Into the Abyss (Or: So You Want to Start a Publishing Company)

By Jason Pinter

It’s dark inside your bedroom. You squint and reach for your glasses on the nightstand, struggling to put them on to get a sense of what time it is. You read the alarm, grimace; it’s still early. Your wife sleeps peacefully next to you. You don’t want to disturb her, so you gently unhook your cell phone from its charger to check your email. The messages come roaring in like an unstoppable flood. Your heart hammers in your chest. It’s still early in the morning, but you’re already worrying that the upcoming day is too short, that you’ll never have enough time to get all your work done, that too many of these emails will go unanswered, that the train will derail, leaving figurative bodies everywhere as you stand by the tracks screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween.” Oh, and did I mention it’s a Sunday? No, this is not the beginning of a horror movie, but what life is like pretty much every day when you’re running a startup company in an industry that has been declared dead at least fifty times a year for the past century. 

2015 marks my 13th year in the publishing industry. Funny to think about that, since at 35 years old I’d be ready to retire from professional tennis, but 35 means you’re still pretty much an industry newbie. But when you’ve hit the baker’s dozen, it does seem like a long time. You’re expected to have an air of professionalism, to have answers to just about everything. But even through over 13 years, with positions at several major publishing companies and some larger independents, starting a new company is still like saying, “I’ve played ping pong before, now I’m going to try playing tennis in space. How different can they be?”

I love the show “Shark Tank.” I can binge-watch old episodes and marvel at the invention and innovation (or lack thereof). And every time I hear one of the sharks exclaim, “You created something out of nothing!” I shout back at the television, “Hey, I did that too!” Because Polis Books was created from nothing. Two years ago, this company was a URL, nothing more. We had published no books, signed up merely a handful of authors, and I was literally creating for myself the last job I ever hoped to have.

Fortunately, 10+ years in the industry had earned me something of a reputation for knowing what I was doing. The Polis Books launch announcement garnered strong press in the trades. Almost immediately following the announcement I was approached by several large distribution companies interested in working with us. So not only did I think I knew what I was doing, but other people were willing to place a financial stake in it.  I wanted to run my own firm, to be the final word in what we acquired, when we published it, and how we designed and marketed it. So much so that, less than a year into Polis Books, I turned down an outside investor in order to retain complete editorial and financial control over our future.

I’d spent 10 years in editorial, acquisitions, marketing and writing my own books, so I was reasonably confident that I would be able to find talented authors, sign them, edit their books and promote them. We would offer advances—modest, since we were a self-funded startup, but it would differentiate us from many of the digital newbies in the market. And with first-rate distribution in place through Publishers Group West, we’d be able to get their books in front of readers.

Now, as much as I love crime fiction, I didn’t want Polis Books to be a one-trick pony. I felt that if we only published crime, our books would compete against each other for attention, not to mention the dozens and dozens of other books in the genre released each month. That’s why it was important to publish books outside of crime, and why we’ve developed a program that includes Young Adult, Middle Grade, science fiction, commercial women’s fiction (I hate that phrase), romance, commercial literary, and more.

The original plan was for Polis Books to remain a digital-only company for 24-36 months, focusing on digital originals and reissues. But within a few months, we’d signed up so many talented writers, including some with decent print sales track records and awards under their belt, that we felt our potential was limited by sticking to digital. So we expanded into print publishing and distribution rather quickly, with our first hardcover title released in the fall of 2014 just 11 months in, a fantastic superhero novel for young readers that School Library Journal said would appeal to fans of Harry Potter. Yeah. Not a bad start.

Moving into print publication and distribution allowed us to pursue books we might not have had a chance to sign otherwise. It enabled us to make aggressive strides to sign authors with strong sales and critical acclaim who were looking for a fresh start, more personal attention, or wanted to write outside their proven genre.

In less than two years since the publication of our first title, Polis Books has over 75 books under contract in numerous genres. Our revenues are projected to increase over 3,000% between 2014 and 2016. I’m happy to keep Polis at a modest size for now, publishing 3-4 frontlist titles per month with assorted backlist digital reissues, until the time comes to take the company to the next level. But I don’t think I’ll ever wake up in the morning without that frantic heartbeat, that fear that there’s simply too much to get done in the scant 24 hours allotted in a given day. But here’s the truth: I like that fear. It drives me.  If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing you care about, and this company is my heart and soul. So bring on the night sweats, the midnight emails, and the irony of being someone who, in his heart, is an introvert in a position where you must be an extrovert. Give me the anxiety and discomfort. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jason Pinter is the Founder and Publisher of Polis Books, which was launched in 2013. They publish some of the best independent crime fiction around, and their roster includes Jason Starr, J.D. Rhoades, Grant McKenzie, Patricia Abbott, Casey Doran, Rob Hart, Zachary Klein, and more. Jason was named an inaugural Star Watch honoree by Publishers Weekly which “recognizes young publishing professionals who have distinguished themselves as future leaders of the industry.” He is also the author of six novels—five thrillers and one Middle Grade novel—which have over 1.2 million copies in print worldwide and have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Thriller Award. Visit Polis Books online at www.PolisBooks.com, Facebook.com/PolisBooks and @PolisBooks. Follow Jason at @JasonPinter.

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Comments

  1. Jenny Milchman

    “If you have nothing to fear, you have nothing you care about.” Spoken like a Jason Pinter hero–and a hero to writers everywhere, I suspect. Thanks for sharing your dazzling experiences so far, and may Polis Books only ascend.

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