An interview with Joe Biel, founder of Microcosm Publishing, and author of “Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s”
What age were you when you were diagnosed with Aspergers?
I was 32 when I was first diagnosed with 99% certainty and I was 37 when I received a gold standard diagnosis. I really wanted to be sure because so many things in my life were “Well, it’s probably this but we aren’t completely sure.”
Can you tell me what your diagnosis means to you?
I felt like my life really began that day. Suddenly, everything in the rearview mirror made sense and I slowly began to master executive function. Previously I felt like things happened to me. I felt ike I had to go along with impositions from other people because they would insist that I was not adhering to social norms. My diagnosis allowed me to realize, for the first time, that I need to have agency in my own life rather than allowing things to happen to me. It also taught me that I had an ongoing problem hearing nonverbal expressions of people’s boundaries. In this way my diagnosis offered me a road map to taking care of people that I care about. It has been really powerful, like a slow light going on, gradually illuminating a giant field behind me. This revelation allowed me to modify how I interacted with others and create much more stable relationships in my 30s. I began the longest relationship of my life, which I am still in.
You wrote a book about running a successful business and life with Aspergers. Can you give our readers with Aspergers advice?
I think the best advice I have is to do is to develop awareness about yourself. Learn about your stimulus and triggers and overwhelm. It can be very upsetting to be in certain environments and we can’t always prevent our emotional reaction to certain things so awareness can let us know how to prepare ourselves, what to avoid, and what kind of clothing to wear. I found that my coping mechanism through my 20s was to bluster through life but in hindsight, that wasn’t a very good strategy because it left a lot of chaos in my wake. Similarly so, I think it’s important to be aware of others as much as that is also a real challenge for us.
Can you tell me how Microcosm Publishing started?
I grew up in Cleveland during the bankruptcy and recession in the 70s and 80s. My upbringing was violent , I wasn’t educated, and in many ways I had to figure things out and fend for myself. Fortunately, I had role models that I met as a teenager who led me to my artists in art, music, politics, and publishing. As a kid, I was desperately lacking necessary resources that I needed to be a functional person. I had a daily drinking problem with alcohol from age sixteen until 21. I could see that crime was the easiest path for someone like me. I drunkenly confided to a peer at the punk club that I was involved with as a teenager that I was going to start something. Soon thereafter, I began creating the kind of resources that I needed as a child about gender, mental health, grassroots organizing, punk rock, history, queerness, political power, race and class, and analytical skills. I founded Microcosm with any money leftover from my job delivering pizzas. Microcosm was a matter of desperation; of nothing meaning anything at a time when I desperately needed it to.
We have a comic about our backstory, where the publishing industry is portrayed as dinosaurs and our staff are the rats. I wrote a book, Good Trouble that details this history in greater depth.
Microcosm Publishing believes in using “neurodiversity as a superpower.” Can you explain what that means?
I recently read a story about an autistic therapist who has clients seek her out from all over the world. She speculates that this is a result of discarding or ignoring industry rules that don’t make sense to her and the fact that she takes in 400% more stimulus than her neurotypical counterparts. She can control her environment, more or less, and claims to be able to notice if a client is pregnant the day after they’ve had sex. She isn’t psychic. She’s picking up on changes and cues in her environment and her clients are responding positively. This resonated so powerfully with me because it’s exactly how I interact with my own work because I’ve learned how to discard static noise for signal and latch onto a great idea.
Facts are my religion and I am now able to understand my emotions while not wrapping my decisions around them. I learn new things daily and can absorb news and mathematics as applicable to my life and to adjust my decision making as a result. I never stop learning and I can make logical decisions and find hyper-efficient workflows that feed into my own meaning and purpose.
I believe in the Intense World Theory—thanks to a reviewer of my book—which states that autistic people experience 400% more stimulus than neurotypicals.
Since understanding and accommodation are outside of our locus of control, we can focus on our own coping mechanisms. This allows us to experience and process much more information and see patterns before others. I discard or ignore rules that don’t make sense to me. We’re engaged with the data and emergent patterns in a more involved way and I cultivate this in the staff.
Since autistic people only understand other people’s experience through an involved, years-long process of active learning and intellectual application of ideas, I believe that it allows us to be much more in touch with our emotions as well as others’. For example, I don’t need to seek sympathy because I learned from a young age that this is not something available to me; neurotypicals cannot relate with my experience. As a result, I believe that I’m more in touch with my emotions, which leads me to cognitively access my meaning and purpose and executive function. I had to develop a thick skin while still being considerate of others.
Being autistic leads me to be plenty stubborn and to really enjoy the challenge of the changing landscape in publishing. I now understand the role of my own meaning and purpose and see suffering as opportunity instead of pain. We use data to make decisions in a pretty intense way and communicate internally more like a technology company than a publisher. Creative projects move quickly through a pipe with everyone offering feedback and giving their touches.Our sales are growing by 50% this year at a time when other publishers our size reprint shrinking revenues.
What type of submissions do you take?
All of our books originate from a single point of criteria: “Does this book empower the reader to make positive changes in their life and in the world around them?” If so, our staff does a thorough comp analysis and finds if demand and a niche exists.
We only publish nonfiction books but we aren’t terribly concerned about what subject or shelf the book will land on otherwise. We publish about 20 books per year so variety helps to keep our staff learning and interested.
How does someone submit to Microcosm?
We have extensive guidelines and considerations and research homework for prospective authors here and then people submit via our website.
What are your goals for the future?
Our mission was a way for a depressed kid without options in life to find meaning and purpose in the world. Since then I’ve met a lot of other depressed kids without options and we’ve been able to grow together and create change.
What I didn’t count on is that because of my editorial focus and interests, the majority of our customers are low income women of color below 30. In hindsight, this was an audience that few people were speaking to or respecting so, in a way, it makes sense that they latched on so hard to Microcosm. And having autism, I can totally relate to few written works respectfully speaking to my experience or goals. And now, 22 years later, this is called the “diverse books movement” which is now adopted by the industry as a priority, though very few publishers feel comfortable putting their toe into the water first because they are more comfortable communicating with people who look, think, and act like they do.
We are now engaged in an active campaign to make the publishing industry bear closer resemblance to the global population rather than just the elite group that it currently represents. We are doing this through our own publishing list as well as through our activism and education campaigns. We are trying to teach more presses how to be vertically integrated as to not rely on monopolies that do not have any community investment in others’ success.
Every day, I continue to think of Microcosm like the punk band Black Flag on their tours in the early 1980s that ultimately created a DIY touring network for punk bands. We’ve organized similar
book tours and recently made a board game about that.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
1) It gets better, whatever “it” is. But you have to take an active role in your own life and decisions rather than waiting for external forces to change.
2) If you’re writing a memoir, figure out what benefits or emotional payoff that book offers to the reader and frame the book around those issues rather than about your identity or story. Please. For your own sake. There are currently more memoirs being released than novels.
3) Self-publishing is an inherently limited marketplace. For most books, it’s the death of the title with average sales hovering around 100 copies. Since some books sell in the hundreds of thousands, that means that plenty of others sell literally zero. You’d have better odds playing the lottery. If you want to get published, follow these instructions instead. The money isn’t great in publishing but that’s not why anyone does it. If money is your motivation, work in software and write on the weekends.
Joe Biel is a self-made #ActuallyAutistic publisher and filmmaker who draws origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock. He is the founder/manager of Microcosm Publishing and co-founder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He tours with his films on the Dinner and Bikes program and has been featured in Time Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Utne Reader, Portland Mercury, Oregonian, Broken Pencil, Readymade, Punk Planet, Profane Existence, Spectator (Japan), G33K (Korea), and Maximum Rocknroll. He is the author of Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business on the Spectrum, Manspressions: Decoding Men’s Behavior, Make a Zine, The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting, Beyond the Music, Bamboozled, Bipedal, By Pedal, and more. He is the director of the documentaries Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, If It Ain’t Cheap, It Ain’t Punk, Of Dice & Men, $100 & A T-Shirt, and the Groundswell film series. The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy described Biel as “not trained in pedagogy.” His work can be found at joebiel.net