New York Times best-selling author John Perry was born in Greensburg, Kentucky, and raised in Houston, Texas, where he excelled in athletics, academics, and creative pursuits. He served in the Army after which he attended Vanderbilt University, graduating cum laude with a BA in English and a minor in piano. Perry also attended University College, Oxford, England.
Perry began his professional career as an advertising copywriter and radio producer in Houston. Later, his interest in music took him to Nashville where he co-founded American Network Radio Productions, which put him in the circle of the era’s biggest country music stars.
His career in writing began very simply: A book publisher asked him to write the jacket copy for books he was helping to promote. Impressed with his wordsmithing, the publisher invited him to ghostwrite a foreword. This was the seed for Perry’s burgeoning interest in becoming a working author. He has since written biographies of historical figures including Sergeant Alvin York, Booker T. Washington, and Winston Churchill. His co-authored novel Letters to God debuted at #7 on The New York Times Best Seller list.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
After working for other people and clients, the idea of being independent and being able to follow ideas that interested me was very compelling. The biggest downside of working for somebody else is that you end up being responsible for things you can’t control. This is what causes heart attacks. If you’re on your own, you can choose your clients and you can grow in any direction you want. Creative freedom and being able to manage my time as I see fit are other appealing benefits of having my own business.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I have two different kinds of days: Research days and writing days.
For research, it depends on what kind of research I’m going to do. If I’m going to an archive or a library or some other source of written information, I get there when they open and stay until they close. A lot of archives are not open long hours and you have to take advantage of every moment. I’m as well prepared as possible so that I know where to look and what to look for. If I’m interviewing someone, I read all I can about them that has been previously published in articles or interviews so that I don’t ask them questions they’ve already answered. My goal is to get new information. Another objective when I am researching is to be on the lookout for unexpected sources. Some of the best and most compelling information I’ve ever found in research is from material I was not looking for. It is like a treasure hunt and that’s what makes research exciting.
My writing days are more structured. The keys are to be relaxed, to concentrate, and let the words flow. Also, write a lot, because the more you write the more selective you can be. I throw away a lot of junk, but that’s how I finally get to the good stuff. The more I write, the better the final product is. I typically write for two or three hours in the morning, then take a nice lunch break, do errands, play the piano, and sometimes sneak in a short power nap. In the afternoon I have another writing session that’s longer, maybe three or four hours. Sometimes if I am on a hot streak, I will write for longer.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The way to bring ideas idea is to let them flower. To consider everything and let the ideas come out, then to shape them based on your experience of what works. Most important of all is to keep pushing and developing your ideas. The difference between good and great writing is that with good writing you quit too soon. With great writing you push beyond the obvious, the easy, and the expected, and you find those wonderful expressions that will excite, entertain, encourage and inspire the reader. You will not find those if you stop after the first decent thing you write. Keep on pushing.
What’s one trend that excites you?
In my field, the trend that excites me right now is high-quality self-publishing. When self-publishing first came along, the books looked crappy (poorly designed, cheaply produced) and they had no distribution. There were exceptions, but most self-published books kind of died on the vine. Now there are companies that can help you produce, design, print, market, and distribute a book on your own that’s practically indistinguishable from a book from one of the major publishing houses. It’s really a boon to people who want to publish their own books and want something that looks professional and has wide retail distribution. That’s available now and just a few years ago it really wasn’t.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
It’s hard to pick one, but being an attentive listener is extremely valuable. I never learned anything with my mouth open. The way you learn is by listening and reading and trying to pull things together and connect the dots. During interviews I ask people about topics they are clearly interested in. I never simply run down a list. I want people to be excited about what they’re saying because that excitement comes through in the final manuscript. Being a good listener might sound like I’m oversimplifying, but it has helped me with my work in many different ways.
What advice would you give your younger self?
How much time you got? There’s a long, long list, but there are three items I would highlight.
Number one: Do not be afraid to think outside the box. When I was young, I was always working under pressure: Time pressure, tight budgets, demanding bosses, grumpy clients. These were all reasons why I felt I should confine my ideas to a certain place. I shouldn’t have done that. Don’t be afraid to suggest something crazy, because a lot of great ideas start out with some crazy concept.
The next thing is to take care of yourself because nobody else will. When I was just starting out, I worked myself to death, and nobody cared. They just wanted to get the most out of me for the least amount of money, and I really felt bad later on that I had let myself be whipped the way I had just because I wanted to please, wanted to succeed, wanted to be good at what I did and get those “attaboys.” I feel like I should have paid more attention to my health and well-being and my personal relationships.
The third point I would make is that I was hesitant to toot my own horn. I thought if you do good work and you’re a nice guy, the cream will rise to the surface and you’ll get the recognition you deserve. While that is all true, I should have promoted myself more. I should have been more aggressive and more upfront talking about my ideas and my success and been more self-promotional.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
In writing books, the modern computer and internet technology are way overrated. They don’t help anybody write a better book. That’s proven by the fact that if you compare the quality of books in print today with the books that came out ten or 50 or 100 years ago, you get about the same number of great books but a lot more bad books. Today’s digital world makes it easier for people to publish, but great books still come from inspired ideas, careful and thoughtful writing, creativity, art, and magic. I write a book the same way Charles Dickens wrote his: I sit down at my desk and stare out the window. There are no shortcuts to great writing. I have had people come to me and say, “Can we write a book over a long weekend?” No, you can’t.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Steal from the best. I look carefully at books that I admire to see how their authors did what they did and how I can improve my own writing. Read lots of books and figure out what makes the best of them tick, then see how you can adapt those attributes to your own writing style.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I go after projects that I know I can enjoy, projects I can put everything into because I have a passion for them. I made the mistake at times of taking on projects that didn’t appeal to me but would be easy money. They always turned out okay, but the great work that improves my reputation and gets me new business comes from writing on subjects I’m genuinely enthusiastic about. I have to be strong enough to pass on projects I’m not honestly interested in.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I had a little boutique advertising agency that I expected to grow and do great work, but it turned out that at that time in Nashville a lot of the big advertising clients began moving out of town. The only people making a living in advertising in Nashville were businesses that had out-of-town clients, or small agencies and freelancers that could scamper around and get a bunch of little clients to make things work. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to continue with my plan to keep an ad agency going. That’s when I began to pivot into book writing and collaboration. I failed as an ad agency president, but it ended up for the best because I succeeded as an author and I wouldn’t ever have tried that if I had made it in the ad business.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I thought this was an original idea with me, but it turns out that it’s not. But here’s the idea: Personal biographies or autobiographies, written at a high professional level, that allow clients to share their life story in their own words and shape their legacy for friends and family. It started with a friend asking me to help him write his autobiography, not to be published necessarily, but something we’d print 50 copies of for his children, grandchildren, business colleagues, and others who knew him. Everybody has a story to tell, and his was fascinating. He was one of the first ever Navy pilots to land a jet on an aircraft carrier during the Cold War. He and his brother built an airplane in their garage and flew it. He designed and built his own boat and sailed it from New York to Paris. Not everybody’s life is that unusual, but every life is precious and worth documenting. I can do two or three of these a year and am accepting new clients now.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Driving home from recent a trip, I stopped at a Russell Stover factory outlet and bought $100 worth of chocolate to give as Christmas gifts. That’s a lot of chocolate, especially when it’s discounted at the factory. But I thought of all the people that I could make happy with it. At crazy times like these we all can take comfort in simple pleasures, and there’s not much that is simpler or more pleasant that chocolate.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
It’s a service called Newspapers.com. For a monthly fee, it gives you access to lots of newspapers from around the country and it makes it easy to go through newspapers and find articles about a topic that you’re interested in. You can’t depend on the internet solely as a source, but this is an excellent starting point. Just remember there will be a lot more stories that are not on the website.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
There’s so much discord in our country these days about politics and the election. I recently happened to be reading The Federalist Papers which were written by Alexander Hamilton and other Founding Fathers. If you read this book, you understand how careful the people that founded our nation were when they put the pieces together, why they have the Electoral College, and how the checks and balances work. It would be so helpful in today’s discussion for people to see how our government’s checks and balances came to be, why people did what they did, and why what we had before didn’t work.
Another thought-provoking book is Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger. It’s about global warming. Whatever you think about the subject, it’s worthwhile to explore all sides of the debate. His book is very interesting and whether you like it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. It’s a fascinating book.
What is your favorite quote?
It’s a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…”
• Nothing takes the place of research and preparedness.
• The internet is a good aid for research, but not the last word.
• Steal from the best.
• Choose projects you will enjoy doing.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.