Tagged business of publishing

Daily Cosmonaut #7: Is Microcosm Sustainable?

Due to Microcosm’s unique history as a record label and peddler of photocopied publications based out of milk crates, we’ve been equally ignorant of and immune to the changing culture and climate of more mainstream publishing houses. When innumerable peers and beloved presses were going under due to lack of distributor payments or collapsing financial support during the recession, we wondered why this wasn’t affecting us more. Don’t get me wrong, we were undeniably harmed and had to adapt by major changes in the U.S. economy, but to the tune of 20% of our income, not 50-90% of our income like the horror stories that we were hearing.


But these experiences leave us with a question: How sustainable is Microcosm? We’ve written about this a bit in the past, like in our 2014 annual report, when we first got back on track, but let’s look at this a bit further. In this article about comic shops, you can see a particularly bleak and skeptical view of selling paper in brick and mortar. We created these graphics to further illustrate the point that where you shop does matter when you are supporting authors:

Because of this, we have a loyal and supportive following that would rather support us than the Big A and are interested and invested in our mission and what we publish. As you can see on the chart to the right (especially if you click on it), the kind of channels that a book is sold through make a major difference in how many you have to sell to support yourself. In our case, the money that comes in each day is the same as the money that we pay out to our authors, our bills, our printer, and our staff. Admittedly, we run a pretty close game most months on our $34,000 in monthly operating expenses and have spent the last few years adjusting the pie so that our staff can get paid more in an increasingly expensive city. And also admittedly, if we did not have so many successful backlist titles, we would not be able to publish new books every month. Our roughly 25 bestselling books pay for everything we do. So we are here for the long haul but mostly because we closely watch our data and are responsive to a changing industry. Wait, scratch that. We’ve often been ahead of the industry in changes and that is probably the number one reason we are still here.

2015 Financial Report

Happy new year, everyone!

It’s been 12 months since we reported that 2014 was Microcosm’s best year ever (and not just financially). Well, we are stoked (and relieved) to report that 2015 was even better than that.

Since last January 1, we’ve published 14 books, a box set, and a documentary DVD. We have even more than that lined up for 2016, and our production schedule is full through 2018! This year is a big deal for us in part because it’s the year we got *ahead*—that means that most of the next two years’ books are at a stage where almost nothing will ever have to happen again in a frenzied, typo-laden, overwhelmed rush. We can’t wait to show you what’s coming out next.

We had some big staff changes this year. Tim moved back to sunny LA, and our editor Taylor stepped up to fill his shoes as publicity manager. Erik sallied forth to open a bar/coffeeshop and Thea joined us to direct our sales efforts, and we also hired Cyn (interview coming soon!) to help get our books in more stores.

In addition, we participated in 20 events and 3 author tours (our annual Dinner and Bikes tour, Bob Suren’s Crate Digger tour (actually 2 tours) and Dawson Barrett’s two-part Teenage Rebels tour).

It’s more complicated than it seems like it ought to be to calculate how many books we sold, but our best estimate is that we sold about 120,000 books last year; that’s 328 books a day! No wonder we’re all a little tired.

Here’s a breakdown of our income and expenses for all of 2015, powered by charts:

Our total income for the year was $468,733.33 (a 21% increase from 2014). Here’s a pie chart that shows where that came from. “Z-MC books” means books that we published, whereas “non-Z-MC books” means books we distribute from other publishers. “Other” is mostly the ever-popular Slingshot planners.

2015 microcosm sales 

And here are our expenses. “Z-MC Products” are printing costs for our published books; just plain “Products” includes other publishers’ books that we distribute, blank t-shirts and t-shirt printing, patches, stickers—the cost of any goods we sell. 

2015 microcosm expenses pie chart
  1. Wages: -153,083.01 (49% increase)
  2. Publishing: -127,104.69 (44% increase)
  3. Distribution: -78,037.61 (32% increase)
  4. Shipping: -44,092.71 (24% increase)
  5. Royalties: -31,583.19 (17% increase)
  6. Advertising: -14,203.36 (229% increase)
  7. Supplies & Phone: -12,311.75 (19% decrease)
  8. Building: -9,867.90 (53% decrease)
  9. Commission: -6,073.06 (100% increase) 
  10. Events: -5,938.56 (64% increase)
  11. Meetings: -1,625.70 (100% increase)
  12. Taxes: -1,364.00 
  13. Insurance: -1,183.00
  14. Donations $29,520
  15. Total: $-11,662.14 (yikes, but we’re already making it up)

Among other revelations amongst these numbers, we paid more in wages this year than we did to our printer. That’s a first! 

And here’s a pretty good idea of what 2015 felt like, in rollercoaster format:

chart comparing 2014 and 2015 sales 

 

A reminder of how we work: While we’re technically set up as a “for-profit” company, we choose to operate on a break-even basis. This means that any time we manage to out-earn our expenses (which we try very hard to do), we put that money back into the company, usually in the form of staff wages and publishing more books—basically everything that went up this year. The publishing industry doesn’t have a lot of extra money floating around, but by taking data and math into consideration in every decision, we’ve carved out a little place in it where we can publish the books that matter most to us and keep them priced affordably. 
Thanks for being along for the ride! We’ll be saying this a lot in the next few months, but 2016 is our 20th year of publishing, and we come to work every day excited that we still get to do this—so thank you for being part of making it work. We can’t wait for the next 20! In the meantime, if you’d like to give us a little boost *and* get 25 books for $50, consider backing our Kickstarter now through January 28th

 

Business of Publishing

Microcosm founder and publisher Joe Biel has written a series of blog posts sharing his twenty-three years worth of experience in the industry. He’s also written a book about the topic, A People’s Guide to Publishing.

An overview / 

What a Publisher Does /

Paralleling the Dinosaurs /

Title Development /

How to Pitch Your Book /

Data About Your Book’s Details (MetaData) /

Profit & Loss Statement /

Am I Stealing Your Art? /

The Economic Case for Traditional Format Offset Printing  /

Distribution Question (with infographic) /

The Print Run /

Working with The Printer /

Formatting for Print /

How to Pack Books /

Social Media for Authors /

Self-Promotion for Authors /

Organizing a book tour /

The Business of Publishing: The Print Run

This is the eighth post in our ongoing Business of Publishing series by Joe Biel, author of A People’s Guide to Publishing. This edition tackles one of our most popular questions: “How many copies of my book should I print?” 

Many, many books have proven unprofitable because their initial print run was too low or too high. Often times not being able to manage this complex predictive math causes many small publishers to collapse under the weight of planning ahead with their own bestsellers.

So let’s look at a healthy way to be smart and plan ahead.

The longtime conventional wisdom is that a third of a book’s lifetime sales occur before its publication date. Another third happen over the next year and the final third happens gradually over the rest of the book’s lifetime. While this belief is becoming increasingly difficult to predict in a changing book-selling climate, the wisdom underpinning it still makes sense: math is your friend. 

The wisdom is that for an independent book to make sense to publish, there should be at least 5,000 people who would want to read it that you can identify who they are and how to reach out to them. Of course, that does not mean that every initial print run should be at least 5,000. Indeed, some of our books are as few as 3,000 or even 2,000. It’s not that we doubt that we might sell 5,000 copies in the book’s lifetime. It’s that in some cases two printings of 3,000 costs about the same as one printing of 5,000 and it’s healthy to be a little wary. 

The average book store sells one copy of the average book during the average year. When you consider that the vast majority of sales are bestsellers, you realize that most books sell even fewer copies than that. What this means is that simply publishing a book does not mean that it will sell or that book stores will want it. You have to make people interested.

Back to pre-sales: 

If you have a trade distributor printing three times as many copies as you have preorders make senses. But if you don’t have a working relationship with a distributor, using a technology like Kickstarter to sell a few hundred or even thousand copies of the book before its release serves a much more important purpose than predicting print run or even raising money. It spreads the buzz about your book through word of mouth and can result in some publicity spots. Planning out blogs and magazines to pitch the book to during your campaign to light a time-sensitive fire can really help your chances of publicity and thus sales. 

But Kickstarter or direct orders on your own website do not demonstrate demand or future sales for a book as they are often reaching a completely different audience. If your book isn’t represented by a trade distributor,mbegin to slowly reach out to bookstores once you have physical books to show to the buyers. Build a relationship. 

We printed 3,000 copies each of, I believe, Microcosm’s first ten books. When I tell people this they respond that it seems bold, lucky, or outrageous that we have sold all 30,000 of those books and that most have seen multiple reprints. But my point is the opposite: Many of those proved much more expensive than they should have been because it’s much cheaper to add 1,000 or 2,000 additional copies to a print run than it is to print the correct number the first time around.

I lacked the understanding of how to predict the difference in sales from one book to another (as well as the quality of results from Google in 2015). Consider the size of the audience. You won’t sell a book to every person interested in it simply because you won’t reach them all or some of them don’t have time to read it or they think they know everything already or they don’t have the money or they simply never run into it at their favorite book store. But look at who is out there and how you can reach them. How much competition is there? Draw up a plan. Then realistically think of how many of those people would buy the book. 

The number one mistake I witness firsthand is people making print runs that are much too small—100 or 500 copies. When they inevitably run out of them, they just need to print more. The amount of time and effort that goes into making a book is the same no matter what your print run is so it’s in your best interest to figure out what that ideal number is. I’d suggest starting in the neighborhood of 2,000-3,000 copies. It sounds like a lot but you’ll need the extras for reviewers and samples. It’s better to err on the side of giving a book to someone who could create a positive influence for it than to be forced into stinginess by a lack of copies. Besides, generosity creates more of the same. 

For reprints, a good rule of thumb is to look at your sales history, see what the patterns are. Is it selling faster? Is it slowing down? Are there busier times of year than others? Plan a two-year supply and find a good place to store them. Sometimes sales completely taper off and you’ll have a lifetime supply. But at least you won’t have to face the question of how many copies of that book to print ever again.

The Business of Publishing: A Moderne DIY Book Tour

on tour in east lansing michiganThis is the seventh post in our ongoing Business of Publishing series by Joe Biel, author of A People’s Guide to Publishing. This edition tackles one of our most popular questions: “What is the best way to organize a book tour on my own?”

Many authors get stars in their eyes and don’t understand that with 4,000 new books being published each day, they will not sell thousands of books as a result of a tour, if ever. But when I ran into this article about “DIY book touring” on money blog The Billfold, I was given new pause. And some alarm.

According to Katey Schultz, whose book of short stories (which looks really good! check it out!), Flashes of War, was published by a small university press, this is what it cost her to DIY a book tour:

+ $5,000 on a publicist 
+ $2,000 on a tour manager 
+ $5,000 for airfare, luggage fees, cab fare, meals, gifts for hosts, gas, car rentals, entry fees, shipping fees, etc. 
=========
$12,000

Schultz doesn’t seem particularly disappointed with the costs or the results of the tour but it is clear that the book sales have failed to meet her expectations. Perhaps it’s my punk rock roots and general frugality, but let’s look at a model for touring for those of us who do not earn $30,000 or just don’t want to spend 40% of our annual income on a book tour.

The book tour as envisioned by the book industry is based on an outdated model. The idea is that the author works for free, someone pays to fly them all over to events with unpredictable attendance, and the publisher hopes that the tour publicity makes enough of a splash to justify the whole matter. 

There seems to be an implicit class-based romanticization of the book industry. You write a literary work in a certain nostalgic style that is approved by certain establishments. Then you make the rounds signing said piece of literature in book stores for adoring fans. It’s an attractive fantasy, but these days it’s fiscally out of reach for all but the most mainstream of authors. 

We’ve likely all heard of or attended book tour events where the author shows up, chairs are arranged, and they wait out the evening while no one shows up to hear them, or worse yet, only family and friends do. They are patted on the back, told that this is all part of climbing the ladder and cutting their teeth, and the whole thing is somehow talked about as if it’s not a waste of time and money.

The only positive aspect of this kind of book tour is the fact that book stores tend to order 25+ copies per event. This can create the impression of a very successful month for the book. Unfortunately, the way the industry works is that bookstores are encouraged to order more copies than they can sell, and then allowed to return the unsold books, resulting in return processing fees from the distributor—so the illusion of an event’s success is often fleeting.

Simply to break even on the expenses of a traditional book tour, based on the average author’s royalty of around $1/book, the tour would actually need to sell through over 12,000 books, or around an average of 400 per event. That is also assuming that the author is working for free. 

Rather than continuing to try to work within this model, clearly authors and publishers need to build viable alternatives. In the original author tours that Microcosm organized, we sold our own titles and also diversified the zines and books that we sold at our events. This did take attention away from the title(s) featured on the tour, but it also meant that we would not lose money on sales, which we could not afford to.

We did some events at bookstores but this also proved difficult as traditional book tours are also unsustainable for bookstores, whose only way to pay for staff time, rent, and inventory is to sell books. Given that hoped-for sales at an indie book event hover around ten books, bookstores are also left in the lurch. The stores needed to take 40% of our merch sales to make it maybe work out for them—and then it didn’t work for us.

By contrast, for a musician or label touring with a new album, this arrangement would not be acceptable. But that’s partially because even musicians have better pay scales than authors and music venues earn money from alcohol sales and by charging admission. But it is assumed that most author events are free to attend and that if an audience member has an enjoyable time, they can purchase a copy of the book. 

Microcosm began as a record label, so it came naturally to us from the beginning to run our book tours more like music tours. At first we asked for a suggested donation of $3-5 from each person who attended the event. Later we started charging outright at the door, sometimes on a sliding scale in the $5-12 dollar range. Yet later, we asked our cookbook author and traveling vegan chef Joshua Ploeg to join our touring team. Including a seven-course meal from Joshua in the price of admission not only kept the audience happy and focused at the event, it made it reasonable to charge as much as $25 for tickets—and that’s not including the books, t-shirts, stickers, and DVDs that people often chose to purchase during or after the events.

tour merch table in baltimoreOver the years we did events in rad DIY venues, historic punk clubs, people’s houses, and infoshops. We quickly gave up on doing straight-up readings and signings—we found those undynamic, and it turns out that our audiences were also more excited about multi-media presentations on topics that related to our books. But it felt like a looping vacuum. We were reaching the same people in the same city each time we visited and while the quality of our performance and books improved every year, it couldn’t grow our audiences in venues like these. So Elly Blue pioneered a new innovation for our tour in 2010: We could work with nonprofits and advocacy organizations, however small, to bring our tour to their cities. The organizations benefit by demonstrating their message and mission to their members and residents. Often, the organization can also use the event as a benefit for themselves once our fees are covered. And unlike booking at colleges, the people who attend are intimately engaged in the subject matter and the books as a result.

We benefit because they have a mailing list to promote the event to and working with them adds legitimacy to our tour even if someone has’t heard of us, Microcosm, or our tour. It’s truly a win-win-win for us, the organization, and the audience.

Another difference—the traditional author tour involves flying between a few major cities. While we occasionally do a big city event, we’ve found that piling into a van and driving between small towns and cities, avoiding the well-worn paths and the busy, hectic schedules of urbanites, yields better events, more excited audience members, better attendance and book sales, and lasting friendships with people who we meet along the way.  

Let’s have a look at our tour expenses for a month on the road in 2015:

$2,340.38 Rental Car
$1,656.85 Groceries
$100.00 Posters
$661.15 Gas
$57.11 Hotel
$11.58 Cable Adapters
$12.00 Parking
$87.12 Speakers

For a total of $4,926.19.

So, just like Katey Schultz, we spent $5,000 on incidentals (though we each paid for our own non-event meals out of pocket). Sure, we’ve been more frugal in the past and toured with four people in a subcompact car for around $700 but we’ve found that a minivan is more suited for the amount of merchandise that we sell on one tour and gives us a little more room to breathe. 

One of us does the booking for the tour, in exchange for a 10% cut of revenues. We write a standard press release and provide promotional language and high-resolution photos, and then either we or our promoters can customize this for local media in every stop on the tour. We generally ask the promoter to find us a place to stay, normally in someone’s house, as part of putting on the event. We’ve almost never had a problem with this and it allows us to focus on the other point of a book tour: meeting incredible people doing neat things in faraway places that inspire us at home. 

On this particular tour, we sold $6,661 worth of books and were paid $11,655 from ticket sales. About half of the money from book sales goes to paying for printing, author royalties, staff time, shipping everything to the tour, and the various reprints that are necessary afterwards. We split a 25% sales commission for doing the work of selling, and the remaining $1,555 is kept by Microcosm to make more new books. We deduct the tour costs from the ticket sales and then divide what’s left evenly between the four people on the tour, including our roadie who does the loading, driving, and selling of raffle tickets. 

In the end, we are each paid for a month of work just like any other month. For most of us, it’s higher than what we earn in a month at home but it’s also quite a bit more work. With this model, we now find that the audiences get a little bigger and we sell more books each year. And the best part of all is that, with a credit card and some free time, our touring style is exportable to other authors doing book tours! 

Last of all, I want to thank Katey Schultz for boldly putting her book tour math out there. Our industry could use a lot more frank talk about finances, as most authors and many publishers find the business side of things to be completely incomprehensible and often are left to make decisions based on guess work. Our method of touring absolutely isn’t for everyone (and we often find it exhausting, ourselves), but we do want authors to know that they have many options for successfully promoting their work and themselves without going into debt. 

Self-Promotion for Authors: Getting Psyched for Self-Promotion

microcosm authors at a book readingHello again! This is a series for Microcosm authors (and other curious bystanders) about book marketing and publicity. The first post in the series was a rapid-fire outline of our job as the publisher of the book. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what publishers do and don’t do (and a lot of variation in the reality, too), so hopefully this is helpful. 

This next post gets started on the author’s role by focusing on a pretty common anxiety among authors: Self-promotion.

Many of our authors have no problem at all with promoting their work, and some have come to us with years of building up a successful body of work or a personal brand and are ready to grab a megaphone to tell the world about the book they haven’t even written yet. Many others experience discomfort akin to panic at the idea of standing up and talking to a room full of people about their book, using social media to broadcast sales pitches and positive reviews, or even telling friends and family that they wrote a book and that there’s an opportunity to buy it.

First of all, self-promotion anxiety is so normal as to be, well, the norm. That said, you’ve gone through all this work to produce a book. The more comfortable you are with talking about it with friends and strangers alike, online or off, the more people who want or need to read it will be able to. And we’re here to help you do that.  

Here are some common concerns and what I’ve learned over the years, as a nervous author myself and working with many others, about how to tackle them:

 

I don’t want to spam/annoy/ask people to buy my book

Ok, good point. But there is a huge difference between actual spam (eg, twice-daily unsolicited marketing emails in bold, red, italic letters saying BUY NOW) and book promotion. Here’s another way to think about it: You just wrote a book about topics that you care deeply about. Other people who care deeply about the same things (or about you) are going to be excited to find out about, buy, and read your book. Your promotional role is to find them and offer them the opportunity to do this as easily as possible.

Practical tip: Think about what makes your book exciting and interesting. How did you get the idea for the book? When did it really come together? What have other people or your editor said that they like about your book? Write all of those things down and refer to them when you’re trying to find something to say about your book other beyond “it exists! buy it!”

 

Most people won’t want to read my book

That’s true. But you didn’t write this book to please everyone in the entire world (that would be the most boring book ever). You wrote it for your readers. That’s a very particular set of people and most of the job of promoting is finding them and talking to them (often about topics other than your book). Here’s yet another way to think about it: You’re part of a movement. Whatever your book is about—teaching in inner-city schools, making soap, cats, vegan cooking—it’s now become a building block in that bigger movement, and you’ve become a leader of that piece of the movement (and maybe a much bigger piece than just the one covered by your book). So your job is less to find random people and tell them you have a book, and more to connect with your movement about your book and the ideas in and around it. 

Practical tip: Starting a blog or forum where you write about many related topics (but keep a purchase link to your book in the sidebar) is one way to do this. Social media is another. For many authors it makes sense to bring readers into the conversation as much as possible. For others it works to share parts of their personal experience with the book. For yet others, the best strategy is to speak at conferences, write guest blog posts, and otherwise tap into existing platforms. Your style is up to you!

 

If my book is good, then I shouldn’t need to promote it.

Sadly, sadly, sadly, this is not the case. If it were, all our jobs would be much easier. Thousands of books are being published every day, readers have more choices than they can even understand, and much as we have developed your book uniquely with its title, cover, marketing, and publicity plan, it is still necessary to go out there and tell the world why it’s worth taking a look at. 

Practical tip: Practice describing your book in one sentence. We call this the Five Second Pitch. Find a friend, family member, or coworker who knows very little about your book and try the pitch out on them. How do they respond? Adjust as necessary. Once you’ve mastered this, think about other things that people engaged by this will want to know. Prepare a 30-second speech with more details about the uniqueness of your book and, if relevant, how it fits into existing news stories and trends.

 

Help, the critics are going to eat me alive!

Yeah, reviews are scary. It’s a mixed bag out there. Many famous and well-regarded authors have a policy of never reading reviews and we think this is a great idea. The psychology of it is unfortunate—your ten good reviews might leave you cold, while the one lukewarm one could have you grinding your teeth for years. We keep track of reviews for all of our books so that we can tell the world about the good ones and issue corrections for the factually inaccurate ones. So there’s no reason that you need to read your reviews or set up a google alert for your book unless you want to. Reviews don’t affect sales as much as everyone wants to believe (though bad reviews are better for sales than no reviews at all), so our advice is not to worry about them as much as possible. Easier said than done, we know! 

Practical tip: Instead of googling yourself, google other authors whose books have sold well yet gotten mixed or terrible reviews. They often have very funny (and helpful) things to say about the experience. 

 

Imposter syndrome (eg, feeling like you aren’t an expert or have no right to speak out about the topics in your book) 

First of all, let me reassure you: You did a great job. Your book is awesome. Only you could have written it, and you are perfectly qualified to speak about it, and the subject matter in it, on par with anyone else on the planet. We’re selective about what books we publish, and we don’t let them go to print until and unless they are good (and unique) inside and out, with strong, well-put-together contents that are compelling to a group of readers. No exceptions. 

Secondly, a lot of people feel this way. Trust me, many very accomplished people who seem utterly cool and collected on the outside are often a total mess internally when they’re up on a stage, or doing an interview, or approached by a gregarious family friend at a party who wants to know all about their book. It takes courage for anyone to step up and promote their vision. You’ve already done a lot by writing a book about it—don’t stop there!

Practical tips: Practice, practice, practice. It truly does get easier. It helps to have someone you can call on for supportive and encouraging words when you’re experiencing self-doubt or stage fright. Also, figuring out exactly what you are promoting (It may help to think of it as not being you but rather your vision, your readers, and your movement) can help you take the stage as an expert in a way that feels supportive of your community of readers rather than uncomfortably self-aggrandizing.

*

Go out there and promote! 

The next post is about promoting your book on social media. You can read more publishing wisdom like this in Joe Biel’s book A People’s Guide to Publishing. 

Self-Promotion for Authors: What the Publisher Does

All our authors ask at some point “how can I promote my book?” A lot of our authors—well, a lot of authors in general—are quite shy and don’t know where to begin with talking about their books to the public. We think a lot about how to promote books to eager readers without totally burning out. We’ll share some of what we’ve learned in the next few posts.

This is the first of a series of posts that outlines how Microcosm promotes books, what authors can do, and some tips for tying your book in with your other work, past and future.  so much to read!These posts are written for Microcosm’s authors and artists, and are geared towards our processes, but they should still be useful for anyone who is figuring out how to promote any book, whether you’re publishing it yourself or have a contract with a major house.

The first post is our side of the bargain.

What we do

Microcosm is a traditional-format publishing house. We solicit books from authors, and occasionally accept submissions, work with authors to produce the best possible book, have large quantities of books manufactured (in the USA!), and work hard to get those books into the hands of the right readers. Here are the basic steps:

– Marketing and development: This is the hardest part of the process to describe, but probably the most important. We spend hours researching the market for each book and figuring out a title, subtitle, cover design, and description. Sometimes this process is immediate and obvious, other times it takes months of back-and-forth and doubt. The end goal is to make sure that your book is accurately described and also that it fills a wanted and empty niche in the world of books out there so that excited readers are able to discover it.

Editing: This is the part that you’ll see the most, in which we make sure that your book is what it says it is, is awesome to read, and has as few typos as possible.

Production: When your book is ready, we design it and send it off to the printer. The development process informs your book’s size, color, design, paper type, how many we print, when it is printed, when it is released, and where all the copies are warehoused. We pay for the production and budget our promotional activities around selling enough books so that we recoup the investment quickly and begin paying you royalties.

Publicity: We promote your book via printed catalogs and fliers that we distribute internationally, occasionally in targeted advertisements, and in every creative way we can possibly think of. Before your book comes out, we create digitally printed ARCs (Advance Review Copies) and both we and you distribute them to potential reviewers and interviewers. We work with book reviewers and media outlets that we have relationships with and create new connections with people whose readers we think would like your book. Sometimes we’ll run a Kickstarter campaign. We work closely with authors every step of the way to help you talk about your book and the bigger ideas behind it.

– Sales and distribution: We do our darnedest to sell the heck out of your book through many, many channels including directly to readers and fans—online, at events, and in our bookstore, to wholesalers, to distributors of various types, and more. 

This is only a very brief summary of what we do in putting out a book. Hopefully it’ll help put the rest of the series into perspective! 

Next in the series: Psyching yourself up to promote your book when that seems like the most terrifying thing ever.

Feel free to request topics in the comments, or by email. Read in more depth about what a publisher does in Joe Biel’s book, A People’s Guide to Publishing.

The Business of Publishing

One of our most frequently asked questions here at Microcosm is something along the lines of: How does publishing work anymore? make a zine!

We have a few ways of answering that. 

Want a big picture look at the state of the industry, Amazon, the Big 5, and where small fry like us can fit in (and thrive)? We’ve got you covered

Or would you prefer brass tacks instructions that you can follow along at home? We have that, too.  

We have it in book form: Joe co-authored Make A Zine, which tells you not just how to lay out your type-written treatises for photocopying and handing out at punk shows, but how to publish books with spines, from editorial nuts to distribution bolts. More recently, Joe wrote *the* book on book publishing, A People’s Guide to Publishing.

I wrote a blog post a ways back about running a small zine production operation out of my living room and funding it on Kickstarter.

For people who want to take their book publishing enterprise even farther, Joe has an ongoing series, The Business of Publishing, over on my blog from way back in 2014 when we ran separate enterprises. Each post offers an in-depth guide to a new aspect of the industry, geared toward advanced beginners. If you put out a book through CreateSpace and are wondering why you aren’t getting ahead, read this!

There’s remarkably little candid information we’ve found out there about how to publish books in a way that makes economic sense. (Sorry, Smashwords. Sorry, Amazon. You are all sharks, you’re out to screw over authors, readers, and other publishers, and you know it.) 

One refreshing exception came this week from our friend Amelia Greenhall, who wrote this extraordinarily detailed and useful account of founding a financially successful quarterly journal. (A word of caution: She was able to raise her entire first-year operating budget up-front. If that’s not in the cards for you, you may need to be a bit scrappier.)

Another great resource on some elements of the most important but undervalued work that publishers do can be found here. The head of our former distributor, IPG, kicked off an extraordinarily helpful series on “habits of successful independent publishers.” (My favorite part: “They spend a lot of time in bookstores.”)

2014 Financial Report

Hello Small World,

Elly here, your new Microcosm marketing director. Starting today, I’ll be working at pretty much every level to get all our books into the right hands, and also to continue publishing my line of feminist books about bicycling and getting new editions ready of the two books I wrote for Microcosm. I’m stoked. My first post here at ye olde blogifesto is about everyone’s favorite topic: accounting! Starting in 2009, we’ve published our finances at the beginning of every year. It’s helped both us and our fans keep tabs on how and what the company is doing. We’re proud to be able to be this transparent. We’re also proud (and exhausted, and relieved) that 2014 was our best year EVER by every metric that matters to us. 

Before I start bombarding you with numbers, a quick note on how Microcosm works. We operate on a break-even basis, which means: No profits. That is to say, if we are lucky and industrious enough to earn more than our expenses in any given year, that money *does not* get split between owners or shareholders. Instead, it gets put back into the business. Staff get raises and we get to hire more people and we get to take a chance on publishing more books that we love. Also, more sales = more income for the people we work with. Authors get bigger royalty checks, and people whose books we distribute get to sell more books. In short, everyone wins. All of this happened in 2014 and 2015 is looking pretty great already. 

Without further ado, here’s a pie chart showing every dollar we spent last year:

2014 expense by type

 

 

Here are the numbers to go with that chart, along with the change since last year:

 

Income $389,351.59 28% increase
   
Publishing $88,505.50 33% decrease

Wages $102,099.80 52.4% increase

Shipping $35,539.21 15% increase

Distribution $59,036.79 151.5% increase!

Supplies & Phone $14,730.93 9.4% decrease

Royalties $31,306.46 101.1% increase!

Building $20,844.05 137.3% increase

Advertising $4,316.48 18.3% decrease

Travel $3,620.94 68.7% increase

Donations $27,325.00 78.3% increase

Total $387,325.16 28.2% increase
Profit $2,026.43 (goes into 2015 expenses)

In short, we spent a lot more on existing staff wages and hiring rad new people, a whole lot more on books that we distributed, and a whole heck of a lot more on our office/store/warehouse (we bought a building!). We spent more on travel to sell books and speak at various events, we donated more books to causes and organizations that we support. We paid out twice as much in author royalties as we did in 2013, even though we spent considerably less money publishing (and advertising) books. And we came out a little ahead, which gives us a buffer for the first few days of whatever 2015 brings. 
We had a tough few years back there, but I’d say we’ve (finally!) officially bounced back. We’ve paid off all of our debts (and some other people’s too) and everyone’s getting paid regularly, on time, and more than ever (that’s the flip side of owners not splitting profits—when the company loses money it comes out of owners’ paychecks and savings accounts and credit lines—but now we’re looking only forward).
Aaaaand here’s what we sold in 2014 (broken down by total revenue from each type of thing) that made this all possible:
2014 sales by type
As you can see, print isn’t dead—we’re finding that when we go about it thoughtfully and well, publishing books still makes a lot of financial sense. Unfortunately, there’s a ton of mythology going around to the contrary. I’m sure you’ve heard about the great benefits to authors of self-publishing through a certain giant online retailer. I mean, Amazon will give you a 70% royalty on your ebook! Who can compete with that? 
But with all respect, it’s smoke and mirrors. Amazon loves to pit authors (and readers) against what it paints as the greed and ineptitude of publishers—but often people optimistically forget to notice that Amazon is the biggest, most greedy publisher of all. We’re still shaking our heads at this 2012 Guardian article breaking down author royalties from Amazon. In terms of self-publishing, it’s still way way better to skip the e-books and print on demand and do it in large runs of offset print books—as this breakdown by Joe on my blog earlier this year shows—essentially launching a traditional publishing company. For those disinclined to do so, working with an actual publisher still makes a ton of sense. Ideally, the author-publisher relationship should be a symbiotic one, sharing the hard work of making good books and getting them into the hands of readers who will value them. That’s our goal, and we’re always working to do it better.
Traditional indie publishing (not to be confused with mega-corporate global conglomerate publishing) is still the best: for authors, for readers, and for workers in the publishing industry. Here’s a chart we made showing what happens to each ten dollars you spend buying books from Microcosm and Amazon (which we broke down further into print and electronic because frankly it’s pretty egregious):
ten dollar book microcosm amazon

So there’s that. Thanks for reading, for cheering us on, for keeping us honest, writing us love letters, submitting your work, and for being a part of this community. We’re stoked about what the next year will bring. Next month we turn 19, so a year from now there will be even more celebrations in store. As well as more pie charts, of course.

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.