Spike Trotman started out as the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, self-publishing her webcomic Templar, Arizona using preorders to pay the bills before she sent each volume to the printer. Now the company she founded in 2007, Iron Circus, is a full-fledged book publisher that is getting its ever-increasing catalog onto bookstore and library shelves.
Trotman plans to publish 11 books in 2019, up from seven last year. She has hired a staff, signed with a distributor, and perhaps most important, she has begun thinking of Iron Circus as part of the larger book publishing industry.
The mission statement and identity of Iron Circus is “strange and amazing comics,” and Trotman says her goal is to publish unique, unexpected books that wouldn’t find a home anywhere else. Her first step away from doing everything herself came when she started crowdfunding her publishing on Kickstarter soon after the platform launched in 2009. Her first big success was crowdfunding $83,000 in 2012 to publish Smut Peddler, an anthology of erotic comics geared to modern sensibilities, which is now a yearly series. In 2015 she began publishing work by other creators, starting with a print edition of E.J. Weaver’s webcomic The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, again funded on Kickstarter, this time raising $65,000 to publish.
Later that year, PW chose her as one of its Star Watch Honorees. By 2017 Iron Circus and Trotman had raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter to fund about 14 book projects.
But her “life-changing” moment, in Trotman’s words, came in 2017 when Iron Circus signed on with the distributor Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, allowing Trotman to expand the line and hire a freelance staff. “At this point, if you do not factor any of my take into it, Iron Circus currently costs about $4,000 a month to run,” she says. “Because of distribution, that’s not a problem. I definitely could not manage that without the money that distribution brings in.”
She credits her new publicist, Jesse Post, for emphasizing the importance of having her books reviewed in certain outlets, including PW. “There is this whole framework in the publishing world, and it’s there to help you get [your books] onto shelves,” she says. “Jesse says ‘Get in this magazine, get on this blog, you have to do this if you want to get this chain to buy it.’”
Consortium also helps with publicity, and as a result, Trotman has upped her initial print runs. “It used to be 5,000,” she says. “5,000 copies is now too small for any Iron Circus book. The books we think will make a splash get 10,000 minimum, and really quirky ones stay around 6,000 or 8,000 until they cover themselves.”
Her biggest customers are libraries and book retailers, while Diamond Comics Distributors, which distributes comics and graphic novels to Direct Market comic shops, is not even in her top five. “I do get orders from Diamond, but they are orders of magnitude smaller than everyone else,” she says. While she continues to use Kickstarter for projects such as Smut Peddler, which has faithful customers on that platform, it’s no longer the mainstay of her work.
Iron Circus is still a small publisher, and Trotman is up front about the fact that her husband’s job makes it possible for her to focus her time and money on the business. “I wouldn’t have signed, I wouldn’t have printed half the books I did last year, if had to live on just what I got [from publishing],” she says. “I can grow faster because the money doesn’t have to pay the bills.”
In 2020, she plans to hit “all the major book fairs,” looking for translation and licensing deals. She wants to continue to expand the catalog and build a backlist. And while she pledges to always put comics first, she would also like to see Iron Circus make some pitches for movie and television productions. She has also launched a middle-grade imprint, Sprockets, which will start publishing in late 2019 or 2020.
Trotman continues to publish “strange and amazing” graphic novels, including Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho’s Meal (a romance set in the world of insect cuisine), Melanie Gillman’s LGBTQ teen novel As the Crow Flies, and a marijuana how-to guide titled How Do You Smoke a Weed? Upcoming titles include Banned Book Club by Hyun Sook Kim, Ryan Estrada, and Hyung-Ju Ko, her first book by a Korean creator, and Evan Dahm’s Harrowing of Hell, an epic adaptation of the story of Christ’s descent into hell.
Now, though, her approach is tailored toward the world of books, not comic shops or Kickstarter. That includes allowing plenty of time between the completion of a book and its publication in order to promote it. “For the longest time I didn’t have any idea how people got reviewed in these journals,” she says. “I used to say it must not be very important because I don’t see anyone around me doing it. I have learned a lot in the last two years, and it has been very eye opening.”
“This is the future,” she says. “It’s coming. Adapt or die. Random House is starting a graphic novel division. First Second is steadily expanding. There are a lot of what we think of as ‘real’ publishers, and they are by necessity going to up the game. They will transform how comics are being sold.”