Joe Biel is one of the folks behind Microcosm Publishing, a collective that prints and distributes zines, books, shirts, stickers, and more. They sell online and through their store in Portland. I’m Dan Copulsky, and Joe answered my question in December 2010.
How many hours a week do you all work, and do you have any other jobs or sources of income?
There’s nine of us. I work about 80-100 hours per week. Adam and Jessie, who manage our press, work well over 40 as well. At this point Nate, who builds our databases and updates our website, is very part time. But Sparky, Chris, and Dylan, who pack orders, work about 30 hours per week each. And Rio, Matt, and Corey, who staff our store, work around 30 hours each. Since we are working in an “industry” where there is no money, we each can only get paid up to 32 hours per week. I do video, odd jobs, and construction for money, as do about half of us. Matt does illustration for hire pretty much full time. Sparky teaches art to kids at after school programs. Jessie is a farmer. We’re a mixed bunch. Everyone has their passion hobbies as well.
Is someone in charge? Are decisions made by consensus? What’s the organizational structure of Microcosm, and how’s that fit the project’s values?
We have three tiers of hierarchy. There are temp workers, volunteers, interns, people on their trial hiring basis, and part time people who work for Microcosm and have stated bosses. They are encouraged to state their opinions and express concerns but do not have the ability to stop a decision from happening. There are collective members, who manage the daily operation, have the ability to make policy changes or prevent the presented policy changes of others. While we don’t use consensus—on a good day we operate in a way that takes into account the concerns of everyone to make a decision that no one is opposed to, even if they don’t think it’s necessary. This is how we rewrite our policies, in monthly meetings for administration discussions and changes. And then bi-weekly for submissions. We also have monthly financial updates and publishing updates with projects that are already approved and in motion. On top of this, people can buy in as owners, but currently since we don’t turn a profit and aren’t seeing one in our future, there is no incentive to do this and we are re-writing this role. Being an owner has no authoritative powers that being a collective member does not.
Honestly this came about because this is how it was done before us. There’s no money to be made doing what we do so a way to distribute personal investment is to put people in control of their own lives at work. I think it’s also a good lesson of learning what’s involved in running an organization and what it’s like to have to make those hard decisions.
I’ve tabled at a couple of zine fests and lost money doing it. I’ve learned that I should have a wider variety of stuff and that covers are really important, but I also figure that there are things that make doing a zine fest worth it even if I do lose a bit of money. What’s the business of tabling a fest look like from the perspective of a bigger and more establish group like Microcosm?
We pretty much break even at events—if that. When you take into account travel, the cost of the table, the cost of shipping everything, and the cost of the stuff you are selling, we are often lucky to break even. We’ve had to cut a lot of events in the last year because we were losing so much money by doing them. It’s sad. But you are right, you don’t do these things for financial reasons. You do them for a warm reception, meeting people, and having fun. But sadly, we simply can’t afford to lose money on having all that fun.
Are there any zines you feel like you’ve been waiting for someone to make, like a topic or perspective that someone really ought to tackle?
You know, when I think about that, I often realize that I just wasn’t looking hard enough for them. It’s embarrassing but the public library in Portland now does a better job than we do of finding new zines. And that’s truly amazing. You go to the library and they have zines I’ve never heard of. And in the cases where the zines don’t exist yet, it’s very often an issue of an emerging cultural matter and the zine comes out soon thereafter. Patience is the important virtue when dealing with zines
Aside from particular zines, what do you think the zine world needs more of? How about less of?
Ten years ago I started the zine that I publish now. I’ll be frank—I wanted to say “you can do this” and maybe even try to shift culture. Zines at that time were emerging from the Riot Grrrl era and moving into a very introspective, personal realm. It seemed that everyone’s favorite muse was themselves and it didn’t do a lot for reading as much as it did for writers. So I put together six issues of a zine entirely based in research. Ten years later things are evolving and shifting but there’s still a lingering problem—the most basic skills of investigative journalism is lost. The issues are cast in the culture as didactic and there’s a fence where you have to take a side. If I was writing a story about Eliot Spitzer, for example, I would talk to lots of people involved with differing perspectives. People are going to have contradicting statements but the narrative will emerge through these conflicting statements. Whereas it seems that people making zines have trouble with these analytical skills in their writing. I would like to see zines having the same kind of standards of journalism and ethical integrity that I would expect from anything else. And I don’t intend this as a dis to anyone. I did exactly the same thing when I started out. Before I made zines I was part of a DIY school newspaper. I thought ours easily had better writing than the one run by school but there was no point in any process that sat me down and said “Things are always more complicated than they seem.” And that sticks whether I’m writing about my own life, the actions of the Portland police, a character portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, or how to compost effectively, ya know?
Is Microcosm an evolving project?
Yes, we’ve very much evolved over the last fifteen years. Just looking at the last five or so, we’ve been able to adapt and do “real” books where we take on an editorial role, do design work, and produce something as a group effort. Even five years ago we were simply doing production work—scanning, digitizing masters, sending to print, and distributing. I think that’s our biggest accomplishment of late. We’re now able to make a book better and work like an artistic brain rather than just a production brain.
How do you think the project might change in the future? Are there any particular new things you’d like to try doing?
We’ve lost at lot of money on certain projects over the last four years and as a result are toning and shaping our efforts to focus more exclusively on zines and books about how to do something in the 128-160 page range. We decided this at our annual meeting last May but it takes many months to implement.
For the sake of maintaining our own interest, there are many things we’ve tried or would like to try. We had a big push towards more books with original content instead of reprints, like we used to do. At certain points there have been pushes to do books about current events issues like American Apparel or Suicide Girls and their inherent contradictions. But because we are unable to pay a standard book advance, we have to work with people who can afford to be paid incremental royalties across many years instead of a lump sum in advance.