Founded by artist and writer Spike Trotman in 2007, Iron Circus Comics is a small indie graphic novel publishing house based in Chicago. She began publishing her own work online and later became noted for crowdfunding a series of popular graphic anthologies. She was a PW Star Watch honoree in 2015, and by 2017 she was focused on the book market after signing with Consortium for book trade distribution. PW talked with Trotman about how she is dealing with publishing during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Spike, I hope you are personally faring well during the ongoing pandemic.
I already worked from home, so there hasn’t been any kind of adjustment period for me. Furthermore, I’ve got my husband at home with me 24/7 now; he’s working from home, too. And while that may be stressful for some couples, it hasn’t been for us. And everyone who contributes to the success of Iron Circus was already remote-working and communicating with me and one another through Slack. There really hasn’t been much change in our day-to-day functioning; the real issue was how the pandemic affected our printing schedule. That was bad.
What’s the situation in Chicago currently like with regard to the pandemic?
We’re doing our best to obey the governor’s orders and shelter in place. I genuinely think I haven’t left the apartment for... I don’t know, since the end of April? Though my husband, Iron Circus’s fulfillment guy, will hit the Iron Circus Comics offices on weekends and ship a few loads of mail-order books. But it’s definitely not a regular thing; we try to do it sparingly.
Is your staff able to work?
The vast majority of the folks who work for Iron Circus are freelancers who were working from home anyway, so there hasn’t really been much interruption. Right now, I’m working with a print tech, a publicist, a small handful of assistant editors, a proofreader, a smattering of freelance creatives, and Matt, my husband, of course. Out of all of those, even before the pandemic, Matt was the only person I saw in person regularly. It hasn’t really affected us that much.
I know that some Iron Circus 2020 winter/spring titles were delayed due to the impact of the pandemic on printers in China. How many titles do you plan to release in 2020?
The 2020 plan was to publish 15 titles, and right now it looks like we’ll manage 13. The printing delays meant that we had to basically grab everything on the calendar and shove it forward by a few months. Our last titles of the year weren’t affected directly, but we try to avoid putting out too many books during a single month—so they got bumped to February.
What’s the status of Sprockets, the Iron Circus children’s line that was scheduled to be launched this year?
It’s been a learning experience! We have a couple of Sprockets books in the works, but it turns out what I consider a children’s book and what the market considers one don’t necessarily agree. It’s less about “I can totally see a kid reading and enjoying this!” and more about “what will this be next to on the shelf?” I’m getting the hang of it, though.
How are orders for your forthcoming books?
I’ve been mentioning a lot on Twitter that I’m happy with how Banned Book Club [by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada] is doing, and that hasn’t really changed. I’m really pleased by the preorders. The titles I’m worried about are the ones that are doing their publicity rounds right now—the books we’re sending ARCs out for. I don’t know how those are going to perform. And I’ve been a little bit concerned about other new titles, because some of the books we just got in stock—they’ve gone out to retailers and then been instantly returned. Like, their release date hasn’t even come around, they haven’t even been put on the shelves for sale, but they’ve been returned. I’ve never had that before, and I’m assuming it’s because so many shops simply aren’t open for business right now. Ominous.
Do you have key retailers that have been in contact with you? Can you share anything about their ability to sell books in the pandemic?
Honestly, a lot of Iron Circus’s distribution is accomplished through wholesalers, so we only have a couple of stores we’ve been talking to over the course of this mess. I know Powell’s is offering ICC books by mail order, along with a lot of other titles, of course. And our pal Menachem at Escape Pod Comics on Long Island has really been leaning into social media—not just offering mail order but making Instagram stories, tweeting, all that good stuff. I think a lot of stores are just trying whatever they think might work, throwing everything against the wall and hoping for the best. There’s no playbook for this sort of thing, after all.
I know you have mentioned the importance of the library market to Iron Circus. Are libraries buying your books in the digital format?
I assume they are. A lot of this is handled automatically by my distributor, so I don’t know the details. But I know it must be happening, because I have authors excitedly telling me about digital copies of yet-to-be-printed Iron Circus books already on hold at their local libraries.
So many comics and pop culture conventions have been canceled. How are you promoting your books and authors?
Iron Circus has always had a very strong online presence, so we’ve been working that a little harder than we might otherwise, lately. I’m really disappointed that the American Library Association annual conference didn’t happen this year; canceling it was the right choice, but it was local to me—it was in Chicago. That meant I had the budget to fly multiple creators in, and I was already talking with organizers about putting together panels for them to participate in. I was trying to figure out how many ARCs I should order for signing events when word came in that the show probably wasn’t going to happen. It was just a huge bummer.
But I have contingencies! I have multiple mailing lists. I have a publicist on payroll who has never stopped mailing out ARCs. I still submit the books to library journals for review, and I still post everywhere about new and upcoming titles. It’s not ideal, and it’s not the extent of what I wish I could do, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that everyone else is pretty much in the same boat right now.