The social media maven’s apprentice

This is an updated version of an interview I did several years ago with Laurie R. King, whose latest in the bestselling Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, The Murder of Mary Russell, is due in April 2016.

The author of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is buzzing over social media.

With a website, author and character blogs and a presence on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter, Laurie R. King is a champion of social marketing. She posts in the voice of one of her characters, runs writing contests and invites fans to discuss the books among themselves. Her efforts go beyond promoting the work to promoting engagement with readers. That reveals an understanding of the collaborative nature of social media many corporations might envy.

“Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it,” she said in an email exchange. But first, some background on the Californian who has become famous for portraying the life of perhaps the world’s most-famous detective, and the woman who has become, some would say, an equal or better.

LaurieRKingCreating a voice
Ms. King has written 22 novels, including several stand-alone novels and three series, one featuring San Francisco police detective Kate Martinelli and a second with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Her first book, A Grave Talent (1993), received the 1994 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and a 1995 John Creasey Memorial Award. She followed with the 1996 Nero Award for A Monstrous Regiment of Women and the 2002 Macavity Award for Best Novel for Folly.

Her books about Russell and Holmes have been applauded as “the most successful recreation of the famous inhabitant of 221B Baker Street ever attempted” (Houston Chronicle), “with the power to charm even the most grizzled Baker Street irregular” (New York Daily News). The first in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, appeared in 1994.

She measures the number of copies in print in the millions.

Creating a buzz
A few years ago, to highlight the 20 books she’s written, and the publication of her then-newest novel in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, Ms. King embarked on what she calls “Twenty weeks of buzz.” In addition to the traditional methods of promotion—book tours, radio and TV appearances—Ms. King took to the Internet with a passion usually reserved for her characters.

Her presence on the Internet is considerable. She created a website and a blog about her activities called Mutterings. She also created another blog, this one in Mary Russell’s voice, back when MySpace was the rage. Mary, in character, posts regularly on Twitter (@mary_russell)—a technique used effectively by Helen Klein Ross (@AdBroad) to promote the TV show Mad Men. Ms. King writes as a guest blogger on other sites and runs a Yahoo! Group. She has a page on Facebook. She even posts reader videos on YouTube.

King beekeeper coverTo share her tastes in literature, Ms. King created an account on Goodreads, where millions of members recommend, compare and discuss books.

She also bolstered reader engagement with the creation of twin writing contests. To celebrate the publication of The God of the Hive, she authorized the 2010 Mary Russell Fan Fiction Writing Contest. Contestants were asked to write about a character in one of the Russell novels as a teenager. A second contest, to celebrate National Library Week, invited readers to create their version of the ideal library, complete with drawings.

She even runs contests for artwork about Russell, Holmes, and their world where fans can submit and judge the works.

Her opinion on social-media efforts and their results are insightful for readers and writers alike. Edited highlights of the interview with Ms. King, who goes by LRK online, follow.

Creating a community
I have to say, it’s funny to be considered a “champion of social marketing” since I never feel I know much about what I’m doing! Mostly what I use the social networking sites for is to tie together my readers—I set up a site, or suggest an approach, and then more or less stand back while they play with it. I’m kept in the loop of course, and I’ll drop in regularly, but making use of enthusiastic volunteers means that I don’t have to do all of the day-to-day work, while at the same time letting a group of key readers—”fans” if you will—have the fun of working with a writer they enjoy and making her job just a little bit easier.

Murder of Mary Russell coverI think a number of writers do this in some form or another—Dana Stabenow’s “Danamaniacs” are a powerhouse of networking, for example—and so long as it is kept fairly clear which is the author speaking and which is one of the administrators, I find people are happy.

Mostly I write and post my blog “Mutterings” and stop in once a day on both the personal and fan Facebook pages. I visit regularly on the Virtual Book Club [now the Laurie R. King Virtual Book Club on Goodreads],  reading the discussion and dropping in on some of the other threads, but I don’t tend to post a lot there unless I have something in particular to contribute—the VBC is a place for the readers to freely discuss and get to know each other, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m in charge of what they say. A great side-effect of the VBC is that whenever LRK readers meet at an event or a conference, they often already know each other remarkably well, even if they have never met in person.

As for Twitter and Goodreads, I work with volunteers on answering letters sent to me (or to Russell) through the sites, helping promote things like the recent Twitter Party. (I helped set this up beforehand but, being in a far distant time zone, I had very little to do with it at the time.)

All in all, I probably average an hour a day on this stuff, more when I’m working up to a book launch.

As for results, who can tell?

The luckiest people in the world

Writers who need writers are the luckiest people in the world.

We build on the work of other writers. We draw inspiration from their creations, and their success. We’re usually too busy building our own careers to notice.

It’s time to notice.

Women-Writers-FrontYou don’t know me but I would like to thank you for helping to create the character of CW McCoy in Peak Season, a series I hope someday will approach the benchmark you’ve set. You didn’t just paste male characteristics onto women or use violence to attract attention. You were the trailblazers, the authors who turned the noir subgenre on its head and ushered in a generation of smart, tough, proficient female investigators.

That said, here is my list of writers whose female characters have traded cookies for cojones:

  • Sara Paretsky, for creating V.I. Warshawski, a character whose toughness serves her sense of justice
  • S.J. Rozan, for her evocative sense of place in the Lydia Chin outings
  • Lee Goldberg, for the deft portrayal of a secondary character, Natalie Teeger, in his series of Adrian Monk novels
  • Julia Spencer-Fleming, for Rev. Claire Fergusson’s moral compass
  • Laurie R. King, for the daring intelligence of Mary Russell
  • Sue Grafton, for revealing the conflicted love life of Kinsey Millhone
  • Janet Evanovich, for the push and pull of drama and humor in the Stephanie Plum novels
  • Marcia Muller, for Sharon McCone’s allegiance to family and friends
  • And Jennifer Crusie, for giving her leads a heartbeat and not just a pulse.

Writers who need writers are the luckiest writers in the world. Thanks to you, I’m one of them.