New York Times best-selling author John Perry was born in Greensburg, Kentucky, and raised in Houston, TX, 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.
John Perry began his professional career as an advertising copywriter and radio producer in Houston. Later, his interest in music took him to Nashville, TN 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 John 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.
Why did you decide to create your own business?
I wanted the freedom to choose my own clients, to have more flexible time, to make money for myself rather than somebody else and most of all, to not be responsible for things I can’t control, which is a frequent problem when someone else is calling the shots.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
Communication is one of the most important skills human beings have. It’s how we share ideas, how we express our opinions and emotions. Being able to express yourself well – and to also help somebody else express themselves well – is a wonderfully useful and satisfying pursuit. Using that gift of expression, either for myself or for someone else, is what I love the most.
What keeps you motivated?
Two things. One is the quest for excellence. I always want to make my next book better than the last. I want to be a better writer, a better craftsman, to reach more people with a compelling, entertaining, inspiring message.
Second, I love helping other people tell their stories. As a ghost writer I have to become a chameleon. I have to speak with somebody else’s voice. That’s a real challenge, but I’ve written for everyone from fitness instructors to heroin dealers to captains of industry to politicians to millionaire socialites. Trying on those different voices, telling someone else’s story in their own words, is incredibly exciting and satisfying.
How do you motivate others?
The world is a tough place and a lot of people have a hard time getting through life. You can’t just be a Pollyanna and dish out empty praise, but giving sincere encouragement to people is an important thing to do. I think I have that gift, to find out what people are good at and what their weak places are, and encourage them to get through the day, or succeed with a project they’re working on, or overcome a problem with their business.
How has your company grown from its early days to now?
Word of mouth is the best advertising there is. I had a website for years, and I’ve had an agent off and on throughout my career, but the vast majority of my business has come from word-of mouth recommendations. Happy clients bring me more happy clients.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
Years ago I had a boss named Berkley Cooke who was a great leader. He was terrific at taking what he had to work with and making the best of it. He had people, a budget, a business to run, goals to achieve, and he had to show a profit. He was very successful and yet he was very kind and fair. He proved to me that you can run a business and still be a nice guy.
As a writer, I’d say my role model is David McCullough. He makes history come alive. History can seem boring, but it shouldn’t. History has all the drama and passion of the human experience, and it should be fascinating. David McCullough makes history breathe. He makes it read like a best-selling novel. I admire him so much for that, and I want to write more like he does.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I have to decide what’s important. Early in my career, I was willing to work long hours and holidays and postpone vacations for the good of the cause, and I learned that it didn’t win me anything. Your employers aren’t going to love you when you’re old. They don’t even love you now, they just want you to perform for them. At the end of their lives no one ever looks back and wishes they’d spent more time at the office.
What traits do you possess that makes a successful leader?
Being able to see an issue from other people’s point of view. Being able to make a plan and stick to it while being flexible to look for unexpected opportunities. Also, having self-confidence is important. You need to be sure of yourself, bold, and unafraid to try things.
What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?
First of all, have realistic expectations. There are a lot of people out there who want to be writers but not many people make it. The second suggestion is to be nice and respectful to people. This should be obvious, but when writers are starting out they can be really defensive if people criticize their work. Criticism is helpful. It’s not the same as criticizing you as a person. You must be willing to take criticism if you want to get better and make friends in the business. Third, the most important thing is to never give up. Keep at it. You’re going to get a lot of rejections. Stephen King’s first book was turned down by 30 publishers. John Grisham was turned down by more than a dozen publishers. He had to self-publish his first book and his local paper wouldn’t even publish a review of it. He couldn’t give it away. There are so many stories like this.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
I’d say my biggest accomplishment is being able to earn a living doing what I love. When I was in college, I got to go visit an ad agency. They had world-class clients like American Airlines, Minolta and Jaguar. I remember meeting a copywriter named Skip who wore a bowtie; I thought he had to have the best job in the world. I got my first job in advertising and worked up two or three positions, and one day I got a call from that agency. Skip had taken a job somewhere else and they recruited me to take his place. What a dream come true!
And then being able to earn a living as an author. So many people want to do it, but not many succeed. I have worked hard and there’s a certain amount of talent and skill involved, but I’ve been very fortunate to have help and encouragement from others – and support from readers — to build a career that’s lasted more than 20 years.
Explain the proudest day of your professional life.
One of my first books was a biography of Sgt. Alvin York, a Medal of Honor recipient who was famous back in the 20s and 30s. There was an Oscar-winning film made about him starring Gary Cooper. York had three children still living when I wrote the book, and they were all in their eighties. They had read the manuscript and we were meeting to see if they had any changes to make. One of them looked up with tears running down his cheeks and said, “Finally the world will know what my daddy was really like.” As a biographer you can’t ask for more than that.
Another moment was completely different: I got a call from an NBA star who was looking for a ghost writer to help with his autobiographical memoir. I flew to Texas to meet with him, went to his house, and went to dinner. On my way back from that meeting, I was at the Memphis airport when my agent called and said Letters to God is on the New York Times best seller list. It was quite a day!