Zinester Spotlight: Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing

What was once a small record label for local bands turned into the best-known zine publishers in the United States. Microcosm Publishing has been empowering authors since 1996. Within its original inventory of music, film, and political activism, Joe Biel found an epic collection of zines, all of which provided a “hidden” story to that current time and place. The soul of this independent, DIY culture existed inside these pages. And Joe knew that no matter what interests he would lose or gain, publishing these stories would never get old. They were “documents of action,” worthy of being recognized and distributed. Today, Joe Biel continues to publish zines, create his own documentaries, and strengthen a network of passionate people across the globe.

How did you get into independent publishing?

I was really fortunate to grow up around a really rich subcultural tapestry in the Cleveland punk scene of the 90s. It obviously grew from somewhere and I've traced the history as much as I can, but in my own life, it felt like it always was there, standing patiently behind me, saying "You can do it! Believe in yourself!"

In 1991 some people took the initiative to move into a messed up building on W 44th and Lorain, which is now a reasonable place to hang out, but was a very seedy neighborhood at the time. The place was called Speak in Tongues until the landlord pulled the lease ten years later. In the meantime it was our clubhouse when bands came on tour.

And walking around, it was inevitable that some cute kid would show you their zine and try to get a buck outta you. I would go for it every time. Within a few years I had setup some milk crates behind the counter where I sold zines and records.

Microcosm started off as a record label. How did you incorporate the tactics of early punk record labels to publishing?

Like you said, I came to the whole matter from the back door. I had been running this record label and putting out local stuff when I started to sort of age out of that and thought publishing would be way cooler and could perhaps evolve with my tastes a bit more. So naturally, I didn't know anything about trade distribution or segmented marketing. I knew how to do mailorder, setup a table at punk shows, travel to festivals, walk into a store and show them my stuff, and get people to help hang up flyers and pass out catalogs around their towns. But the important thing is to run the whole thing in parallel to the industry, not within it or opposed to it, but sort of alongside it. Intentional or not, that's what I took from Dischord.

What do you think zines offer that other books or publications don't? What do we gain from these 'hidden stories'?

I was explaining to a young man at the store the other day that in a good zine, it's ultimately the difference between a first person perspective written by a person and a detached or medical explanation written by a "professional." Instead of using academic language or jargon, in a zine you can be as appropriately crass as is necessary. Your motivation will never, could never be much beyond the simple mechanics of telling the story, of sharing your experience. The economics and infrastructure sort of make anything else impossible. And drawing from that pool, we get to shed a lot of the ego and dirtiness from our collection of brilliant authors.

Zines create a sense of community. As a publisher, how did you see that community evolve?

In my experience, zines create communities. And in recent years that's created sort of a subcultural imperative that wasn't always there. In the words of Giovanni Caputo, it's like saying "I like popsicles, you like popsicles. We should be friends," when there are a lot more important factors than that. The hardest lesson for me was that I can't let it be the everything of my universe or else it's possible to live in a bubble that isn't in touch with the real world, which is now very possible to do in a number of zine communities. On top of that, there's a sort of an assumption that other zine makers will also ride bikes, dumpster cake, and steal photocopies, which I think is both socially isolating and also alienating to newcomers who are simply excited about the medium.

I think it's important to be accessible but also to have a clear line in the sand, saying "this is what I believe in. Maybe you are interested too?" without being so presumptive about those who come wandering up.

How did you manage to distribute zines to other parts of the country and the world?

It's sort of an "if you build it, they will come" system. By having a good database and website that calculates shipping to all parts of the world automatically and has good search engine optimization, if people were interested in zines, they would likely find our website. Once they were there, they could make orders at all hours and ship anywhere without needing to talk to anyone. By offering wholesale prices to anyone who qualified with a big enough order, we could in turn setup satellite zine distribution all over the globe. That was all very intentiona to our mission. And it worked.

What are your current projects and upcoming events?

I'm finishing up two four year personal projects this summer. The first is Beyond the Music, which is a book I wrote about people who take the values and ethics of punk and apply them to things outside of music. So it's about "punk culture," but it's also about just how big the world is, how many effective ways there are to impact it, and how interesting the person are who do.

The other is Aftermass, which is my fourth feature documentary film. It tells the story of how Portland got its bikeway network. I talked to the people who were directly involved and looked at how things developed since 1971 to see what happened. I tracked down all direct sources. The story is a lot richer than I expected and it feels a little more History Channel than most of what I've done but I like that it's offered a way for me to age gracefully and still be involved in culture.

Where can people find you?

In Portland at 636 SE 11th Ave or microcosmpublishing.com

What is your favorite thing about the SF Zine Fest?

There's a lot of enthusiasm that I find infectious. At this point, after seventeen years of involvement I've basically got to be around people that are excited to be doing what they're doing. It propels me for another three months at a time. Those conversations and experiences—even just talking to people about what they're excited about—they remind me of why I continue to do this.

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