On Friday night, bestselling author Steve Berry told a crowd at the Hoover Public Library the secrets of what it takes to sell 25 million books in 52 countries – patience, perseverance, discipline and a bit of fortune.
Berry, a regular on the New York Times, USA Today and Indie bestseller lists who has written 21 novels and 11 e-book originals, was the keynote speaker at the 2022 Southern Voices Festival at Hoover.
But fame and fortune didn’t come quickly or easily for Berry, he told a crowd of around 150 at the Hoover Library Theater on Friday night.
Berry, who was previously a lawyer by trade, first decided to write a novel in 1990. Over the next 12 years, he wrote eight manuscripts, he said. The first three were long and awful, and then after finding an agent, he had the next five manuscripts rejected 85 times by all 17 New York publishing houses, he said.
One of his big problems was that he wrote novels of action, history, secrets and conspiracies, which at one time were called spy novels, he said.
In 1990, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.
“The whole spy novel genre is dead,” he said. “In the mid-1990s, there were no more. By 2000 he was dead, buried and degrading and forgotten.
But in May 2002, Ballantine Books bought the rights to “The Amber Room”, Berry’s first novel to be published.
Around the same time, a little-known author named Dan Brown hit the jackpot with a novel called “The Da Vinci Code,” which became an international bestseller.
Brown gave Berry an introductory review of her book, saying “The Amber Room” was “my kind of thriller – a worldwide scavenger hunt filled with exotic locations, lavish art, and ruthless villains” and said “Berry writes with the confident self-style of a veteran.
Berry said he was able to ride Brown’s ponytails, got better with his next two novels, and had his own hit with “The Templar Legacy.” It was the first of 16 novels featuring a character named Cotton Malone, a retired American spy who was called back to the world of the cloak and the dagger.
“Since then, it’s kind of grown and grown and grown,” Berry said. “It’s just amazing. You have to pinch yourself the whole time it can happen. I really don’t know anything about writing, but I’m a world-class rejection expert. But I didn’t give up. I stayed.
DISCIPLINE AND COHERENCE
Berry also learned to be disciplined with his writing. Even when he received rejections, Berry said he tried to keep writing 1,000 words a day. When he was still working as a lawyer, he came to the office early and wrote from 6:30 to 9 a.m. before the others arrived.
Still to this day, he tries to spend about six hours each weekday writing at least 1,000 words, and he does research in the afternoons. Writing on weekends is optional, he said.
He must remain diligent as he is contracted to publish a book every year, he said. When he’s about halfway through a book, he begins his research for the next one, he said.
Because his novels are very story-based, he typically uses researching 300 to 400 books to write each novel, he said. About 90% of his novels are based on real history, he said.
“I keep my books as close to reality as possible,” he said. But “I have to trip them up because it’s a novel.”
He usually includes a writer’s note at the end of the novel to explain any historical inaccuracies, but he warned audiences Friday night not to read the notes before reading the books.
Berry recently moved from Macmillan Publishers to Grand Central Publishing and with the change takes a year-long hiatus from his Cotton Malone character and introduces a new character called Nicholas Lee, a United Nations investigator whose job it is to protect the cultural artifacts of the world. .
“I hope people like it,” Berry said. “He’s different from Cotton, but he’s the same.”
Berry’s next book, titled “The Omega Factor,” is due out June 7. It still contains the action, story, secrets and conspiracies, but with different characters, backgrounds and motivations, he said.
But Cotton Malone fans shouldn’t worry, Berry said. It does not go away; he’s just on vacation. More books with Malone are in the works, Berry said.
VOICE IN YOUR HEAD
When asked why he writes, Berry replied that he does it because he has to.
“The reason you have to do it is that little voice in your head,” he said. “If you sit down and write every day, the little voice will be silent, and if you don’t, it will harass you to death.”
Berry said he ignored that voice in his head for 10 years, but finally gave in. He also used writing to escape his job as a lawyer, where he handled issues in 10,000 divorce and criminal defense cases, he said.
Writers are born with that voice in their head, but they’re not born as writers, Berry said. “You have to learn the trade,” he says. “Writing is difficult. It is actually difficult.
Berry spoke for approximately 15 minutes with general remarks Friday evening. He then spent another 40 minutes answering questions from the audience, saying he preferred to talk about things that interested them.
Audience members have asked him about things like where his love for the story came from (his dad and the Hardy Boys books are where it all started), how he comes up with a plot, why he changed publishers and agents, how much he travels for research and how he works with co-authors.
An audience member asked him if his legal training had helped him as a writer, and Berry was quick to say no.
“As lawyers, we are taught to write a certain way – to say something over and over and over until it’s true or at least until I convince you it’s true. “, did he declare. “In fiction, it’s the kiss of death. The object of legal writing is to persuade you. The object of writing fiction is to entertain you. … It took me about six years to remove legal writing from my writing.
Greg and Beth Smith, two Opelika audience members, said they originally bought tickets to see Berry when he was to be the keynote speaker for Southern Voices in 2018, but just caught the flu before the festival and had to cancel his appearance.
So when they learned it was scheduled again this year, they jumped at the chance to hear it.
Greg Smith, who said he turned to Berry around 2010 and has since read all of his books, said his Friday night speech was fantastic.
“It’s amazing how it only takes a year [to write a book]”Smith said. “It would take me four years.”
Lanier Isom, a Mountain Brook writer who co-wrote a biography and memoir on Lilly Ledbetter, said she also thought Berry’s speech was fabulous.
“He wrote eight manuscripts in 12 years and never gave up and kept writing because of that voice in his head,” Isom said. “As a writer, I understand that.”
She also appreciates his comments about writing being a discipline but also having a certain serendipity to it, she said. “There’s also magic you can’t make,” she said.
The Southern Voices Festival continues Saturday with six more award-winning authors speaking at the Hoover Library Theater from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Among the lineup are Jason Mott (who won the National Book Award for fiction in November), Jennifer Egan, Rachel Hawkins, Signe Pike, Peter Swanson and Kevin Wilson.
The only snag in the lineup is that Swanson has been stranded in Boston due to a snowstorm and will have to make an appearance via Zoom, said festival president Carrie Steinmehl.
This will be the first time an author has spoken via video conference at Southern Voices, she said.
Learn more about each of these authors here.