This is an excerpt from Joe Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s, detailing many mistakes that proved to be learning opportunities and the first 20 years of Microcosm Publishing.
I graduated a year early from high school a few months after I turned eighteen. I celebrated by moving out of my parents’ house and getting drunk daily. I lived with four friends and worked nights while most of my roommates worked nine to five.
I had been dating someone for a few weeks when, at a restaurant, she told me that I was selfish and complained about the timing of our first kiss. We broke up shortly thereafter. I began dating the waitress at the local coffee shop. We went to a movie and got into an argument on the pier about whether needle-exchange programs support heroin use, and she told me that I had no empathy. Similarly to the comment about me being selfish, this was delivered in a matter-of-fact manner that I appreciated and found helpful. I asked both of them lots of questions about what led them to those conclusions. Unfortunately, it would be more than ten years before I understood that I literally lacked the cognitive processes that comprise empathy. According to Simon Baron-Cohen, empathy is “the drive or ability to attribute mental states to another person/animal and entails an appropriate affective response in the observer to the other person’s mental state” — and I didn’t have it. This not only made it impossible for me to predict the actions and behaviors of other people but also prevented me from being able to even feel an appropriate response to other people’s emotions. While I was self-centered, at least it was clinical instead of willful.
Not knowing why I was this way left me depressed and lonely. I went to punk shows as frequently as I could motivate someone to go with me. I started staying out all night and going to bed as the sun came up. I began dictating my thoughts into a tape recorder. I struggled to accept the fact that I was a perennial loner.
I had a large, cold room without a door. It was furnished with only a TV and a fold-out couch, so, every time I brought a date home, the first question was “Is this your room?” There was an adjoining alcove with two empty closets so I set up a computer there, hung up a cork board, and turned it into the first Microcosm office.
I was making good money delivering pizza and I started to put $100 aside each week for Microcosm projects. My roommate’s band, The Roswells, wanted to release a 7” record. I had spent the last few years researching how records are made. I proposed that we make the record be Microcosm #1 and they agreed. The band had high expectations of me, which was ironic for a bedroom record label’s first release, but the pressure was a good way to learn many lessons at once and to try and take it seriously.
The band went on tour that summer but told me I couldn’t go because I was farting constantly. At their insistence, I went to a doctor to get it checked out, but the doctor told me it was normal.
I discovered that most of the struggle in production work was finding creative ways of letting people, stores, or distributors know why they should care about a record and why I was so excited about it. I started making ads to photocopy and met a guy who worked at a Kinko’s in nearby Kent. I would mail him my masters and money for postage, and he’d send back boxes and boxes of zines and advertisements. A friend insisted on making a website for Microcosm, which at that time consisted of roughly five items and a poorly drawn stick figure begging you to be interested in the items. I started purchasing ads in Maximum and sending out letters in which I talked endlessly about my vision for Microcosm. But the substance wasn’t clear, partially because I didn’t know exactly what my platform was. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t yet had enough life experiences.
Judge Richard Swain, a local judge since 1975 who had been part of the original wave of eastward manifest destiny of whiteness running from Cleveland, was re-elected in 1995 and made a habit of giving maximum sentences with every conviction. In 1996 he made rulings that the sexual assault of several women was their own fault because of the clothes they were wearing. My friends and I were pissed. We made stickers that said “Judge Swain is an asshole.” But, locally, not one store would sell them for fear of Swain’s wrath when the owner received so much as a parking ticket. One night after a long shift at work a friend informed me that several police cars had been driving around with the stickers on their bumpers all day. I felt that we had done our part.
Wondering who was responsible for stickering the police cars in a diner later that night, I looked out the window to see three guys dressed as ninjas beating up Greenie, a guy that I knew a little bit, in the parking lot.
Unbeknownst to me, Greenie, had had a day as surreal as my own. He had just been released from a mental institution and was served a spiked drink at the diner that night. Drugged up, he witnessed some kids at another table being rude to the servers. He suggested that the kids should leave and flicked some ash from his cigarette into their coffees to make his point. The table of three guys left in a huff, yelled some things about Greenie’s mother, and drove into the bank parking lot next door; then Greenie left, and a few seconds later they came back and began attacking Greenie in the parking lot. In a 2015 interview, Greenie insisted that they were each dressed like Bruce Lee, but I remember their faces’ being covered like ninjas.
There had been near-constant fights in my high school so it was a familiar sight, but something aligned in my brain right then. Greenie was undeniably the underdog in this fight, as these kids were ganging up on him when he couldn’t defend himself. It was an unbalanced power dynamic. I could relate it to my own experiences and pain. I ran outside and the three kids dressed as ninjas ran away. Greenie was pretty bruised and bloody, so a few people brought him into the bathroom to get him cleaned up. I thought that I knew who the “ninjas” were, as it takes a very special kind of dork who would change clothes and go out in public like that to jump someone, but instead of revenge my thoughts were about assembling a life plan. I realized that I related to the underdog in almost all scenarios and that nothing made me emotional like witnessing that kind of systemic power imbalance. Sticking up for the underdog became my passion and ambition with Microcosm. In this moment I related my own pain to the emotionally charged situation that I had watched unfold.
I didn’t feel ready to verbalize this new revelation to anyone. It felt earnestly dorky. Nonetheless, things were starting to go better. Microcosm’s photocopied ads started to attract mail. Stink in Public was reviewed in Factsheet Five, which had a circulation in the tens of thousands, and I was flooded with hundreds of orders. I got offers for my zines to be distributed by Suburban Home Records and Vital Music Mailorder. I was sent other people’s zines, with titles such as Manual Resistance and Brainscan, and I began routine correspondence with the editors of both. I started to write to hundreds of other zines and bands and ask if I could add them to my catalog.
I met a kid from upstate New York — I can’t even remember his name — on the alt.punk newsgroup, and he suggested that we go in together on releasing a compilation CD called Best of the Best with bands from all over the U.S. I let him have free reign on selecting the bands, and it ended up including mostly Oi!, skinhead, and street-punk bands, none of which I had much interest in. Out of the 27 bands on the disc, only two women were represented out of 100+ musicians, which seemed strange to me. I thought punk was this great egalitarian equalizer! I didn’t immediately realize how this lopsided representation of females might project an image other than the one that I intended to. But when they came back from the replicator I was still proud that I had been involved with it.
Fortunately, my friends thought it was cool, and other people must have liked it because I sold all 500 within a few years. It started to pay for other projects.
I began to develop a fairly discordant and eccentric catalog with zines from all over the world, as far away as Amsterdam and Australia. I felt that these people were trusting me with their most valuable creations. I took these zines to punk shows and showcased them in a milk crate or two.
I met lots of touring bands, traded zines with their members, and witnessed many shows from bands that toured the U.S. only once or twice. People like Joshua Ploeg, who set off flash pots indoors with his band Behead the Prophet, No Lord Shall Live, demonstrated a complete disregard for everyone’s personal safety and inspired me with his embrace of theatrical performance. Many bands performed for half a dozen people and put just as much into it as the bands that played for hundreds.
Maintaining the minimal level of relationship that is needed during a loud punk show turned out to be something that I could manage. I knew how to say hello, hand over a copy of my zine, make awkward smalltalk for five minutes; and anything that I did that was too eccentric otherwise was celebrated or at least understood within the framework of punk. I maintained relationships with hundreds of people in this capacity, showing up to their shows each year and building something that resembled a friendship. Of course, this also sometimes resulted in my coming home drunk with a record that I found unlistenable. But for every time that happened, I met someone whose zine blew me away either in terms of its graphic art or the ideas presented in it. I was always thankful when I was handed new issues of various fanzines by Lance Hahn from J Church, a San Francisco street car turned into a prolific rock behemoth. He was always up to some new kind of thinking and it was fascinating to get inside his mind, even when he was just writing about touring as a guitarist with Beck or about a TV show he was obsessed with but that I had never watched. In 1997 I recorded a live performance by J Church that became the You Don’t Have to Say No LP, titled after the shouts of Jake Kelly and friends when Lance asked the audience whether they wanted to hear specific songs. In true punk fashion, the record sold out before the band sent me a copy and I was credited as “audience recording.” Still, I was thankful that our relationship turned into routine letter writing.
I released records with bands that I had seen at Speak in Tongues or came in touch with through the ever-expanding Internet. In many ways, even though I was more interested in putting out books, I wasn’t ready yet. I hadn’t done enough reading to understand editing or producing books, and records were the cultural commodity of choice in my social circles.
Fifteen was another one of my favorite bands, partially because of the way they pushed the punk envelope and partially because of the way they talked openly about violence coming from parents, offering instructive steps for dealing with it: “I know, I understand. Mom and dad beat you up… Hitch the first ride; save your own life; stick your thumb out on the freeway.” It was one of the few bands that spoke to so much of my experience that it scared me. Because of this, I started putting together a tribute to Fifteen in 1996. While working on it, I received an email from someone I had met on the alt.punk newsgroup in Illinois. Shamefully, I cannot remember his name, but he was putting together a tribute to Crimpshrine, a band that shared the same singer and guitarist as Fifteen. He suggested that we should work together and that, instead of going with my idea for two 7” records, it could be one CD. I didn’t think this was a good idea, but I also didn’t have the spine or wherewithal to object to it. In my mind, this was someone accepting my idea as good and wanting to work together, albeit in a way that I didn’t approve of. Crimpshrine had suffered an ugly breakup and even eight years afterwards there remained bad blood between the members. Further, Crimpshrine had been a collaborative effort between two songwriters, and the internal tensions between them created results that were greater than the sum of their parts. By contrast, Fifteen was much more of a meritocracy, albeit not the most functional one. Members of Fifteen came and went and often had problems with hard drugs, causing inconsistent collaborations. Worst of all, the two bands really had little to do with each other and appealed to different people.
Putting them on the same disc was just going to rile people up — including the members of those bands. But I agreed to do it anyway. It turned out to be an important lesson. A few years later, a few members of Crimpshrine contacted me and expressed that they weren’t terribly happy with how the compilation had been put together. I explained how it had shaped up that way and agreed to destroy the last few hundred copies of the pressing. It was the first time that it felt that there were broader, real-world implications for my actions. I began to understand how I was prone to making bad choices. Even my teenage actions could affect people far away. It was an important wake-up call.
Before long, my distro was so expansive that I had to bring a few people to help me carry it in Speak in Tongues, and it was taking up more and more room behind the bar there. I began to meet people who went there but didn’t really care for the music and just saw it as a way to connect with the culture. They bought zines from me and we talked about the contents and recommended things to each other. I was still just a wacked-out drunk and eccentric old man in training. But I had figured out what my dreams and vision were. Or at least what they could and would be.
When a punk show was shut down at a nearby teen center and relocated to Speak in Tongues, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. I explained that if you took away entertainment options from local teens, you could expect nothing but more delinquency and crime. The paper printed my letter, and I learned an important lesson about the power of the pen. Apparently only middle-aged grumps write letters to the paper and respond to them, because I was inundated with mail assuming that I was an adult homeowner who just didn’t understand how bad teens are to deal with. One person lamented having to sweep up broken glass every week. I felt empowered by the experience.
I found an early website that Mike Hudson of The Pagans had made to tell stories of Cleveland’s history and stories from his own band. I learned about how Dennis Kucinich as Mayor of Cleveland had led the charge to turn people’s electrical service into a public utility but then lost it all when he needed to sell it back to private companies to get the city out of bankruptcy. I learned about how Mike had self-released Pagans’ records and that hundreds of them had been dumped into the snow in his backyard during a Cleveland winter on the year I was born. It took a few days and a few phone calls for UPS to discover that the records were warping beyond playability in the moist snow. These were metaphors for the kinds of conditions that we were all undergoing in our minds, in our homes, and in our lives.
Through immersing myself in Mike’s stories, the early zines where Superman was born, the Riot Grrrl movement, and Harvey Pekar’s work, I honed my attitudes and ideas about publishing. I wanted to project my experiences and those of the people around me who I felt did not have a voice anywhere else. I wanted to incorporate humor and ideas of self-empowerment, demonstrated in the voice of the writer but especially for the benefit of the reader. I felt like my experiences and opinions had been disrespected or disregarded so many times in my life because I was a teenager. Just as my teachers had, it seemed like most textbooks talked down to me. So I developed a “style guide” as a publisher that our books would talk to the reader as an equal, be rough hewn, and try not to be too sterile or unemotional in how real experiences or events were discussed. It was important to me that it felt authentic and punk rock and that these intentions would be clear in both the look and feel of the publications, even if the content wasn’t explicity about punk. I wanted the people framing the issues and expressing their concerns to be those who didn’t have power in our society.
One thing I learned from watching documentary films, that I applied immediately to Microcosm, was the question of how a story is framed — and by whom. Even within the zine movement and punk scene, the same voices that were dominant in the larger society generally made the rules and dictated the priorities. Most were middle-class white male neurotypicals. Microcosm, through its catalog of zines offering people’s experiences with and views of social issues, allowed people on the outside of any subculture some access into a small world while it offered people with little power in society a megaphone to simultaneously speak to both members of a social movement and the outside world. In Dames on Frames, the editors could talk about being sexually harassed on their bicycles while just trying to go about their lives. Genderfailz details what it is like to be a transgender person navigating the Canadian healthcare system. Anti-immigrant Hypocrisy outlines the misconceptions about and often downright impossibility of trying to become a U.S. citizen. In Fat is Beautiful, Crystal Hartman explains how society misunderstands and judges people who are “overweight” as well as the social stigma and rude comments that are imposed upon them in daily life. In Survival Without Rent, the editors explain the reasoning and lack of options that led to squatting abandoned buildings in New York City in the 1980s.
A dynamic relationship with the reader allows writers with marginalized voices to frame the discussions of the movement and social issues. Zines also allow them to be equal participants and stakeholders. Concerned readers with relative privilege can receive basic information and answers to questions like “How can I help support you?” in privacy and get real, unfiltered information. More to the point, when you read a zine, you can forge a connection with a stranger, write them a letter, and begin a real conversation. It’s a learning experience.
Another thing I’d learned is that artists are generally distrustful of the businesses that handle their transactional stuff. Sometimes that’s because they’ve worked with dishonest people in the past, sometimes it’s because their brains aren’t wired to understand all of the mathematics involved, and sometimes it’s because they just have no way of knowing what a fair deal looks like because information to compare it to isn’t publicly available. One thing that indie record labels had done to compensate for this was to offer a larger royalty percentage than what major labels paid. I liked this idea and learned that most book publishers paid new authors a 6–8% royalty based on the cover price of the book. I thought that an innovative and fairer solution was to pay 15% of the profits, offer copies of the work to the author at cost (since it was theirs after all), and immediately give them 5% of the printing. Years later, I also added a clause that if a book reprinted I would increase to 20% of the profits, since it had been a team effort and the labor costs of a reprint were vastly reduced. So, if we sold 5,000 copies of a work, the artist would receive about $5,000 over a span of years and the ability to make another $2,500 or more by selling their own copies. I kept cover prices to around $10 or less because it felt important to keep everything at a price that I could afford to pay, even when I was in abject poverty. After all, I was creating the kind of books that I would want to read. People like me needed to be able to afford them. The one thing that I couldn’t offer was large advance payments as the major houses did, but I knew that showing transparency in our dealings and having a powerful mission would attract people who cared about other things more than money. As a result, we often pay authors more per copy than the major houses do. That plus the fact that the terms of our basic agreement haven’t changed in twenty years continues to scandalize our peers and traditional publishers. But after all, Microcosm would be anything but traditional.
I began to plan ahead for growing Microcosm into a book publisher. Most book publishers reach their audience through a trade distributor, but, after reading about DIY record labels, my ideas for Microcosm were based more on the model of labels like SST Records and Factory Records. SST was founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn in 1978, when there was no infrastructure for independent punk rock. Previous punk bands had outside management and had worked with companies that were part of Sony or Warner Brothers. SST initially focused on putting out music from their local scene, challenging musical styles and conventions within the scene, selling their records for low prices, networking their bands into a community, and challenging people at bigger labels and cops who screwed them over. As Michael Azerrad puts it in Our Band Could Be Your Life, “Ginn took his label from a cash-strapped, cop-hassled store-front operation to easily the most influential and popular underground indie of the Eighties” through scrappiness, resourcefulness, and hard work. I also knew that SST was accused of dishonest bookkeeping practices and not paying royalties to their bands, which had cost them several of their highest profile bands. So there was a lesson there too: be honest and pay the people that you work with as you had agreed to.
I decided that, instead of signing with a big book distributor, it made more sense to handle the vast majority of our own mail order and relationships with stores. Ian MacKaye of DC’s independent stalwart Dischord Records strongly advocated for this model, saying that distribution was the true marker of independence. There were many advantages to this model. Most notably, we weren’t splitting the small payments with a distributor and we had a direct relationship with and a way to reach our fans. We knew who they were. We knew what they liked and didn’t like. If something went wrong, we could correct it and didn’t have to apologize for someone else’s mistakes. And the work of fulfilling the mail order only takes a few hours each day.
Twenty years later, mail-order work is some of the most important labor in the industry. Most publishers don’t think about it much and relegate it to someone else to do, seeing it as anything but glamorous. But it’s ultimately the backbone of publishing: getting the books to the readers. It’s far from what people romanticize when they dream of a career in publishing; it’s done in dark basements or warehouses in the Midwest by people whose book handling would lead you to believe that they don’t value or even hate the things — or their bosses make them work so fast that the books are heavily damaged on the conveyor-belt assembly line from one distributor to a wholesaler to a retailer. I cannot measure how many valuable hours are lost each week as distributors, wholesalers; and stores report damaged books back to the shipper, wait for replacements, and have to continue to inspect each one in a never-ending cycle. It’s a major advantage to be in control of this aspect of the operation, and I found that I could take a ton of pride in getting twenty orders out the door each day. Sometimes it was the only task that felt tangibly accomplished after working a twelve- or fourteen-hour day.
I had always really hated filling out paperwork and applications. It seemed like most of them really only needed three or four pieces of information but stretched it out across two or three pages. Even when I was ordering books or records for our distro boxes at shows, I had to fill out applications and account paperwork just to make a purchase. It seemed like a waste of time and a headache for everyone involved. So my first time-saving innovation in this regard was the idea that I would sell things in our catalog at wholesale rates to anyone. There was no application; no paperwork; no processing. If someone’s order exceeded the minimum invoice total and quantities and they selected wholesale rates, anyone could qualify. This reduced my workload as well and would eventually get our titles into hundreds of retailers who were always amazed that “setting up an account” was done automatically when you checked out on our website.
One of the biggest advantages of starting Microcosm as an eighteen-year-old was that I didn’t feel any pressure to succeed or make it into a business. At the time I had few expenses. I seemed healthy. My ambitions were political rather than economic or structural, so I could focus on solving a different set of problems than most publishers.
This is an excerpt from Joe Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s, which details many mistakes that proved to be learning opportunities and the first 20 years of Microcosm Publishing.