Level 1 Experiment: Writer Unboxed Publishing. And the first guinea pig is ….

photo by Corey Holms
photo by Corey Holms

Greetings, lovely WU community. Kath here, back from the dead, with Therese. We invite you to gather ’round and let us tell you a story of endings, beginnings, and another WU experiment…

Prologue. The year is 2006. Kath is eagerly clicking open an email from her then-agent. She’s been working with said agent for a couple years now, shopping historical novels with a Gothic twist, but the traditional publishing world, awash in sexy dukes and vampires, with a voracious market looking for more of the same, isn’t interested.

But this, Kath thinks, this book is different. Written during a particularly dark time of her personal life, when a very close relative was sent to the Green Zone to serve during Operation Iraqi Freedom, she channeled her emotions into a fantasy novel that is by turns mordant, part steampunk, part fantasy, a romance against a backdrop of war. There’s some inappropriate humor laced in it. It’s her best work, she thinks, and lord she’d been at the writing game for some time now, honing her craft, absorbing the lessons of good storytelling. Surely, this time, it’ll catch.

The then-agent sent a polite, three sentence note. Paraphrase: WTF is this? I need a sexy vampire story, not this war crap. And, uh, I’ll pretend you never sent this to me, okay, and I won’t drop you.

And Kath gets it. Which shelf would this novel sit, if published? It’s genre fiction, but could only charitably be called a mongrel, borrowing from many genres. It’s a weird book. An unboxed book.

Sadly, the book goes in a drawer. Kath starts working as a writer-for-hire for book packagers, to see if she can gain bonafides in a market that is starting to implode under the strains of an economic crash and the digital transition. Slowly, she starts to lose the love she has for writing fiction. An intense day job takes up even more emotional energy. It gets so bad at one point, she stops writing altogether, and takes a step back from Writer Unboxed.

December, 2013.

Kath, with Therese, at a restaurant nursing tea and chocolate:

I’ve been writing again, but nothing’s really gelling.

Therese: That’s awesome that you’re writing again! Hey, whatever happened with that story you wrote a few years back — Ailerons, wasn’t it?

Kath: Still in the drawer.

Therese: Dark and edgy and completely captivating. Fantasy/steampunk/romance? Come on. Why not pull it out again, have a read, see if you can reconnect with it? There’s something there.

Kath: Ugh, I don’t want to run the gauntlet of rejections again. Been there, done that.

Therese: It’s a different world now, though.

Kath: You mean publish the novel myself? I don’t know.

Therese: I’m just saying, it’s a good story. Your best work.

Kath, later, in an email: Dang it, Teri! I pulled that story out again, read it, liked what I read, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

Therese: Muahahaha. Told you it was good.

Kath, several months down the road: Do you have time to read Steel and Song?

Therese: What’s that?

Kath: Ailerons’ new name. Steel & Song, Book 1 in the Aileron Chronicles.

Therese: W00t! YES! Send it along.

(A few weeks later, after the read and critique, and Therese deciding the Aileron Chronicles has what it takes to catch fire with readers.)

Therese: You know, I was thinking…

Kath: Uh oh.

Therese: What if you pubbed this under the Writer Unboxed name?

Kath: You mean, list Writer Unboxed as the publisher?

Therese: Only if you think it might help you. I mean, you co-founded Writer Unboxed, too. You left because you weren’t writing anymore and you needed to find your mojo again. You’ve definitely found it, so why not?

Kath: But I’d want you and WU to get something out of it.

Therese: Well, how’s this? We’ve been talking about a test-launch of a Writer Unboxed publishing imprint for a few years. Maybe now is the time. Your book could test the waters for future projects, and if the experiment is successful, we’ll have the metrics to move forward with those projects.

Kath: Keep talking, because you’re totally persuading me.

Therese: Your call, but I’d be completely behind it. I believe in you and your book. And that’s what this whole journey has been about from the beginning, right? Writer Unboxed was created to support our stories. Our fiction. Yours, Kathleen Bolton, and mine. This seems like a very cool way to make that happen.

Kath: I’m in.

July 21, 2014.

And that’s how the first Writer Unboxed Publishing book came to be. Steel and Song: The Aileron Chronicles Book 1 will be sold exclusively by Amazon in the KDP program (also part of the experiment). Over the next few months, Kath will check in with the WU community, sharing insights into the publishing partnership, lessons learned from starting without a backlist in the world of independent publishing, ideas gleaned from the experiment for possible future endeavors, and more.

If this experiment goes wildly well, who knows what will happen next? We’ll have to see how it goes. We’re in unboxed territory from here on out, and we hope you’ll come along for the ride.

If Writer Unboxed Publishing evolves, what would you like to see happen?



Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between aspiring novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton in January, 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~40 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter, or join our thriving Facebook community.


  1. says

    Love this backstory on Steel and Song. T has a special way of getting you to think unboxed thoughts, doesn’t she, Kath? She recently did that for me, too.

    I’m so excited about this new chapter for WU! I’m always a fan of a good genre-mashup? But steampunk, fantasy, romance AND inappropriate humor? Kath-brand inappropriate humor, to boot? Oh, I’m so in. Already downloaded my copy of the first release.

  2. says

    Terrific! I love your dive-in and let’s-see-what-happens attitude. I did the KDP exclusive with my first novel but I didn’t with my second book. I didn’t find any big advantage to their exclusive program at the time. Very curious to see how things go for Steel and Song. Wishing you every success!!!

    • says

      Thank you, Paula. We are trying KDP Select for the first few months to see how it goes. It was just a coincidence that it coincided with the Kindle Unlimited launch — it would be nice if Amazon gave authors a head’s up when they are going to upend everything, ha ha!

  3. says

    So very cool, Therese, that you can both see a world so broad and still push to make the horizon even wider.

    And good for you, Kathleen, for learning that your words are the ones that ultimately matter. I’m glad you found your way back to them and are finding ways to share them. How exciting!

  4. says

    I just had my mind blown before my first cup of coffee. Geesh, Ladies, you are awesome. I’m thrilled for you, Kath. That you’re writing again and created a way to get your story to readers. T., wow, you little minx. You’re a stellar friend, support, mentor, and more.

    This is sweet. I need that book… and more coffee. And more Unboxed books.

    Congratulations to both of you!

    • says

      Thank you, Roland. I love Reese Dante’s work. And yes, aren’t the ancient Sami people cool? I wrote the first draft listening to Mari Boine songs.

  5. says

    I am so excited! I love everything about this. Your Unboxed minds are so fun and inspiring. What a lovely thing to read first thing on a Monday morning.
    Seriously, I’m so jazzed I can hardly sit still. This is cool!

  6. says

    Woo! I’m sure, as with everything I’ve seen come from these women, this will be a grand success. Looking forward to seeing WUPublishing knockout the competition!

  7. says

    Kath and Therese,

    What an exciting venture! Kath, I’m inspired by your courage and perseverance with Steel & Song, and look forward to reading it! I can relate to how sad it is to have written what is considered a “mongrel” (yikes, what a painful word to assign to something you’ve poured your soul into!). The market is changing, though, and this opportunity WU is embarking on is part of that. Although categorization is important to marketing, ultimately what matters is that you have written a story people will want to read, and which, after reading, they will rave about to their friends (who will read it as a result).

    I have every confidence that the WU imprint will be a strong current in the otherwise erratic self-publishing market, and I look forward to the opportunities ahead to provide A1 quality fiction on par with traditionally published books. You guys have the know-how and the tools to run an awesome gig – you’ve got my vote.

    • says

      It’s indeed a brave new world, John. In some ways, discovery is much, much harder, but unboxed books deserve a chance, and for that I’m grateful that there are opportunties to find readers for the odd books — because they can’t find it if it’s stuck on a hard drive.

  8. says

    Kathleen and Therese–
    As a grateful, regular visitor to WU, I wish you every success with Steel and Song. Believe me, I know how it goes (or, rather, doesn’t go) when a writer is so foolish as to follow her/his own better angels. That is, when a writer has the temerity to write what those angels inspire, not what the marketplace wants today, as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow.
    And what do I hope will follow this success? A new publisher! And this new publisher is actually “new,” because it serves as the midwife for books like Steel and Song– books that agents dismiss out of hand for failing to slip into Jello-mold categories.
    You go, girl!

    • says

      Thank you, barry. That is our hope, if the experiment goes well. WU is dedicated to unboxed writers and writing, and we hope to carry through WU’s longstanding support of unboxed fiction with the imprint.

  9. Lee says

    Hi Ladies,
    So happy to read this post! Starting a publishing business is on my agenda as well, as I’ve also written a cross-genre novel that can’t seem to find a home (multicultural, historical fantasy set in ancient Mayan times). So I’ve decided to try and figure out the whole self-publishing business, be a publisher route and would love to connect via e-mail to share ideas etc.
    One question I have–is Writer Unboxed a partnership or LLC? Or did you go with some other legal status? I have a sole proprietorship, but wonder if I should switch to an LLC?
    Best of luck with this new venture!

    • says

      Lee, you’ll want to consult with a tax professional before you make the decision on what type of business entity you want your publishing company to be. An LLC would offer greater liability protection – and even in publishing, you never know – but there may be tax consequences, particularly on the state level, of which you’re unaware.

    • says

      Lee, if you want to publish your unboxed novel independently, the best place I’ve found for concentrated information on all sorts of genres is Kboards (google it up) and … WU!

  10. says

    Congratulations on this great new undertaking! You’ve inspired me to re-look at a manuscript sitting in a drawer after an agent told me to change it from World War II to World War I (as if all that involved was crossing out one “I”).

    • says

      You mean there’s a difference between a Spitfire and a P-38 Lightning fighter? :)

      I hope you do take another look at your in-the-drawer book, Jodi. You may be surprised.

  11. says

    What better reason for a cocktail party than a new publisher flaunting her custom bloomers? Fascinating stuff reading about the evolution of this, and the seemingly haphazard (though afterwards, seemingly fated) way ventures work.

    I salute you guys for being risk-takers, experimenters and most of all, writers (which I suppose encompasses the first two). Excelsior!

  12. Anjali Amit says

    Wow! Wow! and Wow!

    Steaming out of your steamy f(p)unk
    Writing again.

    Full steam ahead to you and WU. Even the mighty oak was once a small acorn.

  13. says

    Congratulations, Kathleen and Therese! Here’s hoping you make all the publishers jealous that they didn’t get a crack at Steel and Song ;)

  14. says

    What an exciting adventure – congratulations! Are you thinking about getting ISBN numbers for the WU books so that people can find them or talk about them outside of the Amazon universe?

  15. says

    I find this description of a nascent publisher and its first author deeply moving. Maybe that is partly because I took decades (am 57 years old now) before my own writing found a home, and with a relatively new publisher (Pen-L Publishing). Happy writing adventures to you both! -Karen

  16. says

    First, congratulations on publishing the book. I can’t wait to read it. You asked what WU as an imprint should release, I’d like to see it publish edgy books that don’t fit a genre. Books that cross genres and don’t adhere to strict mystery/thriller/steampunk/romance tropes. Books whose writers dare to be different. Just my $.02

    • says

      “Books that cross genres and don’t adhere to strict mystery/thriller/steampunk/romance tropes. Books whose writers dare to be different.”

      That’s exactly what the hope is, Betsy. A compelling read, exciting mashups, and above all strong writing.

  17. says

    What a great story. Yay for you two forging your own path and daring to be different. I hope the book manages to connect with its ideal readers. (And that’s a gorgeous cover — it totally grabs my attention and makes me want to read the book! I’m adding Steel & Song to my wish list.)

  18. says

    Congratulations Kathleen!!! Congratulations Therese!!! Truly the Unboxed spirit!!! Love your stories of perseverance.

  19. Denise Willson says

    Woot, woot! Way to go, Ladies!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

  20. Terry White says

    Just think, headlines 45 years ago today spoke of one small step…..

    I’ve been hanging out on the fringes here at WU for several years now, and ordered my copy of Steel and Song this morning. I admire all your efforts, and wish you the best in this exciting venture!

  21. says

    Congratulations! The description of the book made me go and buy it immediately, so the crossing of genres obviously netted you at least one sale. In a tidy, logical way, I get that labels are convenient for marketing, and that it helps readers find similar books to the ones they’ve already enjoyed, but I really struggle with seeing how going out of your genre is a negative thing. Creativity! Diversion! Showing readers glimpses of genres they haven’t tried – which in turn could lead to new markets, more sales…

    I hope everything turns out well with your book:) It sounds really interesting, and the cover is gorgeous!

    • says

      “In a tidy, logical way, I get that labels are convenient for marketing, and that it helps readers find similar books to the ones they’ve already enjoyed, but I really struggle with seeing how going out of your genre is a negative thing. Creativity! Diversion! Showing readers glimpses of genres they haven’t tried – which in turn could lead to new markets, more sales…”

      It’s definitely tricky, Linda. Readers who might be receptive to the book have to be able to find it; once they do find it, hopefully they’ll keep on reading.

      Thank you for taking a chance and buying Steel & Song!

  22. says

    Congratulations, Kath! Love the premise, love the cover, and love your creativity in bringing your work into the light of day that I suspect it so richly deserves! Best wishes for many sales! If this works well, are you all thinking for allowing others to publish under the Writer Unboxed banner?

    • says

      Thank you, Linda. As they say, the devil will be in the details. If the metrics mean WU pub has what it takes to be viable, we are open to broadening the scope.

  23. says

    Congratulations, Kathleen! Your book sounds amazing, and a perfect unboxed choice for the new imprint. I’m off to go buy my copy now!

  24. says

    Wow, how EXCITING!! Congratulations to you and can’t wait to hear how it goes. With this platform you should get some good initial traffic!!

    Best of luck!

  25. Cheryl Bacon says

    I’ll be turning the digital pages come dinnertime.

    Congratulations on your courage and persistence!

  26. says

    FAN-DAM-TAS-TIC! The publishing world is changing by the mili-second, so why shouldn’t WU get into the game? Good for you, Kath for returning to your love for writing. I wish you all the best and plan to download a copy of your novel~

  27. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    WOW! Wow,wow,wow! This is awesome. Unboxed is what we need in the publishing world. Wow,wow,wow!

  28. says

    Nice! Looking forward to reading the future posts on how this experiment plays out. I’ve been wanting to check out some more steampunk, lately, so I’ve added “Steel and Song” to the top of my To-Read list.

  29. Exploding Mary says

    If it continues (and I would LOVE to see that happen) what else would I like to see happen? Hmm.

    Limitless range of genres. Short story collections by multiple authors– poem cycles, ditto; anything that encourages wide collaboration and wider genre acceptance and experimentation. I would like to see new authors given a chance to be heard based on their current work, not just past & future prospects. And I would like to see WU authors and readers help create mini-events within their own communities– such as a smaller reading, that doesn’t need to cost a mint or take ages to put together; or a staged reading of a novel/story where people each take a part and read it all the way through– fun stuff!

    • says

      These are awesome ideas, Mary. I’m c/p for the file. What’s exciting about the digital age is that we can be creative and nimble. We’d love to hear more ideas — keep them coming!

  30. says

    This is awesome! And I’m adding the book to my TBR list. Congratulations!! I really do believe that experiments like this are the way of the future. And as someone who walked the traditional route as well, writing books that couldn’t find their way to a neat box, and who finally created her own imprint, I applaud you!!

    I’d love to see more about the publication process – editorial, production, cover design, etc.

    • says

      Thanks LJ. And I couldn’t be happier for your successes as well.

      It does, as they say, take a village to produce a quality work. I hope I can share the successes and the failures, because we learn from the failures most of all.

  31. says

    If Writer Unboxed Publishing evolves, what would you like to see happen?

    I would like to see Kath write more books or at least more post. *smile*

    Outside of that, I’m game for whatever. I’m still being schooled by the pros.

    Here to learn

  32. says

    Congratulations to Kath for persevering and I wish her huge success with her new series! On the other hand, I’m kinda sorry to see WU get into the publishing stream. I know I’m a renegade voice, but my attitude towards the advice shared here will change. As much as I believe in self-publishing as a valid option for some writers, there is already a lot of SP support available. WU having a vested interest in it is inevitably going to affect the original focus of the group. Still, I have great respect for its contributors and will look forward to seeing how the experiment develops.

    • says

      You might be a renegade voice, but you are not alone in your thinking, Carol J. Garvin.

      I’m picking up what you are putting down.

      Your comment is needed.

      It will add more GINORMOUS work for Momma Tee, Kay Bee, and the other fine, fantabulous busy *smile* workers here at the WU. It might cause a small skew in the advice, but overall, I think it would remain the same. The changes would happen behind the scenes more than anything else. There are some powerful speaker/writers here devoted to Craft.

  33. says

    First – Congrats Kath and I bought the book.

    Second – Um you know that thing that happens to writers when they find out that somebody else has written the same thing? Yep – my current WIP is a Steampunk action/adventure set in a world where every ship has a witch. I could get upset and kick around sand, but that would just be silly. See it is a REALLY big sandbox and just because two authors pick the same toy to play with doesn’t mean that they won’t invent entirely different games with it. And besides – I’ve looked up to Kath for YEARS and if I had an idea similar to hers (without knowing it until today) then that means I am on the right track – woot!

    Finally – Carol – while I take your point, the thing I value most about the WU community is that it is one of the few writing communities that does not ring-fence traditionally published vs self published vs indie published. The focus here is on writers and always has been. I don’t see that changing. I trust this community. I trust Therese, Kath, Vaughn, Donald and all the WU contributors. mentors and members. We got this!

    • says

      That’s awesome! Great minds and all that, EddieLouise. Let’s hope that steampunk witches become as popular as vampires or demon lovers. Because its actually more helpful to have books tracking in a similar vein, if they are good — readers start demanding more and more stories! :)

  34. says

    I love the smell of an Unboxed imprint in the morning.

    To borrow a term from my British friend, I’m chuffed for you, Kath. You’ve got your mojo back, have a book you love in the wild, and once again have proven your Unboxed cred. T is an excellent person to hang out with when one is wanting to take risks, yes?

    Please do keep us informed. I see the book is climbing the ranks already, so seems like a strong beginning. (Looking forward to reading my copy.)

  35. says

    Thanks for all of your fantastic comments and support today, everyone! I am so very proud of Kathleen, and I have a feeling you’ll all love Steel and Song as much as I do.

    Write — and read — on!

    • says

      Thanks, Heidi.

      You are correct, discovery is the toughest part. I’m keeping notes to share and picking the brain of successful indies; I’ll report back.

  36. says

    This is ALL so exciting. The nice thing about being a writer in this time of publishing sturm und drang is that we are a creative and clever bunch. And many of us can’t not write. Therefore, Creativity + Obsession with Sharing Story leads to marvelous ideas such as this. Take that sturm-drangy Big Five Publishers!

    I am proud to know both WU Mamas.

    And that cover is yllatot dar. Which is “totally rad” spelled backwards. Which is a term invented by me and my BFF in California, circa 1982 and I can’t believe never really got much traction.

    So happy for you! Moseying over to purchase right now!

    • says

      LOL, I’m totally going to start using “yllatot dar” because I was basically a So Cal beach bum in 1982 and it’s making me nostalgic. Thanks for your support, Sarah, it means so much!

  37. says

    This is so neat! I’d love to follow along w/Kath’s journey and see where it takes her. I just wish I had a Kindle, but alas, I’ve only a Nook. =( Best wishes to K and Steel and Song!

  38. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I know I’m a day late and a dollar short, but so glad to hear this and so proud of you for the new venture.

  39. Jennifer McGinnis says

    I’ve downloaded for the free trial of my kindle/netflix thingy I can’t remember the name. But I’ll never read it before the trial is over, I’m not going to order the service, so I will definitely buy assuming the rest of it is as good as the first few pages. Which I have no doubt.

    Congratulations! This is about my favorite blog, so knowing one of the people behind it is on this journey is exciting to me!

  40. says

    Thank you, Jennifer! Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription service dealio, is going to be very interesting for authors. I hope you enjoy the book!