In this series of interviews, Jay Butler and Sarah Moffat examine how recent antiracist activism has affected the publishing industry. Is diversity merely a marketing convention, or are publishers truly striving towards literary equity? As literary powerhouses rethink their roles as gatekeepers, we have set out to interview regional publishers to hear their side of the story.
Joe Biel is the founder of Microcosm Publishing and the author of A People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business From the Ground Up. As one of the oldest independent book publishers in Portland, Microcosm has prided itself on its amplification of progressive ideals and social justice since 1996. Microcosm has published books like Dr. Faith G. Harper’s Unfuck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-outs, and Six Days in Cincinnati: A Graphic Account of the Riots That Shook the Nation a Decade Before Black Lives Matter.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
When you founded Microcosm in 1996, what was your ultimate vision?
I simply wanted to publish the kinds of resources that I found sorely lacking as a child to empower myself to understand and engage with the world. I wanted people like myself to have a fighting chance.
How would you say Micrososm’s vision has changed or expanded since its origination? Any examples?
When I was guest teaching at PSU once, a couple students asked me how I felt about compromising myself to get where I am, given my ethics and initial ambitions. I take their point: that it’s difficult to see where I came from at times. But it’s also difficult to see the struggles that I still deal with today. The vision hasn’t evolved at all beyond that I don’t see it so singularly around myself any longer and that I’m a much more functional person 25 years later. But those memories allow me to hold empathy for people, and to put myself in the place of thinking about what books are useful. The biggest change, though, is that I am much better at my job today so it looks a bit more seamless, which is all to say that the utility of a book has a lot to do with how well it’s received or not. Perhaps that’s why Microcosm worked!
You mention “people like myself…” Do you mind elaborating on that a bit more?
I started out from my own perspective as an at-risk autistic teenage runaway escaping a home that was full of violence without support and seemingly every voice telling me what I can’t do and thus shouldn’t try. I didn’t realize this at the time. Like most people in publishing, I was merely echoing and speaking to my own lived experience. But it happened to resonate largely with women of color who hadn’t finished college. It’s fascinating that whenever I meet our fans as much as time goes by, they remain remarkably similar, which is comforting, like we haven’t lost touch with our values.
To your students’ point, we can see how progress within the literary industry can create the illusion that your original “ethics and ambitions” are being compromised. Do you feel there is a stigma against success that creates this misconception?
In publishing most people come from inherited, pre-existing wealth. There’s an assumption that business is inherently exploitative and the result is a hand-wringing process of rejecting business and creating circumstances where a press can’t simultaneously support itself and its artistic talent. I’m solidly Gen X and we really grew up with the success apologist/shame perspective of Nirvana and punk rock. It took me a few solid decades under my belt before I became comfortable with success and understanding that doing so—while we might draw criticism—doesn’t mean that we have violated our values. The students’ comments were amusing to me because it shows that generationally these ideas hadn’t gone away as much as I had thought. This is good in a certain sense—to maintain our integrity—but I think, to a major degree, this was the undoing of my generation where we weren’t setting ourselves up to succeed.
Switching gears a bit, your book, A People’s Guide to Publishing, emphasizes knowing what kind of publisher you want to be, which begs the question: what kind of publisher is Microcosm?
Thank you. It’s always interesting the different things that people take from the book. I think the thing that separates Microcosm—aside from focusing on empowerment and each book’s value proposition first—is that we just don’t give a shit to look respectable or maintain certain conventions that serve no one. At the end of the day the only things that matter are that the book’s development is clear, the editing does what it needs to for the book to accomplish its goals, and that the reader likes the book. In this way we serve the reader above all else, while I feel like most publishers prioritize the author, the industry, or the academy.
Microcosm is a publisher for all people, and you’ve worked hard to create a space for underrepresented voices over the last 24 years. To your point, this sort of “apolitical” approach has a great deal to do with why Microcosm works so well. How do you feel Microcosm has approached the issue of diversification differently than other regional presses?
I think of our method as taking radical ideas to a populist approach. I think that is different because I think that just about any other regional press is “editorial driven” instead of “market driven,” meaning they publish books because they are “of merit” rather than “of interest.” Whereas, we are looking at what people need and I think that brings in a completely different set of voices and readers, who look very different from the literary world.
“We just don’t give a shit to look respectable or maintain certain conventions that serve no one.” We love this sentiment, but it gets us thinking: what specific conventions are you referring to?
Things like intentionally obtuse title and cover development are a convention of our industry. Recently at a trade show, there was a cool YA book about a lesbian. The author made cool bandanas about her character. I picked up the book, thrilled, and found that there was no indication that it was a lesbian coming of age novel. When I ask about this, people cite that it makes them more eligible for more awards, which makes no sense to me. Similarly, you’ll see a lot of books where authors wield a bit too much power in the final choices that equally lend to obtuse development, in the form of an incoherent title or painting on the cover. But my favorite example is an academic book that took 30 pages to make a statement that could be said in one sentence. So in these ways, the conventions aren’t actually serving the intended goals.
Don’t you think conventions are meant to serve? Is it correct to say Microcosm tries to facilitate new or, perhaps, inconvenient conventions?
Perhaps by their intent, yes, but in effect, no. A major component of being autistic is to take the stated goal of an approach and to dismantle it until you’ve created a shorter, simplified path from where you are to where you want to go. So if the goal is to read books, why not start with telling people what those books are about? Unless the point is to exclusively prioritize white male academics, in which case the current method is doing a great job.
Microcosm is a Portland staple; it’s such a unique press, and must get quite a few submissions. How many of these submissions does Microsom actually pursue per year?
Thank you. We receive about 500 submissions per year and publish about 60 of those, pursuing about 100 total, some of which turn out to be insubstantial or the author doesn’t complete the work.
You note that your experience as a disadvantaged autistic teen living in a potentially abusive home resonated with women of color who hadn’t completed college. What sort of societal conventions do you think created this sort of parallelism?
I think for some the common thread is poverty and desperation. I think for others it’s the familiarity of a world that isn’t designed to accommodate them so that everything becomes a fight. And yet for others, I think it’s just that our expression echoes something that they appreciate or haven’t seen elsewhere. I think it’s the subtle head nod that makes someone feel seen.
Do you think the white male’s experience has affected some of the conventions presses like Microcosm have inherited from publishing traditions, the very same conventions many are trying to dismantle?
Of course. Everyone is a product of the culture that they exist in and we’ve probably taken as many cues from patriarchy as punk rock. I think what makes us different in this regard is that we have a more participatory and democratic culture. People are encouraged to bring their ideas forward, point out flaws, and talk through issues. We aren’t afraid to dismantle a system or how we do things and rebuild from the ground up. We left our distributor to self-distribute and our sales increased 56%, for example. We realized that most marginal authors struggle with rigid deadlines so we revamped our schedule so that we announce and schedule a book for publication once the line edits are finished rather than at acquisition. So while we inherit problematic traditions, we aren’t afraid to abandon them. When I explain how we solve problems to other publishers, they move immediately to “the reason that wouldn’t work for me is…” and the honest conclusion to that sentence is “…because I’m unwilling to examine how we do things.” And those things are what maintains a high barrier to entry and a rather homogenous author pool and publishing industry.
If your original intent had been to reach groups such as yourself, do you feel that Microcosm has subsequently served the convention that advocates for diversity? After all, conventions are often image-based; diversity branding can just as easily become an inauthentic marketing narrative rather than equity-based advocacy.
Ideally, you evolve as you go. I know of a nonprofit that literally had a party to declare diversity success with nothing left to achieve. They seemed to actually believe this. In fact, they hadn’t achieved any of their metrics and successes that had occurred were not a product of their own doing. They didn’t set higher benchmarks, or draft a new vision statement. These events were highly informative for me in how we manage our operation. The minute that you decide things are “good enough,” you should make space for someone else to lead your organization.
We see presses revamping their mission statements, revising submission guidelines, even bookstores removing 90% of the white, canonical literature from their shelves to make room for BIPOC authors. Why, now, do you think these changes are happening?
It’s interesting. I went to my first protest against police racialized violence in 1993. It was a hugely influential event for me, as I think these things are for anyone at the time that they get involved with them. I thought that would be the moment of reckoning around recognizing white supremacy creeping into all aspects of our lives. These movements have been building for 60 years or 200 years or 5,000 years, depending how you look at it. The difference now is that white people are involved in the movement. The movement is sexy so it attracts people to take a stand. It’s fashionable to do so. Why did white people get involved this time? I think it’s people who grew up generationally witnessing unfair treatment and empathizing with that. When I tell people my own stories about being beaten up by cops, some people cannot relate with that. It shocks and terrifies them so they withdraw. But the generation after mine witnessed the magnitude of oppression that people of color face on a daily basis and found it unacceptable. Specifically, the constant reminder of these things changed public opinion. After you see the 100th video of someone being treated differently for being a person of color, it challenges your core beliefs. You strengthen them or they change. And as a culture, it does the same thing. Just like Obama went from rejecting gay marriage to embracing it in four years, we are able to empathize when we see somone else getting the short stick consistently.
Do you think these efforts are a true step in the right direction or a self-serving initiative?
I certainly think that it’s virtue-signaling for some people, but, by and large, I think the initiatives are sincere and well intentioned. Are they effective? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. It’s one thing to say that you’ll only publish marginalized authors, but adding them to your network is the harder point, if that is outside of your workflow. It’s much easier to learn about existing books in print, hence the shift in the NYT list to backlist books about racism instead of new bestsellers. So essentially, it’s both self-serving and a step in the right direction. It benefits everyone to diversify the network of publishing. If you want further proof, sit through a HarperCollins sales presentation of the memoirs that they publish from upper-class retired residents of Manhattan each year.
How can publishers step out of this merely revised image of themselves, and into the realm of sincere advocacy?
It’s like anything else. Since there aren’t a lot of great role models, you can’t really look around you for cues. You have to look at how you do things now, and look at barriers to entry for the people that you would like to be involved with. It’s like throwing a party: you have to invite the people that you want to attend and make them feel comfortable, welcome, and wanted when they decide to show up. It takes time to build confidence and reputation so when you invite people you need to be prepared for the fact that they might actually attend.
Image: Joe Biel
Jay Butler grew up in the foothills of North Carolina and received a BA in History & English with a creative writing concentration from Appalachian State University. Currently enrolled in the MFA program at Portland State University, he is a Genre Editor in poetry for Portland Review. His work has been featured in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, Fourteen Hills, Appalachian Heritage, and is forthcoming in other journals and magazines.
Sarah Moffatt is a self-proclaimed “Oregonian with amnesia.” Having left the Pacific Northwest as a child to begrudgingly follow her parents south to obnoxiously-sunny California, Sarah has finally made the migration back to Portland. It’s here that she basks in the year-round gloom, drinks copious amounts of coffee, enjoys a good Bukowski collection every now and again, and—oh yeah—pursues a Master’s in Book Publishing at Portland State. Naturally, she works for Ooligan Press and is an editor with Portland Review.