PW: How Four Bestselling Authors Connected with Readers Helped Indie Booksellers & Beat the Pandemic
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Photo Credit: Sarah & Ben Photography, Tampa, Florida.
What launched as a support group in the early days of Covid-19, Friends & Fiction celebrated its 100th episode on November 24. PW caught up with show's creators and hosts, Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry, to talk about the remarkable rise of a special literary community
by Andrew Albanese |
Nov 30, 2021
In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, a group of major bestselling authors—Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, and Patti Callahan Henry—found themselves in a predicament suddenly common to many authors: all four had new books set for spring, but no way to reach readers in the wake of an unprecedented shutdown. So they did what so many of us did to get through the pandemic—they got online.
The Friends & Fiction group went live on April 15, 2020 as a sort of pandemic support group for authors and readers, and with a specific aim of highlighting and supporting indie booksellers through a difficult period. The group hosts a live gathering every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. EST (which streams on YouTube, Facebook Live, and now on the Parade Facebook page). The shows feature interviews with major authors, writing tips and insider talk about publishing and writing, lots of book talk, a spotlight on an indie bookseller, and heavy doses of friendship, support, and positivity. The group has hosted some major authors, including Kristin Hannah, Jodi Picoult, Brit Bennett, Sue Monk Kidd, Chris Bohjalian, Delia Owens, Elin Hilderbrand, Etaf Rum, William Kent Krueger, Lisa See, and Charlaine Harris. And the formula as proven wildly successful. Friends & Fiction has grown exponentially since its launch, and on November 24 celebrated a milestone: their 100th episode.
In a pandemic that has brought so much tragedy, the launch of Friends & Fiction is a remarkable story. In addition to its 100 episodes, the Friends & Fiction Facebook group is north of 57,000 very engaged members, with more than 215,000 interactions each month. The live webcasts often draw up to 1,500 viewers at a time, with another 10,000 on average viewing each week. There is also a YouTube channel with thousands of subscribers, and the shows are also released as podcasts, including a special podcast hosted by librarian Ron Block released every Friday. A weekly newsletter reaches 10,000 subscribers.
Friends & Fiction may have born of necessity in a time of uncertainty, but more than a year-and-a-half later the hosts say it’s hard to imagine life without it. On the occasion of the 100th episode, PW caught up with authors to take stock of just how far the Friends & Fiction community has come, and what’s in store for the next 100 episodes.
Recall for me the early days of this community—did you ever think you’d be celebrating 100 episodes some 19 months later?
Mary Kay Andrews (MKA): It started out of desperation. In March 2020 we all had spring/summer releases scheduled—and suddenly the whole world was on lockdown and publishers pulled the plug on book tours. We needed to find a way to promote our books. And we needed a way to help all the indie bookstores who were such a big part of our success from the start of our careers.
Kristin Harmel (KH): We initially conceived Friends & Fiction as something to help pass the time, to get the word out about our books and those of other authors, and to remind people to keep supporting small businesses whenever they could. We were on an email string with several other authors whose book tours had just been abruptly canceled and we all felt like we were spinning our wheels. Mary Kay had a Zoom account, and she sent out an invitation for what I believe she called a rosé happy hour. The plan was that any author who wanted to hop on with a glass of wine and talk about the situation was welcome. Six of us showed up—the four of us, plus Mary Alice Monroe and Kristina McMorris. It was during that Zoom that we discussed the idea of doing a casual Facebook Live chat to connect with readers.
The plan went from casual chatting to a lightly scripted show so that we would have some sort of format but plenty of room to be ourselves and let the conversation flow. I remember saying we would do seven episodes, because we thought the world would be back to normal by then, and that in the meantime, we might connect with a hundred or so readers and remind them to continue supporting independent bookstores during a time when the stores might be struggling to survive. By mid-May, though, it had become clear that the world wasn’t going to be back to normal for a long while. And in the meantime, our community began to grow exponentially. We had tapped into something—a sense of togetherness, camaraderie, community. I think all four of us are astonished and profoundly grateful.
Patti Callahan Henry (PCH): A hundred episodes? We had no idea. And to be honest, we probably would have been overwhelmed at the thought! We believed we’d be doing this for a couple months, maybe three at the most. But this story-loving community grew week by week, author by author, bookstore by bookstore. And in time we added a book club, a podcast, A YouTube channel, a Parade magazine column, and another streaming service. And this is a community that nourishes and encourages each other. We’ve all broadened our reading lists through this experience, from founders to members. When a guest author comes on the show, the members rally around, buy the book, and participate in conversations.
Kristy Woodson Harvey (KWH): This is a community of book lovers, plain and simple. What unites us is a love of story. Maybe because it started during the depths of the pandemic, or maybe because we all work to make this a positive environment focused around a shared passion, the community keeps growing by leaps and bounds. And it is a great joy to meet Friends & Fiction members at our in-person events now that the world is opening up again. So many relationships we’ve formed online have been now been forged in real life, too. And, in so many ways, the purpose of this group has evolved. Where once it was about supporting authors and independent bookstores though the pandemic, now it’s also about this community and how to foster our passion for the written word.
Clearly the community enjoys what you offer them—but what does this community give to you?
MKA: For me, it’s the idea that we have 55,000 emotional support readers. They let us know what they like about our books—or don’t like. And they show up for us. At book signings, during the Wednesday night shows and Friday podcasts, and on our individual social media accounts. This community is deeply invested in our writing lives, and that moves me and motivates me to keep writing, even when I’m in despair over finishing the next sentence, paragraph, chapter. How can I let them down?
KH: The friendship and support definitely runs both ways. Kristy, Patti, and Mary Kay, along with Meg Walker, who runs things behind the scenes for us, have become some of my dearest, closest friends in the last year and a half. All four of us have had the opportunity to do a handful of live book tour events in 2021, and to meet Friends & Fiction members in the real world is emotional and breathtaking. Honestly, I’ve been brought to tears many times by those interactions. We’ve developed real friendships with so many of these readers, who, as Mary Kay said, show up for us again and again. It sounds crazy to say, but in 2020, 2021 I feel like I’ve made 60,000 new friends. But it’s true. This isn’t just an online group, this is a community of people who truly support and lift each other up. We’re all so proud and honored to be a part of it. It’s something we will never take for granted.
Any especially memorable moments from the last 100 episodes you want to share?
MKA: There was that time I was wearing a blouse with a loosely tied neckline and I dropped one of my AirPods. When I leaned over to pick it up, I apparently flashed the world with some major cleavage.
PCH: There have been some gut-busting moments of laughter, heart-opening tears of empathy and joy, and everything in between. For me, one of the most memorable moments was when I launched my novel during the pandemic and the community rallied around the book and around me when we were all still in loc down. Another memorable moment, and one that continues, was when a few of the members decided to form a “Friends and Fiction Official Book Club” on a separate page, both broadening the support and making the group even more fun. Then there was the time our pal, librarian Ron Block joined us to start the Writer’s Block Friday podcast.
KH: I think one of the unique things about our show is that our author guests, some of whom we know personally, some of whom we’ve just met, tend to really open up to us. I love that we have the opportunity to ask difficult questions, and I love that most of our guests share these deep pieces of themselves and their work with us. I’ve been surprised and moved by many moments of deep, personal honesty, from bestselling author Charlaine Harris talking about her own sexual assault, to Vietnamese poet and author Nguyen Phan Que Mai discussing the deaths of her grandparents during the Vietnamese land reform and the Vietnamese great famine. Bestselling author Paula McLain talked about growing up in foster care and finding escape from trauma in books. Most of our episodes include at least a few minutes of vulnerability, in which we genuinely see our author guests at their core, and I think that as both readers and human beings, being able to understand each other in such a deep way is such a gift.
Talk a little about your friendship—it really does seem to be the star of the show in many ways.
MKA: Patti and I have been friends for years and years, but I didn’t really know Kristy and I had never even met Kristin. I think our friendships really grew out of that kind of foxhole mentality you have when you’re all in a bind. But over the months, and now years, I think what’s really lovely is that we’ve established a mutual admiration for each other, and deep respect for the intelligence and strengths we each bring to the table. It really is the best kind of sisterhood, without the hair pulling and shoe stealing.
PCH: And in many ways it is more than friendship—we have become a family, including Meg Walker, our managing director. We respect and admire each other, and we really support each other through the highs and lows of publishing and life. We have each other’s backs, whether it is brainstorming the next chapter or title of our book, to celebrating a child’s birthday. It’s all in there together, life and work, and we are here for it, and for each other.
KH: Friendship really is at the core of Friends & Fiction, and the warmth and love you see between us on screen is real and true. These four women—I’m including Meg Walker, too, because she is there every step of the way—have become some of my closest friends. When we began this journey, I didn’t know Kristy well, and I didn’t know Mary Kay, Patti, or Meg at all. Now, we probably exchange more than 50 texts a day and they are the first people I turn to when I need support, personally and professionally. We came together out of a mutual desire to do something to connect with readers and help booksellers—and perhaps that desire to do something in a situation that felt helpless was the first sign that we had something deep and real in common. But I went from a place of hardly knowing these women to not being able to imagine my life without them.
“This community has forever changed the way we see our readers, and, I very strongly believe, the way they see us. For years, they met us on the other side of our pages or maybe, if we were lucky, for a few minutes at a signing. So many readers tell us that they now feel like they know the real us—and they do. They’re not wrong.”
Has this community changed your perception of, or maybe opened your eyes to the power of technology to reach, connect, and communicate with people? Has this connection with your audience, born of terrible circumstances, changed the way you approach your writing and publishing and things like book promotion?
KWH: This community has forever changed the way we see our readers, and, I very strongly believe, the way they see us. For years, they met us on the other side of our pages or maybe, if we were lucky, for a few minutes at a signing. So many readers tell us that they now feel like they know the real us—and they do. They’re not wrong. Who they watch on the screen each week is totally unfiltered.
In terms of book promotion, this group started out of a panic about how to promote books during a pandemic. And during a time when we couldn’t tour or travel, something all of us have relied on heavily for book sales, we were able to not only sustain the audience for our novels but actually grow them. What this shows me is that online promotion works when the connection is authentic.
And as for writing, I think each of us feels very connected to and protective of every story idea we get and we are always thinking about how to be as true to that story as possible. That said, there is no doubt that we are extremely attuned now to which parts of our books our readers most connect with, what they’d like to see more of, and how we can support them through our words and stories. To be completely honest, if it hadn’t been for readers—largely Friends & Fiction members—asking for more books in my Peachtree Bluff Series, Christmas in Peachtree Bluff might not exist!
A big part of this group’s mission is to support indie booksellers, and while we’re at it, public libraries, too. Talk a little about that commitment?
MKA: We’ve tried to remind this community about why it’s important to buy local, and what an important resource an indie bookstore is for their communities. Most weeks we partner with an indie bookstore and provide buy links that allows members to order directly from those stores. The same with libraries. So many readers don’t recognize all the amazing services their local libraries offer—e-books, audiobooks, live events, even home delivery in some places.
KWH: Each of us are fully aware of the fact that independent booksellers and librarians are the ones who hand sell our novels and who, in many cases, have launched or furthered our careers. They are forces for good in their communities. We often get asked why we promote libraries. For one, few institutions support literacy as strongly a libraries. For another, readers are often wary about spending their hard-earned dollars on a book by an author they’ve never read. But if they take a chance on us at a library, we hope that they will find our next novel worthy of a spot on their forever bookshelf. And, because of Friends & Fiction, we now take great pains to make sure that copy can be signed! We love libraries so much we even added a rock star librarian to our team—Ron Block, host extraordinaire of our Writer’s Block Podcast. Ron is an invaluable resource and an incredible interviewer. Plus, he’s one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet and a prime example of how to create a thriving library environment.
Are you looking forward to another 100 episodes? What comes next for the group and this vibrant community?
KH: The work behind the scenes is more than any of us could have anticipated, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that every second of it feels worthwhile. We never, ever take for granted what a gift it is to be able to talk to other writers so deeply and honestly, to be able to share those stories with readers, and to be a part of a community that is so active, supportive and broad.
I’m certain that as the world continues to change, things will change for us, too, and we’ll grow, adapt, and rise to meet the challenges that come our way. I anticipate large live events in our future, once it feels safe to gather larger groups in person. And I think we’ll continue to find new avenues to connect with people. Our audio-only podcast, our merchandise line through Tampa-based independent bookstore Oxford Exchange, and our spinoff book club led by members Brenda Gardner and Lisa Harrison are three examples of ways we’ve expanded beyond our original weekly show—and I believe we’ll continue to branch out in ways that make sense and that underscore our mission.
At our core, the host authors of Friends & Fiction are four dear friends who love to write, who love to read, who love to ask questions, who love to connect with readers and other authors, and who love to support bookstores and libraries. I know we’ll continue doing all of those things for a long time to come. We’re tremendously lucky to be part of this great community. And we’re so very grateful for the opportunity.
From Patti: What an honor to talk to @publisherswkly about @friendsandfiction . We all gathered during this strange time in our history because of the power of stories and the community that books build. To celebrate our 100th episode we chatted with PW.
Who knew that such a book-loving, story-loving community was just waiting for a place to gather. We are incredibly grateful to each and every one of you who are part of this and of course to PW for talking to us!