Interview with Ken Johnson (Heritage House Books LLC)

Heritage House Books LLC Artwork

How many manuscripts do you accept each month on average?
Right now, we are just starting out. We presently have three manuscripts approved and two more on the way.

Do any of the accepted manuscripts not move on to publishing?
Again, we are new so this is not an issue. With that said, publishing is very expensive. Many authors do not fully realize how much it costs to publish a book, market it, and manage the financials. So, for the benefit of the author, as well as our own self-interests, we would never accept a manuscript and then not publish it.

If the above is true, is there a regular percentage that doesn’t move on and, generally, why don’t they get published?

What kind of genres etc are hot in the industry at large right now?
With over 3 million books being published each year, the better question to ask is what’s not hot! Of course, that number only talks about production. As we all know, production is not an indicator of sales. The truth is, most new titles will not sell 1,000 copies in the first five years they are out. We require 1,000 copies sold the first year just so we can break even on our investment. Ultimately, it is the marketing plan, and not so much the genre, which determines if a book will be a viable title. 

Do you occasionally take a chance on a submission even if it’s not from a genre you typical publish, and depending on your answer, why?
Every book title is a gamble. Think about it, a book can cost a publisher $4,000 to $10,000 before it ever reaches the market. 

One definition of a micro-publisher is a company producing under 25 new titles a year. Being a micro-publisher, it doesn’t take too many poor gambles before you are out of business. One sure fire way for a publisher to fail is by venturing too far out of their wheelhouse. Publishers need a built-in infrastructure for handling a finite number of genres. Take on too many and you end up doing a disservice to the author, your readers, your other published authors, and your company. 

Broadly speaking what are you looking for as a publisher?
A well written manuscript meeting our core hallmarks, an author with a substantial marketing platform, preferably a seasoned author who knows the business, and an innovative marketing plan that is logical and doable.

How much will you read before deciding on a submitted manuscript?
We require a manuscript treatment before we’ll even contemplate a manuscript. Briefly stated, a manuscript treatment is a cover letter, author CV, marketing plan, synopsis, table of contents, and two chapters (being neither the introduction, first chapter, or last chapter). Most submissions will never pass this stage. After this round, if a full manuscript is asked for, we will read the entirety of it before deciding to issue a contract.

Also what is more important, a query letter or the manuscript itself?
The manuscript treatment is the most important element for us. If you fail at this stage, there is really no need for us to move forward.

What are the issues facing traditional publishers right now?
I think a huge problem right now publishers are facing is with the unrealistic demands of bookstores and distributors. With Baker and Taylor exiting the marketplace, and numerous publishers going out of business, this should serve as canaries in a mine for the industry. Instead, the madness is being turned up rather than dialed down. 

For example, instead of a 40% discount on books, the industry standard is moving more and more to 60% or higher wholesale discount. Of that amount, only a portion is passed along to retailers while the distributor keeps a significant portion. For larger publishers, they are also charged additional annual fees just to have a distributor. Additionally, industry standards are that all titles have to be fully returnable which means, in say six months time, the retailer can send the books back to the distributor for a refund, the distributor charges the publisher an extra fee plus shipping, the books sent back are often times in a state where they cannot be resold, and the publisher ends up potentially losing cost plus the extra fees and shipping. No other business works with such crazy industry standards! 

If that sounds crazy to you, we were just talking about the American market. Today’s publisher must also know the publishing practices and costs in various countries overseas. For example, Australia just changed-up their printing practices. So, if you do not re-evaluate your pricing, there is a chance a publisher can actually lose money on each new sale in Australia. 

Then, there are the growing legal issues of piracy and court cases. With electronic files being used for book reviews, it is common for thieves to pose as bloggers. They then sell, or worse giveaway, copies of the books so that neither authors or publishers make a dime. What little money is made often times needs to be saved in the event of lawsuits. For example, let’s say you have an author quote someone’s published work. If they do not get that person’s permission, even though they cited them, there is potential for a legal suit. People and businesses often see “deep pockets” and “big money” with books and therefore file frivolous cases. While the lion’s share of these cases are put down, it still saps profit and time while the winners create turbulent new case law for the industry while also sapping even more money away in fines and penalties.

We need more innovative distributors in the market which can meet needs while allowing a more favorable wholesale discount for publishers to make a profit. Indie bookstores need to consider working directly with publishers doing a 30% to 40% wholesale discount plus shipping. Returns policies also should be addressed where unsellable books (i.e., books with rips, writing, faded covers, or other marks) cannot be returned to distributors/publishers for a refund.

Can you explain the process of publishing to me from start to finish?
This is almost like asking NASA how to send up a rocket into space. My answer, no matter how detailed, would never do justice to the process. Moreover, no two publishers necessarily use the same process or the same order.

In simplest terms, when we are ready to invest in new titles, we’ll publicize that we’re open for submissions. Some companies require a third-party agent to act on behalf of the author but we do not. The author, or agent, contacts us with a title treatment meeting our stated requirements. We take a few weeks to a few months, to review the submissions. If we like what we see, we’ll then ask for the full manuscript. Again, another a few weeks to a few months, may go by as we look at sales options, plans, marketing, costs, projected figures, market trends, etc. If everything lines up, we’ll issue a contract. Today, most authors are getting contracts that vary from 5% to 25% in royalties and also offer anywhere from 20% to 40% in discounts for book purchases. We try to give authors more in royalties and book discounts since the author must do most of the marketing work.

Once the contract is signed, we send the manuscript to a grammar editor, then a content editor, and sometimes even to special editors for other considerations. While this is going on, we are also contacting the Library of Congress for a control number, getting ISBN numbers assigned, having PCIP and MARC data assigned, gathering information for the metadata, contacting cover designers for initial and final cover design proofs, contacting printers, and implementing the early stages of the marketing plan. A lot of author contact goes on during this time as well. 

Provided everything goes well, we setup our pre-launch protocols. This might include sending out review copies to book review agencies, having the author do special promotions, having a well-known person in the foreword do some special promotions, etc. We’ll enter the book with the distributor(s) along with the metadata. A published copy has to be sent to the Library of Congress while two more copies have to be sent, along with a paid application, to the Copyright Office. Depending on the nature of the book, we may hire a company to sell books for us. Other times, we may market the books to niche markets as giftbooks, texts, etc. We’ll also place an order with the printer for regular, presale, and author inventory stores.

Once the book goes live, it really is up to the author to carry out the marketing plan submitted to us in the manuscript treatment. The author has a year to sell 1,000 copies. We suggest entering numerous book awards and face-to-face sales. We offer a speakers bureau service where organizations can contact us directly and we’ll send an author to speak at an event. Paid speaking engagements is something we highly encourage authors to do. We charge a small fee if we book the speaking engagements and the author is always free to do their own bookings. Since most venues want speeches in a TEDx style, we highly recommend authors to have professional-looking video snippets of them speaking to an audience in a TEDx format.

Every quarter, a royalty check is submitted to the author along with a sales report. At the end of the year, we evaluate established benchmarks. If the author has sold well over the required amount, we might consider publishing additional titles. If the author has failed to meet benchmarks, we’ll look at the severity of the breach of contract as well as remedies. The author might be asked to buy out their contract. Other times, we might give them time since they are close to meeting the benchmark. There will be times when both the author and the publisher get it wrong and the book was just a dud. It happens! So, we may find a remedy and move on to the next title. In other words, we demand the 1,000 minimum be hit, but that may not alone be a big enough infraction that we’d just terminate the contract and/or refuse to publish future titles.

Heritage House Books was founded by an author with authors in mind. While we must conform to certain industry standards, our primary goal is to grow the authors we take on. We require much because much is demanded by the marketplace. However, we feel this stress tempers the authors and makes them better in the long run.  We may not agree with what the author has to say. Our job is not to censor but rather to elevate that voice. We want their work to become a source of pride and identity not only for the author but also for their family and community. We truly are trying to create a heritage by elevating the art of the written word back to its former glory. 

Is there a best (or better) time of year to submit to a publisher?
A good publisher will open and close submissions based upon their availability. Too much is demanded upon authors already. 

Good publishers will use industry standards to their advantage. For example, let’s say we open submissions in June, sign an author, and the release date is in September. Industry standards allow us to put the following year’s date down for the copyright while we are able to sell it this year. Typically, any book published after August is giving the following year’s copyright. 

Another thing a good publisher will do is facilitate a marketing plan concerning book award programs. For instance, most book award programs now only deal in electronic files rather than actual printed copies of the book. So, if there is a looming deadline, and the book is at a stage a PDF can be sent, it is common practice for a book to be entered into a contest even though its release date may be weeks to months after the entry deadline closes. 

Is it better to have an agent? And do you have any tips for finding an agent?
We do not use agents and frankly do not think most authors need an agent. That is just another person taking money from your royalties. However, if you want to be a New York Times best-selling author, you will need an agent to get to the big publishers. After having met many New York Times best-selling authors, they all seem to switch publishers frequently and they all have day jobs. The Hollywood myth of just writing for a living is just that…a myth. Even professional authors have paid speaking gigs, and other aspects of an overall authorpreneur business, which ironically is seldom talked about in public, or even industry-specific, circles.

What are some tried and true methods of advertising and promoting that you can suggest to an author?
The most tried and true promoting is face-to-face marketing, sales through public speeches, and niche marketing. Social media sales are nothing more than a time suck. In what time it takes you to sell 50 ebooks on Amazon, you can easily sell 500 to 1,000 printed books via face-to-face sales and public speaking gigs. 

Book awards can help to increase sales by as much as triple. So, we highly suggest entering a book in as many contests as you can afford. On average, expect to pay anywhere from $95 to $250 to enter your book into a single category and about $75 to $200 for each additional category. Typically, you will want to enter your book into no more than three categories per award program.

Know your niche market well. Have a polished one-minute sales pitch (commonly referred to as an elevator pitch) you can recite by heart. Don’t rely on bookstores and others to sell your books. Others don’t have a vested interest like the author does. Strive to seek out as many radio and television interviews as possible since this is free, built-in marketing. Never go anywhere without a few copies on hand. 

Finally, once published, start a new marketing plan, and write your next book with that marketing plan in mind. Let’s say your characters eat at a café, name that real place in the book so you can then go back to them and give them a free copy to review. Often times, if you treated them with respect in the book, and ask nicely, they will sell your book in their store. 

The key to book sales is to be where other authors’ works are not around. A potential reader is over a thousand times more likely to buy your book if it is the only sales option available.


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