Lots of prose and comics publishers have used crowdfunding to bring out new work, but few have been doing it as long or as well as C. Spike Trotman, publisher/CEO of Chicago-based independent comics publisher Iron Circus Comics. Trotman recently wrapped up her 30th Kickstarter campaign, The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories, a new volume of comics stories by indigenous creators which raised more than $330,000 (the goal was $20,000) in September, marking more than $2 million raised by Trotman through the platform since 2009. But beyond the quantitative success, Trotman has led the way in using crowdfunding as part of a scalable publishing business model that brings unique projects from diverse creators into the mainstream comics and trade book distribution system.

Back in 2009, small independent publishers did not have many options for getting their work to market. They could hope for a deal from a sympathetic publisher on whatever terms were offered, apply for a bank loan, scrounge money from friends, or solicit preorders through platforms like PayPal, a practice that was against the terms of service and liable to get creators’ accounts closed. Kickstarter arrived on the scene and provided a legitimate and transparent way to raise money for projects on spec from fans, so Trotman says she decided to take a chance on the fledgling technology platform despite its initially low reputation. Ironically, her first successful Kickstarter campaign in 2009 was for her graphic nonfiction work, Poorcraft (with artist Diana Nock), a manual for how to survive on not much money that raised $13,000.

After getting her first few projects funded, Trotman found that Kickstarter offered more than just an infusion of cash. “It’s a discovery platform,” she explains. “It was good for people who never heard of me. They’d go window shopping on Kickstarter and you had a nice graphic, they’d check you out and maybe back you.”

It is also a way to build community, an essential element in the success of specialized small presses. When fan-backed projects get funded, that success validates audiences who are not being well-served by traditional publishing models. Each successful Kickstarter campaign isn’t just a project; it is a triumph for previously neglected concepts, creators and fans, whose ongoing engagement makes long-term success possible. In Trotman’s case, Iron Circus Comics built a strong fanbase around sex-positive, consent-driven erotica, such as Smut Peddler, an ongoing six-volume series that regularly raises six-figure sums per volume on Kickstarter. Now fans of that material know where to look and know how to get the work they enjoy to market, and Trotman knows how to mobilize them around other kinds of material based on their strong trust in her taste and her brand.

Financing, discoverability and community are necessary components in the success of any independent publisher, but they alone are not sufficient for a business to scale. Trotman recognized that, to build a sustainable enterprise around crowdfunding, she would have to supply several of the missing pieces herself.

One of those is marketing. “While Kickstarter is a discovery platform, the best foundation for success, in my opinion, is built on the audience you have already developed before you even run your first campaign,” she said. So while she can rely to some extent on the loyal fanbase she has built up around previous Iron Circus projects, she sometimes invests in building a larger audience.

“For the smaller projects, maybe newsletters and social media are enough,” she said. “I will bring in professional marketing resources for projects that I think are going to have a bigger impact or be a big deal. I hire marketers, I buy ads, I do everything you can thing of in terms of online marketing, and it can have a very significant effect.”

Another area is distribution. Trotman has worked to establish Iron Circus as legit trade book publisher with appropriate distribution. Far too many crowdfunded book projects reach their goals and ship direct to backers but neglect the broader bookstore audience. Booksellers are unable to order the books through their existing distributor, or Kickstarter press runs were too short to meet added demand. Trotman was quick to combine her crowdfunding strategy with traditional book distribution to increase the reach and scale of Iron Circus Comics.

“I have one foot in international distribution through old-fashioned methods and one foot in the world of Kickstarter,” she said. “I’m distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, a division of Ingram that specializes in the quirky small press lines.”

She explained that it is not a prevalent strategy for crowdfunders because book distributors generally expect presses to put out at least 10 books per year. “A lot of crowdfunders can’t manage 10 books for trade bookstores, and I understand because it’s really hard. What got me through the door, in addition to volume, was that I had made the step between exclusively self-distributing through conventions or a website, and a larger company like Ingram. I was already reaching out to comic stores and independent bookstores, emailing them PDFs of my books and my catalog, and giving them special discount codes if they ordered from me direct.”

By the time she approached Ingram, Trotman already had more than 40 retailers placing orders. “We couldn’t fulfill the wholesale orders of 40 or 45 stores and run the business, so it’s good they were able to work with us.”

Trotman’s relationships with distributors helps her attract new creators to the Iron Circus imprint, which in turn helps her meet the distributor’s volume requirements. That’s how she came to publish the Cautionary Fables series (which includes The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories), an anthology of folk tales and fables from nonwestern traditions, often featuring diverse and nongender-conforming creators.

“[Creators] were selling exclusively at conventions, and they knew Iron Circus could give the books reach that they don’t currently have. They also wanted to get better paydays for the creators that submitted to the anthologies.”

Trotman’s hybrid model is working well enough that she is expanding beyond publishing. Last year, she successfully crowdfunded her first ever animated project based on the jazz-fueled action/humor strip Lackadaisy by Tracy Butler ($330,256 raised in April 2020; goal was $85,000). That has led to her creating an entire new Iron Circus Animation unit, opening new opportunities for her business and partners.

And this October she launched her 31st Kickstarter campaign, Real Hero Shit, a quirky fantasy sword and sorcery graphic novel by Kendra Wells that has raised more than $34,000 (the goal was $15,000) with more than a week left in the campaign.

What’s next? “I’d like to run a video game Kickstarter,” she said. “Right now, I’m just waiting for the planets to align.”