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In Character with Joe Biel

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland icon? Quintessential hipster? Joe Biel's life is starting to resemble 'Portlandia' just a little too much. Or maybe it's the other way around. Joe Biel is tired of being an icon. Well, not really. In fact, the founder of Microcosm Publishing in Southeast Portland finds it amusing that wherever he goes people seem to know he’s a Portland hipster. Which would make Biel an ironic icon. Or an iconic irony. Whatever.

Portland Tribune: People know you’re from Portland before you say a word?

Joe Biel: I ride Amtrak regularly, and I have virtually the same conversation every couple months. They look at me and can immediately guess where I’m from by my outward appearance. I think it’s when I tell them I’m 35 and not 25 that they think of my attire as not appropriate to my age.

Tribune: Surprising “Portlandia” hasn’t called.

Biel: I live on Lincoln Street. They’re making fun of me, literally. I’m the archetype they are mocking.

Tribune: Besides the fact that you own an alternative press, what are your qualifications as the archetypal Portland hipster?

Biel: My shoes and my hat are made in Portland. I ride my bike to work, typically with my dog in it. I fold up my bike in my office, and I have my beverage that I drink every day.

Tribune: Wait a minute. Isn’t that iced tea in your Nalgene bottle?

Biel: I can’t drink coffee.

Tribune: Can’t or won’t?

Biel: I suppose I could, but it gives me a headache. My extreme quality is I’m allergic to wheat, corn, onions and meat. And sugar. I feel the only way I could be more Portland is if I was allergic to sunlight.

Tribune: And these allergies ...

Biel: Technically they’re intolerances.

Tribune: Much better. What’s the most unusual outlet you’ve used to distribute Microcosm books?

Biel: There’s a farming store, I went there and didn’t even know our books were sold there.

Tribune: How did you get alternative press books placed in a farming store?

Biel: A lot of this is about sustainability. We’re in Portland so we publish about green things. That’s a law, I believe.

Tribune: Weirdest book you’ve published?

Biel: “Edible Secrets.” It’s a story of classified documents about food.

Tribune: Why are documents about food classified? Secret recipes?

Biel: This is a lens. The thing that radicalized (Black Panther leader) Fred Hampton was being framed for an ice cream truck robbery. Coca-Cola bombed their own factories in South America to frighten unions. We have the documents in the book.

Tribune: What’s the most creative promotion one of your authors has tried?

Biel: A local author encouraged her fans to write negative reviews of her book, “Everyday Bicycling,” on Amazon by the hundreds. And to write them in facetious ways making fun of astroturfing. Astroturfing is artificially demanding your fans write five-star reviews of your book.

Tribune: So let’s get this straight. Astroturfing is when I get my family members and friends to write phony positive reviews of my work. This woman asked her family and friends to write phony negative reviews?

Biel: There’s a form of astroturfing where you write it in a certain way. That’s why it’s so funny. You say, “This book did not save my sex life the minute it arrived in the mail.” People read the reviews and it’s apparent the reviewers are having fun.

Tribune: But it still wouldn’t encourage me to buy the book.

Biel: Those negative reviews spiked sales. I think it’s part of the algorithm. It’s not just what you write, it’s sending traffic to that page (to) elevate the book’s ranking. There are so many books about bicycling on Amazon, but when you search for bicycling the book appears sooner.

Tribune: What does this tell you about American capitalism and a rational marketplace?

Biel: It doesn’t take into account marketing budgets. The ability to pump money into something bad totally outweighs the marketplace’s ability to deduce its worth.

Tribune: Does that mean we’re all doomed to live with inferior products?

Biel: It means we need to work on our analytical skills.