When Steve Berry and his debut historical thriller, The Amber Room, were featured in WD’s September 2003 First Success, this Georgian lawyer-turned-hopeful-writer could have only dreamed he was about to release the first of seven New York Times bestsellers to date. He took his sizeable initial print run as a sign that his publisher had high hopes for his book, but he also knew that as a first-time author, getting the word out would be up to him.
Upon signing his contract for a two-book deal with Ballantine Books that May, Berry had immediately begun calling organizers of book festivals and writing events across the Southeast to arrange appearances and signings. “I recognized on the first novel that the publisher wasn’t going to do a whole lot,” he says. “That’s a fallacy I see a lot of first-time writers make. They expect their publishers to do a lot for them. I expected nothing.” All told, he invested $10,000 of his own money in traveling and networking to promote his debut.
The return on his investment was bigger than expected when The Amber Room hit the New York Times bestsellers list—a feat for any debut novel. By the release of his second contracted book, The Romanov Prophecy, his publisher began to take over. Then came more contracts for more books. “With The Third Secret [in 2005], they took total control, and they’ve had total control ever since.” Berry now marks the release of each book with a sixteen-city nationwide book tour organized by Ballantine.
When he initially signed with his publisher after an overwhelming 87 rejections, Berry was sitting on eight unpublished manuscripts written over the previous 12 years. Two of those were The Third Secret and The Amber Room. He estimates that about 70 percent of the rest of that writing has been re-worked for inclusion in his other books. He is fond of warning aspiring writers every chance he gets: “Don’t throw away those old words!” Berry has also stayed with the agent who saw him through those difficult years, Pam Ahearn. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. I dance with the one who brung me, always.”
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, he finds it easy to say what he would have done differently. “No question: I would have started sooner,” he says. “I didn’t write my first word until I was 35 years old. I wasted about 10 years before that, when the little voice in my head was screaming for me to write. All writers have a little voice in their head that drives them forward. Listen to it.”
After all that waiting, the transition from writing dream to publishing reality was such a whirlwind that it wasn’t until he attended a writing conference during Labor Day Weekend of 2005 that Berry, with three well-received books on the shelves at the time, finally allowed himself to feel like he had “made it” as a writer. He was feeling a bit star-struck by the presence of his idol, David Morrell, and was spending some downtime in a room with about 100 other writers talking about the craft and the business of writing. “I suddenly realized. It just hit me all at once that I was a writer. I’d been writing for 15 years, but I had never called myself a writer until that moment.”
Being a part of that writing community is so important to Berry that he accepted an invitation to be co-president of the International Thriller Writers. He’s devoted to his genre, though he isn’t deaf to criticism that thrillers tend to be long on mass-market appeal and short on literary meat. “I heard a statement once that the greatest sin of a thriller writer is he or she writes books that other people want to read,” he says. “I think everybody likes a good adventure tale.”
In fact, appealing to that broad base of readers is actually something Berry embraces. “That makes it all worthwhile, to be honest with you. The New York Times, making money from the books, traveling around, all that’s kind of neat, but it’s better, and totally worthwhile, when someone says, I like that story, I’m not a reader, but I like your stories. That’s really cool.”
Berry has also thoughtfully considered the controversy surrounding the types of hot-button historical and sometimes even religious issues he takes fictional liberties with in his books, which have drawn natural comparisons to Dan Brown’s works over the years. “My feeling is that it’s my duty as a writer to tell you where I drew the line, and that’s why I write the writer’s note in each book,” he says. “I don’t want you to read the book and come away thinking all of that is real. It’s not—I have to make a story out of it. But there’s a lot of it that is real.”
In fact, when Berry has on occasion become aware of minor, unintentional historical inaccuracies in his books, he makes sure they are corrected upon reprint. “A lot of readers are getting their history from these books, and that’s fine, as long as we give it to you correctly.”
After a few years of dividing his working hours at a ratio of 90 percent writing to 10 percent law, in late 2008 Berry closed his law office to devote all of his time to his craft, including travel for research and inspiration. “Traveling for me is how I replenish my imagination bank. I say this all the time. All writers have imagination banks, and when we write, we make withdrawals. … You’ve got to make some deposits into that bank. Reading is one way to do that, but traveling for me is even better. You come up with a lot of ideas.”
Having mastered the skills for surviving both creatively and professionally in the business, Berry says most of it comes down to keeping that bank filled, trusting in his long-term relationships with his agent and his editor (who also has been with Berry since book one), and simply doing the work.
He’s now under contract to deliver a book a year through 2011. “I hope I get to keep doing it after 2011, since I’m now an unemployed lawyer,” he says. “We all lose our jobs every two to three years. Hopefully we get rehired, but that all depends on the previous year’s performance.”
The numbers are in his favor. Today, 8 million copies of his books have been printed—in 46 countries and 43 languages. “I am the poster child for ‘It Can Be Done,’ so you can’t say it can’t be done,” he says. “Unfortunately there’s a cliché, and it’s exactly correct: Don’t give up. You have to hang in there. You have to stay with it. I made up my mind that somebody’s name was going to be on the cover of a book, and it might as well be mine, and that’s what you have to do. … It’s not how many times you’re knocked down that count. It’s how many times you get up.”