Writer Unboxed is 8 years old today! Here’s an Everything-You-Ever-Wanted-to-Know-and-Some-Things-You-Didn’t Q&A about WU.
Therese here. Back in November, I put a call out to the WU Facebook group for pitches to claim one of the last remaining spots on our calendar for 2013. Eddie Louise won the spot I had set aside for the win. Some of the pitches were so good that I hoarded them for later use. Jeannie Ruesch has a fantastic post coming up next Sunday with some giveaways of Stephen King’s On Writing. And then there’s this: a 10-question Q&A for Kath and me, proposed by WU community member Beverly Diehl. We thought, well, we can use it for our anniversary post, and here we are. Thank you, Beverly, for the idea and the interview. We hope you all enjoy this inside peek into WU’s eight-year journey.
1) Why “Writer Unboxed”? How was the name born?
Kath: Your question prompted me to dig deep into the WU archives and haul out our inaugural post from January 2006 that asked the very same question. Behold:
It all started when the editor of an industry magazine had the temerity to pass on a proposal we pitched. Not that we’re unused to rejection, but it was kickass. We’d previously co-authored an article with another writer buddy about writing that was well-received, but we’d left a ton of info out in the editing process. Our critiquing sessions also lean toward finding ways out of literary dead-ends—THE BOX, as we call it—by plucking inspiration from pop culture and other mediums. We realized that a blog was the best way for us to organize our thoughts and share our knowledge with other writers who need a dose of inspiration or another way of looking at their work.”
The back story to all this was Therese and I had been faffing around with starting a blog to create the type of writing community we wanted but couldn’t find online at the time. We wanted something authentic yet supportive, and we wanted a forum to discuss the craft of writing novels from the smallest detail to the big picture – the meta and the micro, which wasn’t really around at the time – people had their personal blogs and there were good message board communities, but nothing like what we wanted existed. So we began Writer Unboxed on Blogger. Fun fact: the original name of Writer Unboxed was SnarkBytes, but that was our “practice blog.” Therese hit upon the name Writer Unboxed, which encompassed our mission statement beautifully. I believe SnarkBytes is still registered on Blogger, if I’m not mistaken LOL.
Therese: Ha! I just found it HERE. That’s hysterical.
I also found this. Click the jpg below for the exact email chain that started everything. (Kath and I have had a laugh over our naïveté!)
Here’s our original header, which we left behind when we left Blogger.
2) What about Writer Unboxed has turned out much like you expected, and what has been a total surprise?
Kath: What has amazed us is the phenomenal community that has grown around WU. The old saying “if you build it, they will come” isn’t really true in blogging. You have to build something that folks will want to go to in the first place, and stream fresh, useful content continuously. WU’s focus on craft, industry and being a supportive place where novelists and publishing professionals can discuss and learn about all aspects of the industry resonated. WU’s rise also coincided with the shift from traditional to digital publishing models, and everything just exploded around 2010 as authors, publicists and aspiring writers were searching for the elusive online “platform.” By then, WU contributors had been posting quality posts for years, and that sort of content speaks for itself.
We were asking NYT bestselling authors to interview and they would say “yes,” because they saw the traffic we were generating, and the insightful discussions happening in the comments. I’ve heard from countless people discovering WU for the first time who’ve said they’ve spent days combing our archives because the content is so good.
Therese: Would you believe it if I say that nothing has turned out as we expected? We did dream, however, of creating a mega-popular blog that we’d be able to utilize to help sell our future books. Ironically, now that WU is a successful site, we can’t/won’t use it the way we’d once envisioned. (Though I’ll take this moment to tell you that Kath has a kick-ass YA novel, SLUMBER, published as Tamara Blake, and remind you that my second novel, THE MOON SISTERS, releases on March 4th. We’d both love and appreciate your support.)
Total surprise? The tight-knit community that has evolved out of WU, the rate of organic growth we’ve seen since the site’s inception, and of course the amount of time required to run the site.
3) The Great Time Suck. How do you keep a beastie like Writer Unboxed from eating up all your own writing time? On average, how many hours do you Founding Mamas give to Writer Unboxed in a week, and how many person hours does it consume for your “staff”?
Kath: What people might not realize is that even with a slew of wonderful volunteers and contributors, keeping Writer Unboxed going is a full-time job. I already have a full-time job, plus I was a contract writer for Working Partners LTD. Somewhere in there, I was working on my own projects, plus trying to find time to be a mom and a (less grumpy) spouse. The juggling act was killing my desire to write. It was an untenable situation, and so in 2011 after a lot of soul-searching and Therese’s full support, I made the decision to take a step back from WU and give my muse a chance to heal. I’m still around, but I don’t have an active hand in the day-to-day. Therese is the Prime Mama now, and really responsible for the way the community has grown to what it is today.
Therese: I’ve never calculated how many hours I devote to WU-related activities in a week, which may be a sanity defense mechanism on my part, but I’ve often said what Kath says here—it’s like a full-time job. For the sake of disclosure, here are some of the things that may require attention in a day:
- responding to complaints, suggestions, questions or pitches in the WU inbox
- finding lost comments on the blog (usually retrieved in spam, which needs to be deleted regularly)
- liaising with Amy at SUMY Designs on any number of tech issues that are over my head, like trying to resolve problems with our email service for readers
- adding or changing information on WU’s Google calendar (AKA: my bible)
- brainstorming ideas with guests for posts
- approving comments waiting in the queue
- chiming in over conflicts or questions on the Facebook page with the Mod Squad or group members
- tweaking a post if a picture is too big or small, or if the “more” code has been missed or could use a re-positioning
- sending notes to contributors about this or that, or responding to notes from contributors about this or that
- developing “educational material”/guides for volunteers and guests
- updating plugins, software, or content on the sidebar
- liaising with our “Ad Guru,” Jeanne, over ad content and sales
- thinking of ways to make everything run more efficiently
More challenging are long-term projects, or problems with web hosts or the site’s stability. (I am never more grateful for Amy’s help than when the site codes out on us, because what can I do?) Worst experience was a few years ago when WU was taken over by a porn outfit on the day we received a nod from Write to Done for being one of the Top 10 blogs for Writers. Good times!
This is a little off-topic, and it’s going to make my long answer even longer, but it’s related and significant. This past summer when I had a health scare, several people stepped up to help (most notably Jan O’Hara, one of the most generous souls out there). The scramble to keep WU going when I wasn’t on the scene taught me something: I don’t want WU to be completely reliant on me. If I could no longer be a part of things for whatever reason, I’d want the site to continue. I’d like WU to be around one hundred years from now, and who’s to say that can’t happen? I’ve learned there are a lot of people who care a great deal for this community, who are willing to volunteer their time to keep things running smoothly and with high standards.
Julia Munroe Martin and Jeannine Walls Thibodeau began loading guest posts for us, and they’ve both said that—while the job is getting quicker for them—it can still take one or even two hours to load a single post. That may shock a lot of people, but it takes time to write an introduction, to insert code in the right place, to find a good photo… I developed a guest post template years ago to help streamline a process that had become a giant time suck, too. And how many guest posts have we had over the years on WU? About three hundred since we’ve been with WordPress.
I spoke with WU’s Facebook moderators. Said Vaughn Roycroft:
I would say it boils down to about an hour a day. Some days more, some only a few checks of the page. It’s hard, because we interact almost every day, but some (a lot) of that is not “technically” WU biz. And we’re always there for each other, so when one of us needs a few days, we can just forget about it.”
We recently made the group “secret” because of a change at Facebook that made us appear in other writers’ group sidebars and seemed to be the cause of attracting a lot of people who were only interested in self-promo. The change has made a huge difference. Said Kim Downes Bullock:
Before we went secret I put in about an hour a day. Now it’s only a few minutes, not counting the times we are on here just chatting.”
Before last summer, I handled WU’s Twitter account myself. Now we have a team, of which I’m still a part. Denise Wilson Falvo and Lara McKusky each spend between 1 ½-2 hours a week on Twitter gathering and posting. Heather Webb, who covers the traditional publishing beat there (#WUAgent, #WUPrint), also has begun to write a Twitter roundup for WU. Total time per week, not counting the roundup: ~5 hours. Then there’s the roundup. That’s an additional 3 hours monthly.
I know contributors who can whip out a WU post in twenty minutes, but you can group me with contributors who’ll spend hours refining a post, sometimes over a few days. (I just checked out of curiosity; I’ve written 499 posts for WU since we’ve been with WordPress. My big 5-0-0 will happen next month!)
You can see how this “beastie” can indeed eat all of a person’s time, and why our contributors and volunteers are essential to keep the site running as it’s been. And, frankly, to keep me running as well.
4) Website. Facebook. Twitter. Newsletter. Which is most fun for you and why?
Therese: As of December, the newsletter is on hiatus. We all loved it, and Jan and Liz and all of the contributors did a great job keeping the information fresh and valuable, but ultimately we felt we could best serve the WU audience by concentrating our efforts (and WU’s modest income) in other areas.
I love all of WU’s components, but I think the WU Facebook group is special in that everyone has a voice, and anyone can decide to share an article or start a conversation. And because we disallow promotion there, those conversations can be just as rich as those you’ll find in comments on WU. I feel I’ve gotten to know people there in ways I wouldn’t over the blog—though of course this site is my first love.
5) Writers who mercilessly promote their own books in every other post are one of the biggest things that chase me away from a blog or Tweetstream. What are some of the other big mistakes you see in the writing community?
Kath: We’re pretty draconian about WU’s no-promo policy. We have a few select opportunities for our contributors when they have a new release, but that’s it. Keeping a lid on promo has helped make WU a safe place for readers. It’s been a challenge, though, especially for the Mod Squad on WU’s Facebook page.
I think some authors feel they have to do it all: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Tumblr, website, blog, Amazon and B&N page, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, massive blog-tour, and that they must be in constant promotion mode. People can sense the stink of desperation if you do nothing but promote, and it’s a huge turn-off.
Another turn-off is being rude to other authors online, or indulging in diva-antics.
Therese: I agree with everything Kath said. I also cringe anytime I see people arguing with readers on Goodreads (or anywhere) over a negative review.
Kath: As wise woman and cultural icon Sweet Brown tells us, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”
6) Do you solicit articles from your vast array of contributors and authors, or do they approach you with “I’ve got a great idea for…”? How about wanna-be contributors to Writer Unboxed? Do you take queries, pitches, or review potential articles, or are you so replete with material there’s no room for more?
Thanks to the WayBack Machine, you can see the site’s evolution after we became devotees of WordPress and claimed our own URL:
2006 (Does anyone remember this background and header? Check out the sidebar for a list of guests who were coming to WU. See some familiar names? That’s where/how our contact with two of our future contributors began.)
2007 (Our interview with Dave King appeared in 2007, and he charmed us right away.)
2008 (That novel by Lucia Nevai, Salvation, is still on my bookshelf. Loved its stark beautiful self.)
2009 (Contest time!)
2010 (New header, but it never quite fit.)
2011 (We needed an update and decided it was time for a new setup too. When we couldn’t find an ideal structure, we had it built.)
2012 (Houston, we have a logo, thanks to Kristy Condon!)
2013 (SUMY Designs built our custom, interactive header, and we can’t imagine ever wanting another change.)
Therese: The contributors you see on WU’s sidebar know what works on WU, and we trust them to come up with their own ideas. Every once in a while, a contributor will ask for my opinion about a topic and I’ll offer it, but for the most part they are independent and trusted partners. The only exception: themed months. For example, we’re going to focus on topics related to the publishing industry in February—even our guests. I’ve compiled a list of topics and feel confident that we won’t read the same post twice.
We do get pitches in the WU inbox, sometimes several in a single day, however because the calendar is full through May we’ve put a hold on these for a few months.
7) This brings us to: Rejections. Even after 8 gazillion published books and stories, Isaac Asimov got rejected. Two pronged question: why do you reject an article, and how do you tell somebody like Donald Maass that his work wasn’t quite what you were looking for?
Therese: Very rarely I’ll see a post before it goes live and realize it needs a revise or won’t work for the WU community for one reason or another (maybe its scope is off for the audience, for example, or it doesn’t offer that empowering spin we like to see with WU posts). It’s never comfortable to ask someone you respect for even more of their time, but I would generally send that person a brief note explaining my concerns and offering suggestions. Our contributors are pretty awesome, though, and as I said, that sort of thing happens very rarely.
8) Occasionally an article must need editing or trimming. How does the process work? Does an author submit the article to be nipped and tucked as you see fit, or does someone send back prospective edits for the author’s approval, prior to adopting them?
Therese: I should say that I don’t read every single post before it goes live. I don’t always have the time, but also some contributors write their posts up until—and even beyond—the last second. If I do read through a post and note a typo, even after it’s been published, I’ll go in and fix it. Sometimes I’ll add bold headers to an essay-style post if it seems it might benefit from that. But if a post needs more substantial work, we’d likely send it back to the author and ask nicely for some changes. (Again, rare.)
9) Writer Unboxed does take ads (if unobtrusive ones) and donations. But I thought everything on the Interwebs was FREEEE! Why is Writer Unboxed asking for money?
Kath: A community member enjoys the content on WU for free. That doesn’t mean Therese and I haven’t spent a goodly sum on WU from the online infrastructure to the WU email account to a host of other expenses folks don’t realize we incur, not to mention the hours dedicated to keeping WU running smoothly. Recently we’ve had to get a dedicated server because WU has grown so large. We’ve resisted AdSense and other online ads for years because we found them annoying and couldn’t control the content. Now that WU’s traffic is robust and targeted, we have opportunities for interested parties to buy leaderboard ad space. If folks need to have an ad created, our Ad Guru, Jeanne Kisacky, will work to help create something wonderful. Not that we’re anal or anything, but we try to ensure that whatever we do is tasteful and with the highest quality.
Therese: We also use funds for occasional contest giveaways and to try new things (like the newsletter, and a site for readers that didn’t work out).
It might be worth mentioning that we received three donations in 2013. While we appreciate anyone who’d like to donate funds to the site, this isn’t a big income generator. That said, we do almost nothing to draw attention to the donation button, which you can reach by clicking the “D” key on the typewriter in our header.
10) What do you see in the future for Writer Unboxed? Do you have Plans, or will you let it grow organically?
Therese: I’m committed to putting together WU’s first live event, this November. Details will emerge this spring, but I think this is going to be something special. After that, who knows? I’m sure there’s more unboxing to be done, somewhere.