownership program after five years

• Options for paid vacation and professional development training programs

• Some flexibility in work hours

• Help empower readers to change their lives and the world around them

• Access to owners, management, and other staff for clarification, direction, priorities, continued education, and guidance

No experience needed. Entry level position. Equal opportunity employer. Preference given to former interns and diverse hires. Starts at $14/hour with 90 day trial then $15/hour. 

Apply by November 1, 2021 by completing this application and this test and submitting it to apply @ with the subject line “Cleveland warehouse application”; no resume or cover letter necessary unless you believe that additional details would be helpful.