Spike Trotman on the business of comics

C. Spike Trotman doesn't see any conflict between love and money, at least when it comes to making money doing the thing you love.

She launched Templar, Arizona at a time when the webcomics business model was still being hammered out — and a lot of people were still dubious about it. However, Trotman not only made it work, she expanded the scope of what she does, running a Kickstarter for the Poorcraft graphic novel, then curating and publishing the Smut Peddler anthology, which was also funded on Kickstarter. Her small press Iron Circus Comics is now publishing its first creator-owned work, an omnibus edition of EK Weaver's webcomic The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal, which was just successfully funded on Kickstarter — in fact, the project raised $65,000, far exceeding its goal of $18,500.

This seemed like a good time to talk to Spike about growing her own small press—and what the future holds for Iron Circus.

Brigid Alverson: I interviewed you in 2008, and at that time you were self-publishing Templar, Arizona. Your financial model back then was threefold: ad sales, which varied widely, donations, and sales of your print books. Can you briefly describe for me what Iron Circus' business model is now, and how it grew from you self-publishing one webcomic to you publishing other people's work? Was there a particular moment when you decided to start bringing other creators in, or was that part of the plan from the beginning?

Spike Trotman: Ha-ha, very, very different. VERY different. While I'm still writing and drawing comics, much to my own shock and confusion, I've started to take on more administrative duties. I'm an mega-ambitious control freak, so that's probably what's to blame.

My business model — for now, I should stress — is almost a standard old-school publishing one, except for my use of Kickstarter to do preorders and my personal insistence to keep a foot planted on the creative side of things. I'm organizing, editing, writing, drawing and publishing the kind of comics I wish existed in the world already. I'm calling the old "if you don't like it, make your own" bluff. (Spoiler alert: The people who tend to come at you with that little nugget of advice don't actually like it when you DO "make your own," and it outsells theirs.) I've got 2,000 square feet of storage and office space in south Chicago I'm working out of, and big plans to keep at more of the same, not all of which I'm at liberty to talk about.

I didn't plan for things to turn out this way; it all happened very organically. I went with what I wanted to do, but I never anticipated wanting to be scrappy little indie publisher! Feels good, though.

Looking back, I realized you were kind of doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter, getting enough preorders to pay production costs before the book was printed. Is that how you are using Kickstarter now, strictly for preorders of work that already exists, or are you using it to pay the creators and yourself to make the comics?

I use it for both! I'm on my sixth Kickstarter project at the moment, and years of experience have convinced me I'm best off finishing as much of the work as humanly possible before even LOOKING at Kickstarter. My first project, the first Poorcraft volume, was a straight-up "pay us and we'll make it" type comic. It had to be; I couldn't finance it any other way. It took about two years to get done, and the guilt of keeping so many people waiting got to me pretty bad. I've been limiting my crowdfunding ventures to as-finished-as-possible projects since then. When I launched my second project, Smut Peddler, I paupered myself paying everyone's page rates beforehand so I could launch the campaign with a finished product!

But even though I like everything ready to head to the printer before I Kickstart it, I like to use my projects as an opportunity to score better pay for the creators, too. I'm incredibly proud of the bonus payment model I invented that other publishers who use KS have adopted, where overfunding is funneled back to the creators of group projects.

You told me that The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal is Iron Circus' first creator-owned work. What exactly are you doing for this book — editorial, production, marketing, all of the above?

I'm handling the Kickstarter project, Kickstarter fulfillment, promotion and subsequent sales/distribution of the run. I'd have been willing to handle more, but EK wanted to handle the pre-press herself.

What are you learning from that — any surprises, compared to publishing your own work and Kickstarter projects?

Ha-ha, well, I took EK on as my first third-party creator because she was a friend, so I knew she would forgive any mistakes I made handling my first KS for someone else. As long as they weren't total catastrophes, anyway. And so far, I think my biggest weakness has been communication. I still have this mindset like it's Just Me out here, I don't have to explain my strategies and M.O. to anyone. Still gotta fix that.

How do you distribute your books?

My online store, Amazon, Diamond and a private list of comic shops and bookstores I'm in contact with who order from me directly. (Hit me up if you wanna join, shop owners! Not even kidding about that! I ship direct to everyone from Bluestockings to Venus Envy to The Beguiling!)

I loved your description of the concept of Smut Peddler in the interview you did at Comics Alliance: "It exists because it’s like there’s a pile of money in the middle of the street with a sign in it that said 'porn for chicks.' I was staring at it, looked at it, and I’m like, nobody wants this? I’m gonna take this." Why do you think you were able to, or maybe inclined to, make that anthology when others were not?

Ha-ha, honestly, I STILL don't get why no one else tried it before me. It seemed like a no-brainer! Even before the first Iron Circus Smut Peddler collection came out, when I emailed a bunch of artists I admired and asked them to participate, most of them answered my email inquiry in a matter of hours. They were RARING TO GO, it was like they'd been waiting for someone to ask them to draw dirty comics for AGES. I honestly just think I was in the right place, at the right time, with the money and the skill set to make it happen. If there was any choke point that prevented someone else from doing it first, it was probably money. I could pay, and WOULD pay. Most other indie anthology projects weren't offering page rates at the time, just comp copies.

Can you tell me a bit about Iron Circus' plans for the rest of the year? I was intrigued to see Sophie Campbell's book Shadoweyes — will that be a creator-owned title as well?

Yup! Sophie's gonna put out Shadoweyes through ICC the same way EK is putting out TJ and Amal. I'll handle the Kickstarter and the distribution.

And other than Shadoweyes, I have two more projects planned. The first, due in the late spring, is for New World, my sci-fi/fantasy anthology about culture clash. And the second, launching in the summer, is the Smut Peddler Double-Header, a two-fer of smutty comics: An anthology called My Monster Boyfriend and Yes Roya, a graphic novel, written by me and drawn by Slipshine artist ghostgreen. WATCH FOR 'EM, EVERYBODY!

A lot of people are ambivalent about talking about the financial side of comics, or even getting paid for doing them. You have always struck me as having a very practical approach — you even made a guide to doing Kickstarters, in comics format. What does money add to the creative process?

FREEDOM. Also, dedication. Paying people gets results, it's a basic truth. The reason so many alt and indie publishing projects never bear fruit is that no one's getting paid, and I don't care HOW excited people start out, it's very, very easy to fall out of love with an obligation if you aren't getting compensated. Furthermore, paying people entitles you to have a say in what they produce; basic editorial oversight. The privilege of requesting changes, which might otherwise feel awkward. If you're given work for free, what right do you have to criticize it?

Finally, to set a marker for our next interview seven years from now, how is your income stream breaking down now? And are you making a living solely from comics?

Ha ha, well, My income stream is 100% book sales. Wholesale sales to stores, comiXology sales, con sales, online store sales, Amazon sales. Book sales. And yep, it's still a full-time job. It pays for me, and my aforementioned office, and the big plan now? To pay off the mortgage with comics money, free my husband up to quit HIS job, and have him come work for ME full-time! And I can't wait to see where this all goes in another seven years, too, believe me.

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