Tagged business of 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.

Financial Report for 2013

In the name of fiscal transparency, like a 501(c)3 nonprofit, we publish our financial reports each year. You can also read them from 2012, 20112010, and 2009! We’ve worked very hard this year, one of our hardest ever, and we have a lot to show for it. We were able to re-institute a year end bonus for all employees while giving raises and paying off all of our old debts. We feel that we have reached a place of stability with a certain future through the recession and the evolving publishing industry. We moved into a newer, larger building last month that we own. Thanks for all of your support and for sticking with us through our 18th year. All future finances beyond operating expenses will go into upgrading computers, providing raises, and re-instating staff healthcare. If you want to help, the best thing you can do for us is to sign up for a BFF subscription or purchase anything from the site!  

2013 Income $304,272.05 (a 15.1% increase)




Printing Bills $130,305.69 (54.4% increase, 43.1% of budget)

Total staff wages $67,014.43 (49.3% increase, 22.2% of budget)


Shipping $30,900.62 (21.1% decrease, 10.2% of budget)

Paid to publishers and distributors $23,472.60 (27.3% decrease, 7.8% of budget)


Utilities, insurance, phone, office supplies, etc $16,261.20 (39.1% decrease, 5.4% of budget)

Royalties to authors $15,564.39 (57% increase, 5.2% of budget)

Rent $8,784 (18.4% decrease, 2.9% of budget)

Advertising $5,282.75 (3.2% decrease, 1.7% of budget)

Catalog Printing $2,314.62 (12.3% decrease, .8% of budget)


Travel $2,147 (71.6% increase, .7% of budget)

Staff Healthcare $0 (0% of budget)

Donations $15,325 (1.1% increase)


Total Expenses $302,047.30

Total $2,224.75 (profit)

We used this profit to pay off last year’s losses of $-967.87 and establish a bit of a safety net for the future. 

2012 Financial Report

In the name of fiscal transparency, here’s our 2012 financial report! You can read them from 20112010, and 2009 too! We’ve made a lot of headway this year and feel like we are approaching a good place despite a recession and changing publishing industry. We’ve resolved a tremendous amount of old debt so big thanks and hugs to everybody who stuck with us this year. We are still working on re-instating last year’s reduced wages and healthcare but we are finding creative ways to work out those problems by next October. Here’s a toast to continued improvements in 2013! If you want to help, it is always helpful to sign up for a BFF subscription or purchase anything from the site!  

2012 Income $264,226.84 (17.3% decrease)




Printing Bills $84,418.65 (34.2% increase, 32.9% of budget)

Total staff wages $46,908.84 (a 106.4% increase, 17.8% of budget)

Shipping $39,153.20 (5.9% decrease, 14.8% of budget)

Paid to publishers and distributors $32,306.09 (64.8% decrease, 12.2% of budget)

Utilities, insurance, phone, office supplies, etc $26,716.09 (32.8% decrease, 10.1% of budget)

Rent $10,400 (17.5% decrease, 3.9% of budget)

Royalties to authors $9,911.44 (27.3% decrease, 3.8% of budget)

Zines bought from makers $6,033.04 (68.6% decrease, 2.3% of budget)

Advertising $5,457.80 (81.1% increase, 2.1% of budget)

Catalog Printing $2,638.56 (8.6% decrease, 1% of budget)

Travel $1,251 (71.1% increase, .5% of budget)

Staff Healthcare $0 (0% of budget)

Donations $15,495 (488% increase)


Total Expenses $265,194.71


Total $-967.87 (loss)