Listen to the episode:
Cartoonist and publisher Spike Trotman publishes books she considers “strange and amazing.” Her company Iron Circus specializes in “underrepresented voices, underrepresented themes, stuff that has not got a big audience quite frankly or a lot of people catering to it right now.”
Sounds like a recipe for struggle.
Yet they’re KILLING it. “For the first time in my career, it feels limitless. It feels like I have so many possibilities.”
Spike is a Kickstarter All-Star champ, and Iron Circus has gone from self-publishing her webcomic collection to putting out up to 15 books a year, riding a wave of pandemic-fueled popularity into new ventures (animation) and big plans for more growth.
Spike does everything her own DIY way and is making it work (and then some), so give this fun episode a listen and find out why you’re better off better off making pineapple-anchovy pizza.
Despite reasonable competition for the hardest-working publisher and loving her work, Spike’s got hit with major burnout. feeling overwhelmed: “The answer isn’t to work harder. The answer is to take a break.”
The importance of delegating tasks and asking people for help. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) do it all.
More from the episode…
- How the pandemic affected comics publishing (spoiler alert: 40% GROWTH.)
- Spike’s struggle to shift her mindset from DIY indie comic to business owner: “I was still in that headspace where no one can do it correctly but me.”
- The ins and outs of Kickstarter, including how the platform has evolved since Spike’s first campaign in 2009.
- What is Spike’s “cheese pizza” theory of mainstream media? And why are anchovies so awesome?
- “You do not have to be a New York Times best seller to make a living.” — Why it only takes a thousand true fans.
- How sometimes, small indie creators can do better than mainstream authors. “There’s still room for functioning independently.”
- “We love our erotica and we love the people who make it.” — How Iron Circus nurtures (one of) its niche audience(s).
- Spike describes her first vacation in over 10 years.
- The value of intentionally reserving some elements of life to be non-monetized in avoiding burnout.
- Balancing business and the need to be creative, Spike shares her low-stress method for making her own comics even while running an active publishing company.
- The value of NOT learning to do everything yourself…learning to accept help and delegating tasks within her small business: “I remember with crystal clarity the day I decided, oh wait, maybe it would be more efficient to hire someone who’s been doing this for 20 years, than try and teach myself an entirely new system and do it myself.”
More from Spike Trotman
C. Spike Trotman is a cartoonist and publisher. She started an imprint called Iron Circus to self-publish her own webcomic Templar, AZ back in the late aughts, and then built that little publishing effort into the largest indie comics publisher in the Midwest!
Iron Circus now publishes a slate of a dozen or more new books every year. They’re even getting into the animation game with a short by Tracy J. Butler’s Lackadaisy that Iron Circus just Kickstarted for $330,000.
Spike is also incredibly generous in helping younger and less-established creators figure out how to make this all work (check out her eBook, Let’s Kickstart a Comic).
Connect with Spike Trotman
Click here to read the transcript
Spike Trotman: It’s like when you were in grade school and there was a pizza day, what did you get? You got cheese pizza.
Now, is cheese pizzas anyone’s favorite? Probably. But most people, if they had it their way, they’d get something else. Something that was just like, for me, I like anchovies, pepperoni and black olives and garlic on my pizza.
Jessica Abel: I knew you were going to say that!
AC intro3: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?
There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.
And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.
So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:
Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.
I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.
And this is the Autonomous Creative.
Jessica: My guest today is cartoonist and publisher spike trotman. Her publishing company. Iron circus has the motto strange and amazing, and it specializes in underrepresented voices, underrepresented themes and books that don’t really have a big audience.
Sounds like a recipe for struggle. And yet. They are killing it.
Spike is a Kickstarter all star champ and iron circus has gone from self publishing her web comic collection to putting out up to 15 books a year, riding a wave of pandemic fueled popularity into new ventures in animation and big plans for more growth.
Spike does everything her own DIY way and is making it work and then some,
so give this fun episode of listen and find out why you’re better off making pineapple anchovy pizza.
We’ll dive into it right after this.
Jessica Abel: So I’m excited to dive into this. I am going to start with today. What stuff is like now, because I know that there’ve been massive, massive changes, not only pandemic related, but all kinds of other things, but I just want to get a sort of starting point here. So tell us what your work life is like. I know day-to-day it must change a lot, but what are the kinds of things you do over a given week?
Spike Trotman: Uh, I have absolutely zero work-life balance. That’s important to start out with. Let’s just like, that’s the baseline we’re functioning from. I work six to seven days a week and I hadn’t had a vacation, like an actual let’s sit quietly and do nothing on purpose vacation, for eight or nine years until this year recently.
I wake up, I eat something, and I work, and then I go to bed and that is my life.
I reward myself intermittently throughout the day with, if I answer 10 emails, I get to play an hour of Hardspace: Shipbreaker. Or if I, you know, write this difficult letter to this person over here, I get to go and watch an episode of “Odd Taxi” on Crunchy Roll or something. And those are my, those are my rewards for myself.
And that’s kind of how I keep myself motivated and distract myself from the fact I have no off time. I am probably the only person on earth who- I get texts because Iron Circus is run entirely virtually. My publishing company exists as a Slack channel in physical space and
Jessica Abel: I understand that
Spike Trotman: And, I am probably the only person in the world who can get a text from somebody I’m working with at 2:00 AM. And my instant response isn’t, “what the fuck are you doing?” My response is like, “oh, oh yeah, sure. I’ll take care of that” because I’m probably up and I’m probably working. I’m, I’m kind of almost never not working.
And I don’t say that as sort of a grasp at virtue. That’s just kind of how I am.
I really enjoy what I’m doing and I’m really, I’m a very driven person, just personality wise.
I really hate using this word because the internet has poisoned it, but I consider myself to have an entrepreneurial personality. And it is something that is only kind of mushroomed over the years.
My ambitions have grown and it started out with a self-publishing imprint for a web comic, and then it grew, and it grew, and it grew. And then in 2020 we extended ourselves into animation. So we’re working on our very first animated short, and uh that’s not where we want to stop.
It’s kind of only a matter of deciding where we want to put our energy and where we can find competent people to work alongside on projects we feel can succeed.
It’s a weird, exciting place to be kind of where I am right now, because for the first time in my career, it feels limitless. It feels like I have so many possibilities. And what ultimately becomes of Iron Circus is like being decided right now in this moment. And it’s it’s exciting. It’s exciting.
Jessica Abel: That’s, that’s
amazing. No, that’s amazing. That’s like the
idea of feeling being an, an artist, a cartoonist, a publisher, a bootstrapper and saying the possibilities are limitless.
Spike Trotman: Hmm.
Jessica Abel: that is inspiring frankly.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. The pandemic has been super weird for publishers, people in any kind of production capacity. I imagine it’s been weird. But the thing about comics right now, especially graphic novel format comics is because of 2020, a whole bunch of people, and we’re talking about millions, basically sat at home, were twiddling their thumbs and went, I guess I’ll just get some books off Amazon.
And then a lot of those books were graphic novels. And when I say this people just straight up don’t believe me, but it’s the truth. The graphic novel market in 2020 grew 40%. There isn’t like a market on earth in publishing that grew 40% in one year. it’s kind of crazy to kind of manifest that level of growth, but simultaneously I, and everyone liked me are also dealing with supply chain issues.
A lot of us print in Asia for reasons I will not go into here, it’s actually becoming very expensive and delayed to get books from say, Hong Kong or South Korea or China or Thailand on the boat and over to Long Beach, and then unloaded in Long Beach.
There are shipping containers, just kind of like drifting off the coast of California right now that have been there for weeks. And so a lot of 2021 has been spent just, you know, writing the distro and saying, got to push the pub date, got to push it again, got to push it again, got to push it again.
And you feel like such a scrub and an amateur. And it’s like, oh wait, it’s not just me. They send mass emails to people about preparing for pandemic delays. No, you’re, you’re not incompetent. This is the nature of the world. Believe it or not. You are subjected to the nature of the world.
Jessica Abel: Yes. Yes. 100%.
But our last episode, as it happened was with Josh O’Neill who, you know very well and is also in a he’s in a parallel situation. He was also talking about the same thing where all of a sudden over the last couple of years, like last year and a half or whatever, all his time is going to distribution and trying to figure out what to do, basically when things go sideways.
Spike Trotman: Yeah, it’s
Jessica Abel: get too far away from this,
Spike Trotman: Oh
Jessica Abel: wanna one question.
Spike Trotman: Sure.
Jessica Abel: You went on vacation. What was it like?
Spike Trotman: I worked! I worked. I spent most of my vacation redecorating my living room and I would take my photos of my living room for multiple angles and then put them in Photoshop and then Photoshop different colors on the wall and then Photoshop the pictures I needed framed and what colors the frame would be and arrange them digitally on the wall.
And then I went and spent my pandemic stimulus check on getting everything framed so it can hang on the wall. And this was- like, I’m one of those people. I think a lot of people in comics are the same way, where if we have original art from creators we like, we’re like “I’m going to get this framed” and then it immediately goes on a shelf and stays there for like five years. And
so I had.
Jessica Abel: I have a blog post about this. I had a 25-year-old piece that somebody had given me and finally got it framed.
Spike Trotman: And I had like 20 things that needed framing and the stimulus check came and I’m like, I bet this would cover it. And yeah, it just about did. And I have like pieces from some of my favorite creators and they’re not up on the wall yet because I still have to paint. The vacation was just deciding what color to paint the wall.
And I’m going with like basic bitch black, because I absolutely it’s like, I know, I know like gray walls are the thing now. I know every flipped house has gray walls, but I can’t help liking dark walls. I’m going to paint the wall dark gray, black. Sorry, everyone. But yeah my vacation was spent working. Because I like, I can’t not. I can’t not. It’s bad.
Jessica Abel: I mean, I get it. I’m uh, I don’t enjoy sitting still very much. I’ve been trying to personally like cultivate my ability to not do work, not by learning how to sit still, but by learning how to have other things I want to be doing,
Spike Trotman: Yeah.
Jessica Abel: or gardening, or like working on something in the house or whatever, like have something to do, you know.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Like I said, I play video games, every once in a while someone’s like, oh, I’d love to watch you streaming on Twitch. And I have to be like, no. Because I have at my heart that capitalist instinct, like, because we all, we are all, you know, surviving under capitalism. And part of capitalism is the whole sort of urge to monetize your every action because it’s a matter of living or dying.
And I have decided, I’ve made a conscious decision to have just a segment of my life that I refuse to monetize where it’s just like, I’m just going to sit for an hour and do something pointedly unproductive and not share it. And that’s
Jessica Abel: and you do have downtime and you have downtime sounds like throughout the …day. You’ll give
yourself an hour here, an hour there. It’s not like you’re working wall-to-wall for 24 hours a day.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. That’s the fast track, the bullet train to burn out there. I do
Jessica Abel: Yeah.
Spike Trotman: I’ve had, I’ve had people be like, you’re always on Twitter. You tweet like 15 times a day. I’m like, yeah, tweeting takes two minutes. And then I write an email and then I make another tweet. And then I write another email. It’s like the one thing that keeps me going, being able to just fart around simultaneously while I work is how I can work 10, 11, 12 hours in a single day.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
Bullet train to burn out. I like that.
Spike Trotman: What I’m doing is dumb. I am absolutely– everyone, what I’m doing is dumb.
Jessica Abel: Wait, wait, wait, wait, Why do you think it’s dumb? You to be enjoying it.
Spike Trotman: I’m tired all the time. And to be frank, am not treating myself the absolute best. I eat way too much takeout. I get hardly any exercise because I’m just like, oh my God, I need to work. I need to constantly work.
And that’s not what I need to be doing. I’m like in my forties now, and I had my first checkup a while ago and they’re all like, yeah, you should be exercising. You should be doing this. You should be doing that. And it’s like, I’ll find the time.
And it’s like, bitch, no, you won’t. You’re too busy doing everything else. You know, the whole time you’re on the treadmill or at the gym or in the pool or whatever you’re just going to be thinking about all the stuff you could be doing. And quite frankly, that’s kind of enough to stop me in a lot of ways. And it’s not good. It’s not good, everyone. Don’t be me.
Jessica Abel: Okay. I mean, I personally have made the decision that I don’t want to be doing that and I’m trying to move away from it, but it certainly doesn’t sound like you’re convinced. It sounds like you actually kind of like it.
Spike Trotman: I do I do. This is a personality trait of mine.
Jessica Abel: Because I’m also the person who is like, I’ve gone through long periods of my life where like, that’s, that just at the desk the whole time, you’re just like pushing through.
I find, and this is the thing is, the life of,
Spike Trotman: Hmm.
Jessica Abel: the things that are happening here, are the most exciting things in my life. You
know, even if I’m really enjoying a lot of other things, it’s not always the most exciting. Fortunately, there’s some things that compete, but mostly the other choices I have available to me, they just aren’t as interesting
Spike Trotman: yeah,
Jessica Abel: solve this problem.
Spike Trotman: yeah, yeah. I
Jessica Abel: a real problem for me, you know, because I do, I
Spike Trotman: know.
Jessica Abel: myself, you know, I tap out and then I keep going and it doesn’t feel good.
Spike Trotman: Yeah.
And I’m like every once in a while kind of occurs to me, I’m in charge of a lot of things and a lot of things they depend on me being there and having opinion or saying yes or no.
And more often than I’d like, I will come into the Slack and there will be like three or four questions kind of hanging there and waiting for me because I’m, the buck stops here. I’m the final, final say. And everyone’s like, hey, should we reach out to this person? Hey, this guy wants to do this, what do we say? Hey, so-and-so wants this. What do we say? And they’re waiting on me.
And I had a deeply traumatic experience a few years ago where I got sick. I got like con crud, sick as a dog, on the couch for a week sick. It like, it super sucked and I just couldn’t move. And when I came back, it was like the nightmare of the managerial class, which is nothing had happened. Everything had screeched to a halt and hit a brick wall. The moment I said, I’m sick. I’ll be back when I’m not sick anymore. And so we had this week where like the whole company just kind of floated there.
like, I think about that like some people think about nightmares. You know, it’s just like, I can’t leave everything because if I leave, it’s like the persistence of being is gone for Iron Circus. Everything just stops existing.
Jessica Abel: Have you, have you considered delegating?
Spike Trotman: Funny story about that.
Like you, I come from the sort of indie, small press underground comic scene. And that was back when, you know, comics was doomed as people liked to say. And a lot of the vibe of that scene is being a self-starter, doing it yourself, and self-publishing because back in the day, kids, when there was no Scholastic or Random House Graphics or Abrams giving a shit about us, we had to do everything ourselves, or we had to go with little itsy-bitsy tiny publishers and itsy-bitsy tiny co-ops and zines and Xeroxes and shit like that.
And you had to figure out prepress yourself. You had to figure out promo yourself. You had to figure out to do with having a career in comics yourself. And that produced a whole lot of people who were kind of journeyperson level in multiple disciplines cause they had to be, I was one of those people and that developed a sense of “I can do it, it’s fine” me that was unhealthy.
It got to a degree where it was unhealthy and 2018 was the year I learned I, stress vomit. Anyone here who plays “Oxygen Not
Jessica Abel: Wow.
Spike Trotman: of the stress reactions is, puking. That’s me. I’m the dupe that pukes. remember I did it like two, three times and I was all like, oh, this is bad.
Shouldn’t be puking when I’m working. I delegating then, and I now have a bunch of people that work under me. And quite frankly, I’d like to have more, but budgets are a thing. And maybe when Iron Circus gets a little bigger, then I can hire the dedicated social media person and the dedicated this and the dedicated that.
But for now, it’s just like the 8 to 10 people that are kind of working on multiple things. I have the guy I go to for promotions. I have the guy who handles all of our book data in the giant, multi-rooted multi-branch system that is publishing. I have multiple editors I work with. I have a proofreader because God knows I need a proofreader. Just a whole bunch of people.
And looking back now from 2021, I’m kind of mildly horrified I ever thought I could do all that myself.
Jessica Abel: frankly think it’s a trauma reaction. I mean, I think it’s a, and I, I’m not joking. I mean, like, you know,
the feeling of scarcity and that feeling of if I’m not working, things are gonna fall apart and you’ve actually tested that and it was true.
So, you know, like it was true then, it might not be true now.
Spike Trotman: Yeah,
Jessica Abel: like you hold onto those things and you kind of replicate those things.
I’m actually having conversation next week with a woman named Nicole Lewis Keeber, who is an expert on this.
Spike Trotman: yeah,
Jessica Abel: like we, we all do this. We have certain kinds of, like you’re saying, we both grew up in indie comics where it was DIY or die. There was nothing, you know, you just do, you just have to do this
No one cared. There was no money in it. Even when you were doing it right. There was nothing.
just thinking you have to, the only thing you had is your labor. All you had is your labor. All you have is your time. And so that’s what you keep putting into the
Spike Trotman: Yeah.
Jessica Abel: But of course that’s not really how like, yes, you can pull it, push your way through, but there are so many tools of leverage such as Kickstarter that, changed that dynamic, but we still hold onto that sort of back of the head, primitive brain impulse, like all I’ve really got is my time. That’s all I really, really have in the end. That’s all I have and so I’m just going to throwing more in.
Spike Trotman: I remember it reached its most absurd height where I was doing a lot of conventions cause there was a time period where I was doing a ton of conventions and I spent way too long resisting the idea of shipping a pallet ahead instead of… like I would always fly Southwest. Cartoonist’s friend, fly Southwest because you get free luggage, like free two pieces of luggage.
And I would put like two shirts and a pair of jeans and like five pairs of underwear in my backpack, which would be my carry on. And then fill two of the biggest suitcases I could to be 49 pounds worth of books. And that way I could ship my books for free on Southwest. I did that way too long, like way, way, way too long.
And when I finally accepted, like, no, you’re a publishing company. Can you be professional for five fucking seconds? And just ship things ahead, like an adult. And I didn’t want to cause I was still in that like indie headspace where no one can do it correctly, but me and it’s like, no, you’re wrong. There are people where this is their job, you know, getting your boxes
Jessica Abel: They can be better at this,
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Believe it or not.
Jessica Abel: Instead of journeypeople you
Spike Trotman: Yeah, exactly. Your journeyperson isn’t going to fly when you’re putting out 10, 15 books a year. Maybe try being professional.
Yeah um, that I think is kind of the biggest weakness I’ve had, just kind of Iron Circus wise, where I just have this death grip on this… I mean to be perfectly frank, increasingly unsuitable indie, small press, gritty mindset where, you know, I’m no, I’m not working out of Kinkos anymore. I’m not doing everything myself. I’m not sitting at my coffee table, saddle stapling zines anymore. That those days are gone. I have to actually approach this from a logistically sensible place and
Jessica Abel: Right. Like, where is your time most valuable. It’s in stapling zines.
Spike Trotman: Exactly. And that’s kind of like what I’ve used to sort of determine what to do with my life.
You know, there are things that only I can do, and there are things that quite frankly I can contract out. You know, I don’t have to be the person making the graphics for the Instagram. I don’t have to be the person doing this. I don’t have to be the person doing that and I can pay someone to do that. And my time would be better spent doing what literally only I can do.
It’s kind of been like, you see the cartoons where someone’s just like pulling stuff off finger by finger. That, that’s me getting pulled off of everything, but the company is much better for it. It functions much better.
Like the guy we have, this is super obnoxious and I apologize everyone, but there is a whole database out there that feeds Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Bookshop.org, everything you could think of, it all feeds back to one single database and that database also feeds out to a whole bunch of other things and that is where publishing lives.
And I have a guy who handles where publishing lives for me. And I remember with crystal clarity the day I decided, oh wait, maybe it would be more efficient to hire someone who’s been doing this for 20 years, than try and teach myself an entirely new system and do it myself.
Jessica Abel: Yes, exactly. So speaking of growing and maybe not the indie mindset anymore, as much as it was any more, you know, in the past. Iron Circus, how many books a year are you publishing? What kind of books you publishing?
Spike Trotman: Our mission statement has been something I stole from a freak show banner, which is “strange and amazing.” We try and publish books that I personally consider strange and amazing. We specialize in sort of underrepresented voices, underrepresented themes, stuff that has not really got a, a big audience quite frankly or a lot of people catering to it right now.
One of the ironies of the market right now, the explosively growing graphic novel market is it’s explosively growing in kind of a single, a single age range, which is sort of elementary up to YA. And we publish a lot of stuff that’s exclusively for adults. So we’re actually only getting the runoff of that explosion.
It’s plenty when a, when an entire industry grows 40% in a single year, the runoff is plenty, but it’s still not like the mainest of the mainstream stuff.
We publish a lot of erotica kind of where we got our start. We’re happy to publish erotica. We don’t like give it its own little imprint. We don’t quietly shove it off in the corner and pretend we don’t publish it. We love our erotica and we love the people who make it and it’s bomb ass and I recommend you all buy it cause it’s great. It’s whole thing is like it’s consent driven, it’s sex positive.
I mean, it can be very high drama. Don’t get me wrong, but it’s the kind of stuff we really wanted to see out there. And a lot of that governs what we choose to publish, like stuff we want to see. And we have sort of an open door policy, like our submissions are always open and then every month we all get together in of course, where else, a Slack channel.
And we dump all the, all the stuff in there and we all just sort of decide on it. But when, along with that, we also have sort of projects that we do all the time.
We have the Smut Peddler series of erotic anthologies, which is
Spike Trotman: of the first kick of nitro in Iron Circus’s tank was a Smut Peddler Anthology, and it’s done amazing. It’s great. Perennial bestsellers, always happy to have them.
We also do the occasional all-ages anthology. We’ve done a horror anthology called the Sleep of Reason. My personal favorite was an anthology called FTL, Y’all!: Tales From the Age of the $200 Warp Drive, which was the premise was just, someone finds out it takes about $200 and a journeyperson mechanics ability, a level of ability, to build a faster than light engine. And how would that change the world?
And the answer is a lot, a lot. Like your idiot cousin could be on Jupiter this time next week. What, what does that mean for humanity is what that anthology was about.
We’ve done scifi stuff like New World. Um, we did something called Tim’rous Beastie which was about small animals having big adventures for people who like Watership Down or Plague Dogs, Redwall, that kind of thing. Like little, little tiny animals in danger. Everyone loves a good little tiny animals and dangerous story.
And that’s the kind of stuff we weren’t seeing. And that’s a lot of what governs the choices we make, stuff we weren’t seeing. And frankly, I refer to myself as like the only hurdle you, need to get over at Iron Circus. If I like it, it’s getting published. If every other editor is like, okay, seriously, this is trash. I don’t care. Cause it’s getting published. And like I’m buck stops here kind of like.
Jessica Abel: And you, you really literally don’t listen to everybody else is like, no.
Spike Trotman: If they have reasons, if they have good reasons for saying no. Like if I found a story that I fell in love with and someone was like, okay, seriously though, this person is a terrible human being and they have a history of leaving their publisher high and dry and also the theme of this comic was clearly stolen from this comic over here. Don’t publish them. Like, totally I’ll listen to that.
But I mean, a lot of the people I’ve hired are my friends and I know what rings their bell, you know, as opposed to what rings my bell. I have the friend who’s way more likely to, say, recommend supernatural stories. I have a friend who’s way more likely to be interested in stories with animal characters. And I take that into consideration when they’re like, oh, we should publish this one. Yes. I know you think we should publish this one. Of course you do and I
Jessica Abel: Do they represent audiences you’re trying to reach?
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, to this day we still go for audiences that we feel are kind of underserved. We, gosh, I’m trying to think of a diplomatic way to put this.
Jessica Abel: Oh just go for it.
Spike Trotman: There are a lot of audiences we won’t even try for cause we are so complete- like our weight class is not even remotely the same.
Like, I don’t know if folks understand this, but Scholastic is kind of the only publisher that can walk into your child’s school, set up a table and say, buy this. And so they have this enormous advantage when it comes to sales numbers and when it comes to audience access and you can’t fight that. There’s nothing I could ever do to fight. I can’t compete with Scholastic. It’s not going to happen. So, you know, I try and kind of put my energy elsewhere.
Jessica Abel: Meaning you don’t actually go for books that would be Scholastic books. Like if, something like that came across your transom, you’d be like
Spike Trotman: And I’ve, I’ve told people. I’ve told people for example, I get stories that I go, hey, yeah, this doesn’t really feel like an Iron Circus book. Do not ask me to explain further. But you might want to try your luck at Image, Random House, Scholastic, you know, whatever, depending on what they’re giving me.
Unsurprisingly, when people know that you publish erotica, you get a lot of weird shit in the submission slush pile.
And, I don’t tell those people try or look elsewhere because quite frankly, there aren’t a ton of specifically American-based publishing houses that are all like, yeah, we publish porn. What’s up? You know, there aren’t a ton like that and… not in the graphic novel sense. The romance novel business is like this whole other thing that is over there and a gigantic monster no one ever wants to acknowledge, but yeah, that’s not us.
The complicating factor of our porn has pictures. So, so always in a very, which is interesting cause like relating back to Kickstarter. Early on, I would get a lot of emails that are like, how’d you get porn on Kickstarter? How’d you do that? Because they say no porn. It’s like, well, Kickstarter sides with the Supreme Court.
That’s how. Where if it can be construed as art, it’s fine. You’ll also find like nude photography books on Kickstarter. Kickstarter says no porn, what they mean is like Wicked Pictures can’t come on there. Jenna Jameson can’t come on there and fund a, uh, an actual filmed porno. That’s what they’re saying. They’re not saying dirty pictures.
Because I don’t know if you folks are aware of the split hairs and blood-soaked battlefield that constitutes when does it stop being art and begin being pornography, but Kickstarter wants no fucking part of it. And so they just kind of they’re, they’re very, they’re very okay with kind of whatever you want to put up there, especially in comics.
So unless it’s like, obviously terrible and you’re an obviously terrible person.
Jessica Abel: Right. Which would be also a really difficult call for them I think, you know, like what are they say? Like you’re an obviously terrible person. Like that’s not…
Spike Trotman: yeah they not, they do not want to take part in that discussion and I don’t blame them. I don’t blame, like literally again, the Supreme Court can’t get this hashed out in plain language, so, why is an internet website going to answer this question for everyone where art ends and pornography begins? So.
Jessica Abel: So, to get back to the numbers, how many books are you putting out say in 2021?
Spike Trotman: Oh, um, this year it’s a low year for us for like 10, 10 or 11 this year. We usually try to shoot for 15. We’re kind of like actively building a back catalog now, actively building a backlist, I guess is the best way to put it.
And a lot of this has to do with the fact that Iron Circus, even though it’s over 10 years old, that’s considered “I’m baby” to a lot of book buyers and, and, um, libraries and distros. Like, we’re basically nothing. We’re basically newborns compared to a lot of other publishing houses.
And much like comics, there is a certain time period in the publishing world where people kind of, they kind of take a step back and they’re just sort of waiting to see if you wash out.
Not because they don’t like you, not because they have it in for you or anything, but the turnover rate can be a little high and they want to know if you’re in it for the long haul. Are you going to be in the catalog next year and year after that, and year after that, and year after that. And when you are, they get a feel for the kind of stuff you put out.
You know, the children’s librarian at this point knows to skip over the Iron Circus part of the catalog by and large. But like other people were like, oh, I run the, I run Bluestockings, I run this odd bookstore. I run a library in a university that likes to provide challenging books to the student body. Oh, maybe Iron Circus has something interesting and weird out. And that’s kind of who we go for. And that’s kind
Right, right, right. Yeah. And I’m sure you have a strong set of relationships there, like
Oh my God. Librarians are the best. Librarians are literally the best. It’s like, they’re the ones I’ve met anyway. Um,
Jessica Abel: Oh yeah, no, no, no. I’m, I’m all in on that one.
Spike Trotman: Yeah, they’re extremely passionate about books. They’re extremely passionate about getting weird books in the library. The ones I’ve worked with it, of course they’d approach me, you know.
A long time before I actually got on Ingram, you know, Ingram’s my distributor now. And they’re, they’re global. I sell books in Indonesia, like big whoop, but back when Iron Circus was self-distributed, back when it was literally just me and my husband in an office space somewhere, they would come to me at conventions and they would have paperwork with them and they’d be all like, hey, fill this out so I can buy this and put it in the Library of Congress and they get reimbursed by the government for buying your weird shit. And like you’re extending effort. That’s so cool. Thank you for coming to see me.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, that’s awesome. So of those books you’ve been in business for what? 15 years?
Spike Trotman: God, I know since 2007, so
Jessica Abel: About fifteen
Spike Trotman: About that. God, how awful. Yeah. I’m
Jessica Abel: thought it was pretty cool. But wait, um, I know you did fewer at the beginning and you do more now, but that’s a lot of books, right? So out of those books, what percentage of them are actually Kickstarted and what I assume you also just publish stuff
Spike Trotman: Yeah, that, that changes. That changes from time to time. I would say right now, like 50 to 60% of Iron Circus books are Kickstarted. Half of them aren’t. Actually our, our big showboat book for 2020, and part, most of 2021 has been Banned Book Club. And that was direct to distro. That never saw Kickstarter.
A lot of what determines what we choose Kickstarts is based on multitudes of factors. Is it the kind of book that people expect from Iron Circus is a big one.
Another one is does the creator, and this is kind of the brutal part, does the creator have an internet footprint? Do they have a presence? Do they have like 10,000 followers on Twitter? Do they have a busy little Instagram? Are they going to be the kind of person that’s going to put on the cheer skirt and grab their pom poms and really, really show up for their own title? Cause I have creators who are the Energizer Bunny for their book on social media. And I have creators that I had to talk into getting a Twitter. And the people I had to talk and to get into Twitter are a lot less likely to have a Kickstarter.
And naturally porn honestly gets, uh, it gets a much, much bigger chance of being on Kickstarter simply because the accessibility issue. Like even though we have distro, a lot of bookstores are literally not going to carry dirty picture books. They’re just not. And to access the audience we’ve built over time, the, the audience that is used to buying this from us and expects it from us and is always looking forward to it. It goes on Kickstarter and it does really well there.
And we’re always happy to do that because quite frankly, although it never gets like a front row seat, I guess you could say, it never gets special consideration. Every time I bring it up in the sales meetings with my distro, I’m like, yeah, we’re putting out this one. It’s awesome. About a vampire and his boyfriend.
And they’re like okay. Well, all right. What about the next book? Because they’re not even going to try. Like, that’s not going to fly in Target and they’re not going to sell that in Walmart.
But, um, when I put that on Kickstarter, it’s like the stampede, you could hear it coming from a mile away because people are
Jessica Abel: Well, that’s the thing, and this is, I was, I was talking to Josh O’Neill about this and he was saying the same thing. That he has this avid niche audience that of supports anything they do. And I think you have that too. You have maybe several overlapping niche audiences and the beauty of crowdfunding is that you can just go straight to them and say, you want this to exist? It’s yours. Let’s do it.
Spike Trotman: I have this saying that I’ve begun saying because I’m very proud of myself for thinking of it, uh, that a lot of media, especially media from large corporations that are extremely risk avoidant, it has a “cheese pizza for the whole class” feel and they make something that has the widest appeal and the most palatability for the largest number of people.
It’s like when you were in grade school and there was a pizza day, what did you get? You got cheese pizza.
Now, is cheese pizzas anyone’s favorite? Probably. But most people, if they had it their way, they’d get something else. Something that was just like, for me, I like anchovies, pepperoni and black olives and garlic on my pizza.
Jessica Abel: I knew you were going to say that
Spike Trotman: And like,
Jessica Abel: I anchovies was in my head.
Spike Trotman: I love anchovies. I it’s like, not even a meme. I love them. And you know, I am
Jessica Abel: And me it would be like a white pizza with ramps and like, chanterelle mushrooms or
Spike Trotman: And you can go to grade school for the rest of your life and have a thousand pizza parties. You will never get that on your cheese pizza for the class. And like, will you eat the cheese pizza? Will you go see the Disney movie? Will you go see the Warner Brothers movie? Will you watch this on, you know, ABC? Yeah. It’s fine. It’s not bad. It’s pizza. But it’s cheese pizza for the class.
And Kickstarter like rolls up and is all like, you guys like ramps? you guys like garlic? Hey, hey, hey, who wants fucking pineapple? Yeah. You know, like that’s Kickstarter.
And you’re just like, oh my God. Yes. Finally, someone is selling me cheese pizza with pineapple on it!
And the big corporations, I’m not even saying this as if it’s like a terrible thing, they’re beholden to shareholders. They’re to get to the corporate structures. They are going through focus groups and they want to play to Peoria. You know, they have to worry about what China’s gonna think.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, I think that there’s some real value to that and definitely for people who, whose work gets to the very top of that heap, it pays off immensely. But I think the big problem for us in the creator community is that, the myth that, that is going to be the way and the best way a creator to get your work out there is just not true because the economics against you. you know, book will break even for a publisher way before the creator gets paid.
Spike Trotman: Yeah, it has, it has to. And okay, let me, I’m going to, I’m going to try and be diplomatic again. Okay. As a person who is both a creator and a publisher and kind of on the inside of what is just, I mean, let’s be truthful, it’s a successful publishing company. I have access to all kinds of numbers. And bless their hearts, folks on Twitter, when you talk about what you should be getting, when you sign publishing deals, I can tell how many of you have never signed a publishing deal in your life. And I, that comes from a place of love. I’m just saying.
Jessica Abel: Tell what about here cause not everybody has been in these conversations on Twitter.
Spike Trotman: Every once in a while I’ll see creator’s rights hashtag stuff, and I’m always checking that out cause I’m always interested. Cause I’m a creator too.
I’ll see things along the lines, like if you get handed a contract and what’s it called, the advance is lower than $50,000, don’t sign.
Really? Oh, okay. Good luck with that. Like, I don’t know who you think you are or where you think you are.
I mean, I wish we lived in that world. I wish I could live there with you. That would be amazing. But that is literally not how publishing works. That big fat advance is going to happen for some people, but there are so many mitigating factors, more than I could ever go into here, that determine things like advances and you know, the pay scale. And when it’s coming out and all this other stuff. There’s so much that goes into that. And when you make these sort of blankets statements, I can kind of tell you have no clue. I’m just saying. Sorry, everyone. I’m sorry.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, but I mean, you brought up the idea shareholders and like, if you think about a company like Random House who’s, I published with random house twice. And both times, you know, I’m thinking, mean, I was very honored to publish with Pantheon and with, with Broadway Books, but they have a giant building on Broadway. They have shareholders who are making money. have editors, who I loved, who are making enough money to live in New York City, barely, but enough.
and I was not able to make enough money to pay for my time to create these books, like not even close. And that’s the nature of publishing, but I really do feel like the Kickstarter model flips that. Where, they had to go to such vast numbers of people. They had to think about, you know, are the distributors going to love this? Are they going to push it? Is it going to get reviewed? What’s going to happen there? It’s a very different calculus. They’re thinking about different things. And the way that the company is supported has a completely different business model and one that is not tilted toward the creator.
Spike Trotman: Here’s the thing about Kickstarter, and here’s the thing about publishing with a really big companies. I am in no way telling you that if Random House kicks your door down and throws a contract at you, anyone in here is saying no, you know, shun. Don’t do that. What I will tell you is there is a sort of theory.
There’s a theory of the independent creative out there that I have been obsessed with since I ever first heard about it and in my opinion has kind of rung true. And what it’s called is the Thousand True Fans Theory, and it basically posits any independent creative, all they need to make a decent living is a thousand people willing to spend a hundred dollars on them every year.
And yeah, I mean, the math checks out. If you can find a thousand people who are super into what you do and will, you know, buy a couple books from you, throw some money in your Patreon, come to see you at a convention to get a commissioned piece of or something. You can make a living off that. You do not have to be New York Times best seller to make a living.
And quite frankly, I think people don’t realize how little a lot of New York Times best sellers make.
But, um, you can function. can go to a convention and sell 200 books, and would be amazing. That would be awesome. And you might make more than someone who is on the New York Times Best Sellers List for that week because the nature of the different contracts, you have no idea. Like, if you can walk away from a convention with $5,000, you might’ve done better than the top person in the cookbook category, who knows.
Despite the fact comics has grown massively in the past few years, it’s been ridiculous rocket ship kind of growth, there is still room for functioning independently. If you are right now, like I was kind of in the late nineties, early noughties, where you are looking around and you’re like, I do not see a place for myself in this infrastructure that’s all around me.
I do not want to make children’s books for Scholastic. I do not want to make comics for the newspaper. I don’t want to do this. I want to do my own thing my own way and that’s all I want to do. You can still function in that capacity and you can make a living. There are people right now, all over Patreon who are quietly making very good livings, just making a web comic and that’s it.
The nice thing about like Random House and the nice thing about Scholastic and all these other people is the conversation you can have with your, with your relatives at the family reunion where they’re all like, oh, what are you doing? Oh, I got my books signed signed by Random House.
Jessica Abel: And with total strangers, like walking around, you know, like in bookstores and I mean, it, you, you reach… it’s, like you said, it’s cheese pizza, you know, you reach numbers of people and you have a, like, you can have an impact… areas you wouldn’t expect and that you aren’t planning.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. It can be very cool, but without getting into it… Okay. God, how do I put this? Oh, God, see I’m at that point now where I used to be very open book about everything, but now I literally cannot be for various reasons, but . Okay. Here’s the thing.
So a while ago there was a Kickstarter for a project called Berzerker, but with no vowels. So Brzrkr, no vowels, squash all that together. And it was by BOOM Comics, I think. And it involved Keanu Reeves. And without being insulting. Hm, okay.
Hollywood is very risk averse. We’ve covered that. And part of being risk averse is waiting for someone else to do it and then deciding it’s a good idea because they don’t want to be the one that screwed up because they tried something new.
BRZRKR has proven to a number of people that, oh, wait, Kickstarter is sort of a thing. And as a results, there has been some very weird energy in publishers that work on Kickstarter lately. I don’t even know where I can go from there, but like, it’s, it’s been a weird place to be.
And it’s been fascinating kind of watching it evolve from the website where it’s like, how you expect people to take you seriously if you kickstart your comic? All the way up to, I backed Keanu Reeves’ comic on Kickstarter.
It’s been a thing I ground floored and I’m, I do my best to not be possessive and gatekeepery about it cause that sucks. I’ve been on the other end of that. That sucks. That’s stupid. But at the same time, I’m like, oh my God, I am very quickly being, you know, destroyed on Kickstarter by all these people that have shown up. But yeah. Exciting times to be alive, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Jessica Abel: This episode of the Autonomous Creative is brought to you by Authentic Visibility. I work with a lot of committed mid-career creatives who struggled to get their work seen.
It feels crappy to put so much love and effort into making something, but when you introduce it in the real world, there’s a whole lot of nothing, as far as reaction. It’s truly awful.
And they’re not looking for attention because they’re, egomania. Art and creative work in general, exists to communicate some set of ideas or thoughts or emotions from you from inside your head to inside someone else’s head in as intact form as possible.
When you release your project and it goes up like a brilliant bunch of balloons disappearing into the clear blue sky with no one around to see or care, nevermind to pick their own balloon, to take home and treasure.
But the truth is most creatives in their natural state are frankly pretty terrible at telling anyone why they should care about the work.
Why should someone show up to get a pretty balloon?
It’s not their fault though.
It’s how we teach people to create their best work by digging deep inside ourselves, to come up with wonderful, original new ideas. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The problem is that’s where the process typically ends. Creating, not communicating.
Virtually all the training and practice of making creative work focuses on the first half of the core mission of communication, getting those ideas out of your head and into some actual form that people can see. But that’s missing half the picture.
As a creative, it’s your job to build the whole complete connection to build a bridge for the audience that they can use to easily cross over and understand the value of your work to them.
And this kind of clarity and audience focused language, doesn’t come easy to creatives.
And that’s why I put together a free class specifically for creatives, ridiculously named how to get people wildly obsessed with your work.
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That’s J E S S I C A A B E L.com/wildly.
Now let’s get back to the interview.
There’s two questions I want to make sure to ask you. And we also have a bunch of great questions
Spike Trotman: oh yeah, sure. I’d be happy to answer. Okay .
Jessica Abel: So, question number one is, can you talk about a time when you saw yourself veering off track and what did you do about it?
Spike Trotman: Let me think here. Veering off track. Mostly, I mean, I think the best way I can think about it is the reason I decided to take that one vacation a while back where I was just kind of like dreading doing anything and everything was taking twice as long as it should.
People would send me notes in the Slack or emails at like 9:00 AM, 10:00 AM. And I wouldn’t answer them for three days and I try to have a 24-hour turnaround on my emails. And I felt like I was trapped in this never ending cycle of letting people down and disappointing people. And it sucked because I try not to be that person. Like we’re all mortal, we all mess up, but I was just falling farther and farther behind. And I couldn’t see myself catching up in any way.
And that was kind of making me run myself ragged with, without any sort of appreciable effect. And it felt very hopeless cause I was there, I was like, I’m not this person. I, I built this company. I did this, you know, before anyone gave a shit about it. And, and now I have all these people in my inbox trying to talk to me, and now I have all these decisions I have to make and I can’t make them.
And I can’t talk to people and it’s not because you know, I’m frozen or anything, or I’m afraid of making decisions. It’s because I can’t keep up. And I, at that point I was already like delegating. I already had people I was working with so like that wasn’t the answer. And I realized it was just like, I just couldn’t, you know, I was like, I needed a minute. And a day wasn’t going to do it. I needed several minutes. I needed multiple hundreds of thousands of minutes please.
But I settled for a week. And I came back from that week, just like a much better and happier person. So I can’t recommend it enough if anyone out there is feeling just like, oh my God, I’m like actually dying. Like this is too much. I can’t do this. The answer isn’t to work harder. The answer is to take a break.
Jessica Abel: Yes .So much so. yes. Thank you for saying that. so my other question is you are, as far as I can tell, still creating comics. How do you manage that?
Spike Trotman: Um, the comic I have now I’ve totally screwed up on, by the way. So there’s this site, everyone called Pillowfort. It is kind of what Tumblr should be doing right now. If it weren’t Tumblr. It’s community run.
I have this whole spiel I could get into about sort of the advertiser dictated internet and how that a chokehold around a stranglehold around freedom and creativity and adult content and how, when advertisers dictate terms, you can see every platform rapidly moving towards like prime time network television standards of decency. And that horrifies me.
Pillowfort is not run that way. It’s not advertiser run, it’s user supported. So I think everyone should get a Pillowfort. Because funded internet isn’t working and it sucks. But anyway, I am using my Pillowfort to do a comic that I think I abandoned like 15 years ago.
And my idea for keeping this comic going was I was just going to draw 50 pages and I was going to do them on my own time at a snail’s pace whenever I had a free minute, an hour on the weekend, three hours on the weekend, maybe, you know, from 6:00 AM to noon on next Tuesday or something. Whenever I had free time, I’d draw some. And I would accrue 50 pages. And when I had 50 pages, I was allowed to start uploading them. So everything you see on my Pillowfort right now is like God, like six, seven months old. It’s old stuff. And until recently, when I had to do a bunch of re-draws, it was uploading twice a week.
And I was making that story because I just like, I couldn’t stand not being creative. I couldn’t deal with it. I’m writing a bunch of scripts for people right now. I have I think three scripts floating around in various stages of completion with artists, but I wasn’t drawing anything. I wasn’t making any comics and it made me genuinely feel bad.
And I was like, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna make a comic, not worry about doing it in a timely fashion and when I have 50 pages, I’m just going to upload it. And that’s kind of where I’ve been.
Jessica Abel: I think that’s great. I think that’s, it’s impressive that you’re able to switch gears to that brain space. You know what I mean? Because I do think that building the kind of business that you are building is very creative, but it’s very different creativity. Right.
And so to write scripts and get into the, the fictional worlds and sort of think about characters and world development, all that kind of stuff, to draw where you just have to kind of sit there and do it.
There’s an execution element to that. There’s different kinds of problem solving that are less intellectual. how do you switch back and forth? How do you manage the different modes?
Spike Trotman: I have a very loose schedule that I try to adhere to where I try to be up around 9:00 AM. I sometimes I go all the way through, from midnight, you know, the previous day, all the way through to 9:00 AM and I’m still up.
I mostly these days sleep in four hour shifts that kind of wander the clock. So I don’t actually have a bedtime. I go to sleep when I’m tired and I wake up when I’m not tired anymore and I get back to work. I try to spend the morning on emails. Like morning time is email time, and then I address everything that’s going on in the Slack. And then I try to schedule if I can, all of my meetings for the afternoon. And at the end of the meetings, the emails, any other sort of work I need to see to.
I have a couple hours at the end of the evening, then I get to draw something, but the drawing stuff is a reward for doing the stuff where other people are relying on me. Things where other people are relying on me have to take precedent. And the way I sort of articulate that is I just say, I eat last. so there’s a spread out, the table spread out, Thanksgiving dinners on the table.
Jessica Abel: rough though
Spike Trotman: Oh, it sucks. I get my plate last. Everyone gets paid before me. gets their needs seen to before my needs get seen to because that’s what happens when you decide you get to be in charge. You are responsible for a lot of things and you owe people your time.
Like a lot of people see the sort of leadership position of running a company as basically covering yourself in glory. They don’t see it as a responsibility that they owe to other people. When are Iron Circus fucks up, at the end of the day, no matter who did it, it’s my fault. So I have to take the blame for that.
It’s why I also get to, when something fun happens, I get to say, hey, everyone, look what we did. Like, I’m not just here for the good times. I’m here for everything. I’ve volunteered for that. I’ve volunteered for that. So I, I have to be available to people when they need me. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I try.
Jessica Abel: No, I mean, it sounds amazing. I just think it’s also very self-punishing,
Spike Trotman: like
Jessica Abel: just difficult, really difficult. To Have that feeling always that everybody’s got to be finished before you’re ready to start.
Spike Trotman: Well, I’d had that trauma where week happened and then Iron Circus ground to a halt. So now I feel like I can never go away ever again so…
Jessica Abel: So you’re married, right?
Spike Trotman: Yes. I am married to, does anyone here know who Gordon Freeman is or is that like now officially an old person reference? I’m married to a man who looks like Gordon Freeman. His name is Matt and we met on the internet before that was remotely okay.
Jessica Abel: And does he follow you sleep wise around the clock? I mean, how does that, you know, do you see him?
Spike Trotman: Uh, I do see him. Actually cause of the pandemic I see him a ton. He has an office job and he’s been working from home for the last year and a half. And he also God, basically he’s got two jobs where he has his, uh, has his sort of day job where it’s like an office job. And then I swear he’s like, perfect. He’s amazing, basically.
Because every night after his day job is over, he spends like, you know, a couple hours farting around and then at eight o’clock, to the Iron Circus offices and does customer service and shipping and receiving and fulfills any orders from the store. And he’s been doing this for like years. Years and years he’s been doing this
Jessica Abel: I advocate for husband’s named Matt. I’m in favor of it.
Spike Trotman: Matt’s are good people. I know a lot of Matt and they’re all cool. But yeah, when we first moved in together, I was working at Pearl Arts and Crafts and he encouraged me to quit because he’s like, here’s the thing. I have a job and my job could support both of us. And what you’re doing artistically is way more important than the money you’re bringing in being a cashier. So I would much rather you sit at home and make comics all day because that is more important and more interesting than you having a paycheck, basically.
Jessica Abel: That’s amazing.
Spike Trotman: one of those magical support systems that people refuse to talk about having, because that that’s contrary to the fantasy of like the American bootstrapper. But 90% of people who make it, in my opinion, have a Matt of their own at home. Somebody who was shouldering the burden until what they were doing paid out. And he did that.
I say, again, this comes from a place of love. He would describe himself this way too. He is a guy who has, for all the ambition I have, Matt has zero. He has none. He has no ambition in life. And he has basically said, am happy working a job as long as I get to come home, eat whatever I want for dinner, and on the weekends run a role-playing game for my friends. That is literally all I want from life. And that means I am cool with the day job.
And I had these like guilt racked moments early in our relationship where I’m like that doesn’t feel fair that I get to sit here and try and make my dream come true and you have to go to work at an office that sucks. That would like suck my soul right out.
And he’s all like, baby, you don’t understand. I don’t care. I don’t care. There’s nothing I care about. I’m happy working at the office and then coming home and just doing whatever. It’s fine. And I really lucked out with him. He’s amazing.
Jessica Abel: Yes. Absolutely. Well send all of our love to him.
Spike Trotman: He has ridiculouslytle heart and he is incredibly kind and selfless. And every once in a while, I’ll be super weird and intense at him and he takes it like a champ. He’s great guy.
Jessica Abel: Awesome. All right, so I could talk to you for, just forever. There’s so many things I want to ask you, but we have got to wrap it up so I have some questions for you from the crowd.
So here’s one from Kenton, as someone who is also part of the, do everything yourself and learn to do everything else crowd, you have any advice on learning to trust people to do things well and letting go of control? I’m starting to reach the point where I actually truly can’t do it all, but competence feels scarce and taking the plunge is terrifying.
Spike Trotman: The best thing that I would do for that is make sure you are very specific about what you want people to do. Like Iron Circus has a flow chart in sort of our Google Drive area that has everyone’s responsibilities and what is expected of them at all times. So no one is ever wondering what they should be doing at any point.
I’m really weird and possessive about the social media too. There is a, there’s a sheet on how to run Iron Circus’s social media where I talk about the tone. I talk about how to talk as the Iron Circus account. And the Iron Circus count is always happy to see you, always excited, likes goofy puns, you know, like that kind of thing. The Iron Circus account does not get in fights. That’s my job. Just stuff like that.
And make sure there’s follow through on it. And if you’re hiring someone, for example, to say do the prepress for your books. What you want to do is you want to have a meeting with them, say, here’s the outline of your duties. Is there any questions? Is there anything you need? How would you like this done? Is there a way you’re used to working where I can help you?
And just after a trial period, make sure it’s working out. the stumbling block that I have, stepped over most often is not letting people in on what I want. Not being clear about what I want, because I’ll sit there and I’ll launch the Kickstarter and people will be like, whoa, whoa, whoa, you launched that today?
And I’m like, yeah. I mean, I decided to launch it today and they’re like, no, you have to tell us. Like, you have to tell us is a thing that had to learn. So very clear about what you want. Write a this is what your job document down and send it to them, have meetings, that sort of thing.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. defining in words what you want. Transparency basically throughout the organization, getting people to share what they’re doing. Like we do a thing on Slack where we do stand-ups at the end of the day. you Not if people aren’t working, but if they are working, there’s a channel for stand-ups where they say, here’s what I’m working on. Here’s what I’m doing next. Here’s what I’m having issues with. Can somebody help with this?
And you know, then you have this kind of, have a sense of sort of how things are flowing around. So even if you’re working with just one person you can have that kind of trade-off where it’s like, okay, what are you on now? What’s coming next?
And as a who’s learning, you know, always how to give up control, for me, it’s been so important to be able to just without asking, see what’s happening, so that I can just feel like, oh, it’s okay. It’s okay.
Spike Trotman: exactly
Jessica Abel: It’s under control. Fine.
Spike Trotman: It’s important to be clear because again, I feel that since I am the one in the managerial role who has done the hiring, it is up to me to make it super clear.
It’s kind of like, this is going to sound really gross. I’m sorry. It’s kind of like parenting sort of where it’s like, here’s a kid, the kid does something you don’t like, and you go, hey, hey, hey, we don’t do that. And you explain to them how you do want it done. If they do it again, you take them aside and go, we’ve had this talk. That’s not how I want it done. I want it done this way. Third time will be the last time. Do you understand?
It’s like, so like that’s kind of not, I’ve never had to do that with anyone. I work with adults, but like, if someone is not doing their task well enough to what I want them to do.
If the failing is on my part I have to make sure that they know what they’re supposed to be doing. Don’t just assume everyone comes in with psychic powers and knowing exactly what you want.
Jessica Abel: Yes.
Exactly. Um, okay. Second question is from Akire farting around plus working equals sustainable hard work. you say More about that, especially how to make it sustainable and productive? I think, cause I think there’s a lot of… a lot of people who try to do what you are doing, who they’d say 10 emails and then I’m going to go play a video game. They never come back.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Yeah, Um, okay. There’s this video game that I’ve been playing a lot of called Hardspace: Shipbreaker. And it’s basically, you are a demo man in space, breaking down derelict ships, spaceships and sending them into the furnace. And it sounds weird that that’s fun, but it, it is.
And it’s kind of morphed into my perfect break game because your shifts in Hardspace: Shipbreaker are 15 minutes long. And so every time I work a shift, I know 15 minutes has passed and I get to work two shifts. And that’s that’s 30 minutes. I know it’s 30 minutes because that’s how the game works.
If you find yourself taking breaks and not coming back, I would recommend not focusing on something super open-ended. Not like sitting down and reading a book and not playing Counter-Strike or something. Like something where there is a definite game is over moment that way it’s easier to sort of pull yourself away.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. And I mean, I think a lot of things that we tend to distract with are open-ended intentionally because they’re intended to keep us in there. going to Instagram or something like that
Spike Trotman: Exactly. Don’t scroll Instagram though.
Jessica Abel: Don’t scroll anything. Anything that involves scrolling don’t do it.
Spike Trotman: And
Jessica Abel: Like if it involves scrolling, that’s just a bad sign.
Spike Trotman: And if you’re, if you’re super bad about this, this is something a friend uses. I don’t use it, but, um, there are various programs that you can download and install that basically shut off your access to whatever sites you tell it to shut off your access to between the hours you established. So you can tell it don’t let me go to Twitter, Instagram, CNN.com, or Reddit between the hours of 8:00 AM and six. And it will literally not let you go to those sites. A page that you have selected will pop up, if you have that muscle memory sort of type ahead thing and try to go there, it’ll be like uh, uh , uh.
And if in emergency, you absolutely need to go there basically what it does is it makes you type out a passage of texts that’s randomly generated perfectly to unlock the ability to go do whatever. I have
Jessica Abel: Wait, which one is this? Cause I have, I mean, I’ve had a lot of people working with Freedom, but I don’t know if Freedom does that.
Spike Trotman: I think the one I’m thinking of is called Net Nanny and the thing is there are multiple things called Net Nanny but, uh, the ones my friends were using was like something like Net Nanny. And it
Jessica Abel: hilarious.
Spike Trotman: It wouldn’t let them, of course you can absolutely find ways to fuck yourself on this. Like, oh, I can’t use my desktop. I guess I’m just using my phone. You know, you can work around it if you really try, but it’s
Jessica Abel: You have to treat it as, not as parental, you know, I’m going to figure out how to screw with this, but a reminder to yourself of what you want it has to be what you want, or it’s not going to work.
Spike Trotman: And, uh, just another productivity thing, like a small productivity thing. There’s a site called mynoise.net and basically you can go on there and you can have it generate various kinds of white noise for you. You can have it generate like a waterfall, a stormy night, a busy cafe, a quiet, but not super, too quiet library, just static. And I find that helps me focus when I’m doing something where an audio book would be unsuitable, like scripting.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Good. Wait, wait, wait, are you saying you listen to audio books when you’re doing a lot of like email and stuff?
Spike Trotman: Oh yeah. I have to. I have to. I have to.
Jessica Abel: Wow. Okay.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. I got a lot going on. I just.
Jessica Abel: Because I sit in total silence. I didn’t even listen to music.
Spike Trotman: Oh, God, no. I need music. I need music. I need audio books. I need something because I feel sometimes like my brain is in two halves. I have this like, part of me that’s like, can focus on work. And then this other part that needs constant stimulation, cause, it’s it gets bored super easily.
Jessica Abel: Interesting. Yeah. No, I’m, I’m deep focused. I’m just like, you know, want anything to interrupt me.
Spike Trotman: Oh my God. Yeah. Me being interrupted is not good. If I’m kind of in the flow, if I’m writing something, if I’m drawing something, if I’m answering something, if I’m organizing something and my phone makes a noise, I have been known to actually scream at it like a stupid animal because I’m angry and I’m being interrupted.
Jessica Abel: Okay. Noted.
Okay. So, Penny asks, how long on average did it take you, take for you to gather the info necessary for your first Kickstarter compared to how long it takes you now? And I, I mean, ballpark, obviously, like how hard was it for you to do the first few versus now I think is
Spike Trotman: Oh God. It’s like Kickstarter has changed so much. It’s like refined itself and kind of become hardened in the fires of the internet. And now, quite frankly, there’s like a roadmap that a lot of people could follow on Kickstarter. 2009 Kickstarter there was no roadmap. There was no comics category.
Like I remember talking to the founders and telling them, you should add a comics category because comics is unusually well suited to Kickstarter. You’ll see what I mean. When I launched my first Kickstarter, I mean, it’s goofy as hell. If you want to go see it, I’m sure you can. Where it’s just basically with like a webcam on me just being like, hey, I want to make this book. You should help me.
And thing is like the pre-plan for it was kind of nonexistent because it was an idea I’d had for years, but I never had the money to make it. So I just got on camera and I talked about, I just want to write this book and it’s called Poorcraft and here’s what it’s like. I mean, if you’re here, you probably know I already make comics so you know, this isn’t like new to me.
And here’s the person I want to hire. And it’d be really cool and you guys should help me, okay? And like, it was the exact kind of video I recommend against these days. But like, there was no map. There was no path to follow. We were just sort of
Jessica Abel: Well, and there nothing to compare against either. There was nobody else doing something that was more convincing, you know?
Spike Trotman: Whereas now it’s like, okay, the promotion guy says we should launch on this day. And then he promised us we’ll get reviewed and, and on this site and on this blog and then this blog. Okay, we need the graphics for the Facebook campaign and the Instagram campaign. And, you know, it’s like a month’s run up right now for the big projects, for like the big beefy projects we think will bring in money.
And we built up this infrastructure where now every time I launch a Kickstarter, 40,000 people get an email. A lot of Circus’s success has been slow accrual of a fan base over a decade and is why like every project we launch it funds first day, funds first hour, funds first six hours. Like, something we earned quite frankly.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, well by consistency and showing up and being clearly who you are over over again.
Spike Trotman: Fulfilling the Kickstarter, having a vision, you know.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, definitely. Okay. So one last question. Quick one, I think. One person asks understanding contracts is rather daunting. Do you have any advice or resources or terms to watch out for it that you will share that can help small creators trying to navigate.
Spike Trotman: If you have a lot of anxiety about contracts and you do not feel equipped to negotiate on your own behalf, I would recommend finding an agent who specializes in comics, if you can. I understand that they may not necessarily be taking on new clients and this might be very difficult.
Life is kind of one long you can’t get experienced until you’re hired. You can’t get hired until your experience sort of scam and it sucks. So you might not find anyone willing to take you on, uh, if you experience
Jessica Abel: I also find a lot of agents, some agents at least, will even if they won’t take you on, if you have a contract, like you have something that needs reading, you’re not like just talking in the abstract. They sometimes will help you negotiate that contract for a fee instead you on as a client. An intellectual property lawyer will also do this where you can just pay them a fee and they will negotiate. They will go through the contract with you.
Spike Trotman: There’s that. And I was also gonna recommend, uh, there’s an organization, a vastly under utilized resource, in my opinion, called Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Lawyers for the Creative Arts work for free 100%. all you do is you go to their website, you fill out what you need to talk to somebody for.
I’ve used them before. I got an email back in two days. I went down to a law office. I met with a real deal lawyer. helped me figure a whole bunch of stuff out. And that was years and years and years ago. That wasn’t like, Iron Circus has a lawyer now. That was before I thought a lawyer was anything I would ever need.
If you get a contract from someone and you, you do not feel comfortable to go through it and suss it out. you do not feel comfortable asking people about the contract they sent you, because remember that’s always an option. A lot of people they don’t want to like tip their hand, like they don’t understand something.
No, I am always happy to explain any contract I send to anyone. When someone’s all like, what does this part mean? I’m happy to tell them. But if you do not feel comfortable doing that with whoever you’re working with take it to a Lawyer for the Creative Art. Or like you said, um, take a lawyer, maybe a friend’s recommendation of a intellectual property specializing lawyer, and have them read it for a fee. And at of day
Jessica Abel: A lot of law schools have clinics they’ll have like, you know, advanced legal students who will help with stuff. So like if you’re in a city that has a big law school, you can call them up and find out if they have that thing. So there’s, there are options for that kind of thing.
Spike Trotman: And there are lawyers who like, they salivate at the idea of defending poor little innocent artists who just don’t know no better or, you know, and that’s, that’s who Lawyers for the Creative Arts are made up of.
Jessica Abel: That sounds disgusting. Thank you.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. It’s true though.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for being here with me today. It’s been amazing.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I’d be happy to be back anytime.
Jessica Abel: Well, we will definitely try to do that.
Um, So how can people find you? Where should they look to get more of, uh, the Spike wisdom?
Spike Trotman: Sure thing. My personal Twitter, which is kind of a nightmare zone so be warned, iron_spike@twitter. The Iron Circus Comics twitter is exclusively Iron Circus Comics content. Follow that if you don’t want to follow me, I won’t be offended. I understand. spelled Iron Circus Comix with comics being C O M I X because we couldn’t fit the entire Iron Circus Comics spelled properly.
All one word, ironcircuscomix, C O M I X. on Facebook @ironcircuscomics. All one word. We are on Instagram and I am personally right now on Pillowfort. This is my personal Pillowfort, it doesn’t have anything to do with Iron Circus, @iron_spike as well.
Um, that’s where you can find my current web comic, which has no title, and it is basically about hairy Bolshevik elf-people beating each other to death. It’ll be fun.
Jessica Abel: Wow. sounds stimulating.
Spike Trotman: Yeah. Everyone follow me. Look at my stuff.
Jessica Abel: Spike, thank you so much.
Spike Trotman: Thank you. Bye everybody.
Jessica Abel: Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden. Our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden. And I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
You can find all our takeaways as well as the links and extras we mentioned today, Plus transcripts in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.
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