What: Founder and Publisher of Polis Books, an independent publishing company he launched in 2013. He is the author of five thrillers and one middle grade novel, with over one million copies in print worldwide, which have been nominated for the Thriller Award, Strand Critics Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award and more.
Where: New Jersey
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the third anniversary of Polis Books! What have you learned about the company you started over the last thirty-six months?
Well, being a business owner is far more difficult and complicated than being an editor or writer, which were my previous professions. It’s the difference between painting a room and building a house. I’ve been in dozens of editorial board meetings, publicity meetings, sales conferences, and pitched my own books in innumerable outlets, hopefully without boring people to death. But I didn’t have much more than cursory experience on the finance and distribution side, largely doing P&Ls (profit and loss projections) on acquisitions. Learning that side was the most time-consuming part, simply because I didn’t have a background in it, but I thankfully have good accountants and lawyers and am a total data geek and work very closely with our distributor, our bank, and our printing partner to make sure everything runs smoothly on the back end of the publishing equation.
Reading submissions, working on cover designs and promoting our authors is the fun part. That’s the muscle. That’s the stuff people see publically. But the other stuff, the skeleton, the support system that holds everything up, that’s been the biggest challenge but also one of the biggest rewards because I know we can do this.
Starting any new company is risky. When did you know that Polis Books would make it out of its infancy?
I really still consider Polis in its infancy. We’ve only been publishing a full print list for less than two years—our first print title came out in October 2014—so we’re still fine-tuning our processes and learning and working to perfect our sell-ins and print runs, sales kits, giving our vendors enough lead time, so a whole lot has changed from the time I announced the company to where we are now, and we’re still changing. As I’ve said every day since I decided to start Polis, I want this to be the last job I ever have. So I don’t want to ever feel like we’ve ‘made it’. I always want there to be a small part of me that worries it can fall apart at any moment, because it’ll keep me focused.
I’ve always loved books. First as a reader—I was that kid with a flashlight under his covers at night reading The Hardy Boys stories. I toyed with the idea of doing something in film, I took summer classes at UCLA, chose my college in part because it had a good film program. Then my interests shifted a bit towards publishing, which I knew nothing about.
My very first experience in publishing was an internship with a boutique literary agency while I was in college, primarily to learn the industry a little. During that time, I fell in love with the editorial process. I had done some work with the Associated Press sports division, so the agency’s owner asked me to work with one of their clients, a pretty well known sportswriter, on his new book proposal, and it was just so much fun and so satisfying that I wanted to see if I could do it as my profession. So that led to my very first job out of college, as an editorial assistant at Warner Books. I remember having to essentially write a book report/editorial letter for the interview—the book my to-be-boss picked was LONG LOST by David Morrell.
How did those publishing experiences prepare you to start Polis Books?
There are great things large publishers can do, but there were also times I felt books got lost and authors were marginalized. I recall sitting in cover meetings where we’d plow through twenty covers and, unless the book was getting major marketing support, we’d be shown a cover and somebody would go, “That’s it. Done.” And that would be the cover. The author didn’t have a chance to offer any feedback. And as an editor, it would sometimes be my job to relay decisions to authors that weren’t made out of passion, but due to time constraints, finances, or other issues. I understood it, but it was never easy. I do think a lot of that has changed, with the way bookselling has evolved and how space in bookstores has changed (so much of it now is taken up by toys and games and e-readers), lists have shrunk, but I do think more attention is being paid to the details.
So with Polis, I wanted us to give authors more input, I wanted every book we published to have that kind of personal attention. I wanted to work with authors and their agents and make sure they had influence in every aspect of the publishing process. And I wanted them to have confidence that even though I would generally have final say over most things, they could trust my judgment, because I trusted my judgment. I want our books to have the look and quality of anything published by a major house, but with the forward-thinking attitudes and nimbleness of an independent.
I think I understand the author’s mindset far better because I’ve literally been exactly where many of them are. I’ve had successes, and I’ve had failures. I’ve had things go exactly to plan, and I’ve had things blow up in my face. I’ve been incredibly happy, and I’ve wanted to jump out the window. So I knew, going in, how our authors might feel about certain things. I know, for the most part, what might make them happy. What might make them angry. What they might agree or disagree with. And if things went well—or not so well—how I could work with them to hopefully make things right. It’s not a science, and there are always things I wish could have been done better or differently, but I think it helps me as a publisher when my authors can know that I not only sympathize, but empathize with the writing life.
Tell me the acquisition story for the first book you acquired for Polis? Tell me the acquisition story for the most recent book? What has changed?
The first book we signed up was NOT EVEN PAST, the third Jackson Donne novel by Dave White, along with rights to three of his previous books. I had acquired Dave’s first two Donne novels when I was an editor with Crown/Three Rivers (Random House). I was a huge fan of his books, and we’d also become friends over the years. I knew that Dave hadn’t quite gotten a fair shake in his career. His two biggest supporter at Random House left the company before his debut, WHEN ONE MAN DIES, was even published. I was fired, and the publisher (who’d supported my acquisition) left for another company. As any author or editor knows, having those passionate supporters are irreplaceable within the company. Flash forward to 2013. I asked Dave to meet me for drinks one night, told him all about my plans for Polis, and I’m pretty sure we hashed out the details for us to publish him over a few rounds of beers. And in February 2017 we’ll be publishing the fifth Donne novel, BLIND TO SIN.
Our most recent acquisition came about very differently. I read deal reports and international publishing news religiously, and a couple of months ago I’d read about a debut novel by a writer based in the UK that had sold internationally, and which sounded fantastic. I reached out to the agent and was happy to learn that North American rights were still available. She sent over the manuscript, I loved it, and made an offer. And after a few weeks of negotiating, we came to terms to publish DARK CHAPTER, the debut novel by Winnie M. Li, which will be our lead title in September 2017.
What kinds of books and authors do you sign with Polis?
Right now we’re only publishing fiction. Other than that, I’m open to just about anything (other than children’s picture books and poetry, primarily because those are areas I’m simply not as familiar with). I’m constantly looking to expand what we do. We’ve been very genre-fiction focused, but I am looking for more works that straddle the commercial/literary divide.
If you could choose one author—living or dead—that you could sign to Polis tomorrow, who would it be?
J.K. Rowling. There are bigger Harry Potter fans than I am, but when I see how she got millions of people, and many reluctant readers, to discover the love of books, how her stories became literal cultural events (how often have books done that??), and how many lives she’s changed, as a publisher I feel like she’s someone you’d just have an incredible sense of pride to work with, knowing that your author was truly making a difference. Runners up: Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Zadie Smith, Terry Brooks.
Well, truthfully, we get so many unagented submissions that I would urge authors to submit their work through an agent. We’re still a small independent, and if I read all the unsolicited submissions I received, we would go out of business within the month. We have signed up authors without agents, but they’re few and far between and they’re almost all folks I either knew personally or had heard good things about through the industry. So I’d say if you’re unagented and want to submit, go out of your way to say hello at a conference or an event. It always helps to put a face to a name.
Once you’re ready to submit, either with or without an agent, make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible, make sure your query is professional (it irks me when someone I’ve never met starts a query with “Hey Jason”), and say why you think Polis might be a good fit for your book. I’m sure there’s some real talent in my slush inbox, so do what you can to make me more likely to read your book—and enjoy it.
- Benjamin Whitmer
- Joe Clifford
- Ryan Gattis
- Dharma Kelleher
- Bryon Quertermous
- Sarah M. Chen
- Glen Erik Hamilton
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in Sept. 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.