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This week we celebrate the 250th episode of the Novel Marketing podcast by celebrating our stories.
Normally on Novel Marketing we talk about how to build your platform, sell more books, and change the world with writing worth talking about. At the end of this post, a few podcast listeners share their top lessons learned from the podcast over the years.
For our 250th episode, I am going to tell my story.
Who is Thomas Umstattd Jr.? How did he start podcasting, and how did this podcast get to 250 episodes?
The School Years
Around 1992, my dad brought his old 8086 green screen computer home from his office.
Even in 1992, this computer was a dinosaur. The screen had two colors: green and white. You had to type commands to get it to do anything. For a seven-year-old who struggled with spelling, this proved to be a challenge but a worthy one. If I could figure out how to get the machine to go, there were games to play.
A few years later, with the help of a family friend, I built my own computer. I watched and paid close attention as he showed me what he was doing. It was a multimedia PC with speakers and a CD-Rom. For a time, it was the only CD player we had in the house. If we wanted to listen to a CD, we had to listen through the tiny computer speakers.
Back then, I was a poor reader and an even worse writer. I am still a slow reader, which is probably why I like audiobooks so much. I was especially insecure about my handwriting and spelling, and I coped with those insecurities by doing everything on that computer.
These were the days of Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Using a computer to complete a book report was not necessarily easier than writing on paper. When I was 12, I went paperless for almost all of my school work. I only touched a pencil to do math. I got away with it because my mom homeschooled us.
Unfortunately, in those days, computers were not very reliable. I learned to fix and upgrade my computer. For years, it ran without a case since I fiddled with the innards so much.
In 1998, at 13 years old, I joined a homeschool choir. I was nearly six feet tall and incredibly awkward. The bass section was filled with nerds. Or at least that’s what we would have been called if we were in a real high school. But since we were homeschooled, there were no cool kids to call us nerds. We had no idea we were nerds.
We started dabbling with building web pages, and when the choir director Kathy Hargis heard about it, she created a new elected position for the choir called “Choir Webmaster.” Of the nerds, I was the only one to run for the new position, and I won the election in a landslide.
Our choir director was a savvy operator and knew she was about to score a free website. This was a big deal back when it cost a small fortune to build a website.
She didn’t realize it, but she also launched my career. That choir website was the first website I ever built. It was a Microsoft Frontpage monstrosity, but it was a real website on the internet that I had built as a 14-year-old.
That original site has been lost to time, but this version from 2002 can be found on the Way Back Machine.
A few years later, I submitted the site to the Junior Web Awards, which presented itself as a contest of web design like the Academy Awards. I won the “Gold Award,” and my choir director bought the corresponding trophy to present to me at our big end-of-the-year concert.
I later learned that everyone who applied won the award, and the organization existed only to sell trophies. But none of us knew that at the time.
In 2001, some homeschool moms in our area wanted to experiment with a new way of homeschooling called a co-op. Homeschool parents had been teaching classes to each others’ kids for a long time, but this co-op was the first time all those parents-teachers would be assembled in one place. This reduced the amount of driving the moms needed to do. Classes were held once a week. Parents paid the teachers directly, and the teachers then paid a small fee to the coop to cover various expenses.
I heard they were looking for teachers and asked if there were any technology classes. When I found out there were none, I offered to teach a class on web design. I was an “award winning webmaster” after all. I had never attended a technology class in my life, but I had built several websites by that time. I had also served as an intern legislative aide for a State Representative.
The homeschool co-op was so desperate for teachers that first year that they let me teach provided I build a free website for the organization. I learned that adults very willing to trade influence and responsibility for a free website because people were desperate for a website they could afford. This gave me a lot of access to the room where it happened despite the fact I was one-third the age of the other teachers present.
In the first semester, we learned HTML, and in the second semester, we learned Dreamweaver. I say “we learned” because I stayed a couple of chapters ahead of the other students as I taught them all how to build websites.
I remember we held classes on Tuesdays because our second or third class of the year was on September 11, 2001. I was trying to teach a class on HTML when all I really wanted to do was listen to the radio about the attack on our country.
I taught about half-a-dozen students in that class, and one of them went on to be an engineer at Intel. I am pretty sure she knew more about HTML than I did by the end of the class.
Instead of teaching the next year, I took a semester off of school to work full time for a congressional candidate who had a special election on the other side of the state.
I know a lot of you are facing homeschooling for the first time because of the pandemic. As a homeschool graduate, I received an excellent education I could not have received in a traditional school. By the time I graduated, I had run my own teaching business, served as a legislative aide, and worked as a full-time volunteer online coordinator for a congressional campaign.
Most importantly, I learned how to learn on my own. I could learn a skill from a book without having a teacher spoon-feed me the information. Most homeschoolers develop this skill because their moms don’t know everything. Learning to learn on your own is the most important skill you can learn.
My homeschool education prepared me for a job that did not even exist at the time. There was no such thing as a professional podcaster back in those days.
Writing My First Book
When I went to college, I was burnt out on building websites for free (or little pay). I swore I would stay out of the IT world and become a businessman. I planned to start a business toward the end of college or shortly after I graduated.
While in college, I felt God call me to write a book about video game addiction. So I started going to writers conferences.
At one of those conferences, I ran into a writer who lived in my area. I was so excited to meet a real author that I offered to do something for her that I swore I would never do again. I offered to build her a free website.
She loved the website and started recommending me to all her friends. I started charging for building websites, and suddenly I had a website business.
Few people at the conferences were excited about my book. They were excited about getting someone to build a website. Total strangers wrote me checks for the new websites I would build.
Publishers were not excited about my book idea even though I already had a podcast about the book’s topic. I was way before my time in terms of podcasting. No one in Christian publishing knew what a podcast was in 2007.
I am glad I wrote that book. But, like most first books, it wasn’t very good, and I am glad I didn’t publish it.
I suspect God’s purpose for me in writing that book was the change he meant to affect inside of me, not the change the book would bring about in the world. Writing the book led to hosting my first podcast and attending my first writers conferences.
I learned that just because you are called to write a book doesn’t mean you are called to publish a book.
But writing that book started me on the path that led me to where I am today.
The No-Good-Very-Bad Year
There I was with the beginnings of a web design business, but I really didn’t want to do web design. I was taking an entrepreneurship class at the time, and I fell in love with the business plan we were required to create as homework. I got an A on the business plan, so surely it was ready for prime time.
I decided to start that business in real life.
The business plan called for taking public domain recordings of public domain books, burning them onto CDs, and selling them to homeschoolers.
I assumed that homeschoolers:
- Drove a lot because they lived far from urban centers. They did.
- Would be interested in unabridged super old books. They were.
- Wanted to listen to them in their cars. They did.
- Were unable to listen to mp3s in their cars. They couldn’t (in 2008).
Our tagline was “turn your car into a classroom,” and it seemed to be a perfect fit for the homeschool market.
I made one critical mistake.
I assumed that homeschoolers would be willing to pay for those books in CD format. They were not.
It turns out, CDs are a terrible format for audiobooks. They only hold about 80 minutes of audio, which means you need over a dozen CDs for an unabridged Victorian novel. CDs don’t retain your playback position like a cassette tape. If you take a CD out of your car and put it in your home stereo, it starts over at the beginning of the CD.
What’s more, a dozen CDs is expensive. Expensive products are not a good fit for Homeschoolers since most families live on only one income.
CDs were a worse technology for audiobooks than cassette tapes. This is a big reason why audiobooks are growing so quickly now. They’re making up for lost time during the heyday of the CD.
In 2008, when I graduated from college, that business failed. The economy was collapsing. My grandfather, the inventor of Captain Crunch, died, and my dad almost died. I was in a courtship with a young woman that year which failed famously.
It was a no-good-very-bad year for me.
The next year, I had lunch with a serial entrepreneur. I shared with him my frustrations about my failed audiobook business. I confessed that somehow I was back in the web design business despite my best efforts to stay out of it. I divulged my newest business idea for starting a micro news business where small communities would have their own WordPress news sites.
He asked, “What is your unfair advantage with the micro news sites?”
“I can build the websites cheaply, but other than that, I don’t really have one.” I replied.
“How about the author website business? Any unfair advantages there?”
“I can teach. I’ve already been invited to speak at several conferences on author websites and social media. Anyone else would have to pay for a booth at those conferences. But I get flown in for free, I get paid, and I get to speak from the stage.”
He leaned back and said, “I think you have your answer.”
The Rise of Author Media
With that conversation in mind, I decided to double down on building author websites. Just like in high school, being the tech guy gave me a lot of access to influential people. Everyone was trying to be an author, but almost no one was trying to be a webmaster for authors.
I launched a website called AuthorTechTips.com where I blogged about marketing and social media. In those days, social media actually helped a few authors secure book contracts! The website won several awards from Writer’s Digest as one of the most helpful websites for authors.
A few years later, I bought AuthorMedia.com for around $1500, and AuthorTechTips.com became AuthorMedia.com.
I had more requests for author websites than I could handle by myself, so I started hiring webmasters. First one person, then another. One day in 2012, I came to work and realized there were a dozen people working in my office, crafting WordPress websites, and helping authors launch and sell more books.
One challenge we faced was the time-intensive task of building individual book pages for prolific authors. The best practice is for each book to have its own webpage on an author’s website so that Google knows where to send people who are searching for that book. But for an author with three dozen books, this is a lot of work. To solve our problem and save ourselves time, we developed a WordPress plugin to make building book pages easier. For about a year, we just used it ourselves.
About that time, there was a big change in the industry. The Amazon Kindle 4 came out, and readers could buy a new Kindle for less than $100. Suddenly, millions of people were buying Kindles for the first time. readers wanted to fill their Kindles, and they were buying lots of inexpensive indie ebooks.
Traditional publishers got scared and became more conservative with author advances and less adventurous with new authors. Author Media mostly built websites for traditionally published authors who spent their advances on new websites. When those advances got smaller, the new website was often the first thing an author would cut from their budget.
Indie authors didn’t have $10,000 of advance money to spend on a new website. Since building websites was getting easier with each new version of WordPress, many indie authors were building their own websites.
So, we decided to create a version of our book-page-builder plugin for this new breed of “do-it-yourself” authors. We put MyBookTable on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $2500 to cover the cost of adapting the plugin for public use. People got excited and ended up pledging over $10,000 for the plugin.
This was the beginning of a major shift for Author Media as we started serving indie authors.
Flying too Close to the Sun
In 2013, I started the Novel Marketing Podcast with James L Rubart. I started the Bestseller Society, which was an online training community for authors. In addition to continuing to develop MyBookTable, my company launched several other new plugins, MyBookProgress, MySpeakingEvents, and MySpeakingPage.
In 2014, I wrote a blog post on my personal blog titled Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed, and it went viral, especially in the homeschool community. It was a post about my observations of courtship culture and an explanation of why many homeschoolers who wanted to get married were unable to do so.
After it received 1 million pageviews, I suddenly had a whole community clambering for me to write a book about courtship, dating, and relationships. Having worked with authors for so many years and having gone through the book-writing process once before, I knew how much work it would take to create this book.
So, as a way of calling everyone’s bluff, I put the book on Kickstarter and asked for $10,000 to cover the cost of editing, cover design, typesetting, and a myriad of other expenses. This was my way of investigating whether there was truly a demand for the book.
To my surprise, the readers of my blog raised over $11,000. So, in addition to everything else I was doing, I started writing a book.
Now that I was no longer “Mr. Courtship,” I was able to go on dates for the first time in my life at the age of 29. Dating was fun. After a few years, I started going steady with the woman who would become my wife. Interestingly, she was the first comment on the courtship blog post and my first kiss.
I loved being married, and soon we were expecting our first child.
There was only one problem, and I suspect you know what it is.
I was doing too much.
With the exception of the audiobook business (which failed) and the Bestseller Society (which I sold), I was still maintaining and working on everything I had started. I counted my areas of responsibility, and at one point, I had at least 18 leadership roles.
- running meetup groups
- sitting on the board of directors for nonprofits
- hosting five podcasts
- serving as a Fractional Marketing Director for a marketing company
- traveling the world speaking
- dabbling in real estate
- working as a literary agent
Even if I had been single, I was doing too much. Even if we didn’t have a baby with another on the way, I was doing too much. And even worse, since I was doing so many things, none of them were flourishing. Everything needed more attention than I could give.
I was miserable.
One day in May of 2019, I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t get out of bed. I laid there the whole day, unable to decide what to work on next and completely unmotivated. This was the worst breakdown I’d ever had, but it wasn’t the first. My mental state was getting worse and worse.
Something had to change.
While I was teaching in Switzerland, I came across a 700-year-old tree. It had been pruned down to its nubs, but when I looked closely, those nubs were bursting with life. I realized I needed to be pruned. I needed Aslan to tear away the layers of dragon flesh to find the human underneath.
In 2019 James Rubart and I did an episode about pruning on Novel Marketing. Jim Rubart was going through a similar season of being spread too thin. Jim stepped down from hosting the podcast, and I set a goal for myself to prune until I was down to one business card by the time I turned 35.
I ranked all of my activities based on how easy they were, how much money they made, and how much joy each activity brought me. I tallied the scores of joy, money, and ease, and then I started cutting the things that scored poorly. It was easy at first, but the more things I cut, the more difficult it became.
I have spent the last year or so getting rid of things. I sold the MyBookTable and MyBookProgress plugins to Stormhill Media. This was s a painful process. Pruning means you’re doing work to make less money, especially in the short term.
So far, I have cut two-thirds of my areas of responsibility.
Hosting this podcast always scored high on joy in my analysis. The podcast is a lot of work, and until recently, it didn’t make much money. When I say that patrons help keep this show on the air, I mean it. If it weren’t for listeners supporting the show financially, the show would have scored lower on my chart, and I would have been forced to consider cutting it in my season of pruning.
Instead, I have pruned other things. This has allowed me to put more energy into the podcast. Novel Marketing was never my number-one project until 2020.
In some ways, the podcast is brand new. We have blog posts for all new episodes now. I can spend more time on the episodes, which I believe has improved the quality (Let me know in the comments or Facebook group if you agree or not).
Overall, I still feel like I am recovering from that breakdown. My physical health is still bad, and I don’t feel as confident as I used to be. As I tell this story, I almost don’t recognize that 16-year-old who thought he could teach a high school class.
My fellow masterminds in my mastermind group have walked with me through all of this for the last seven years, and they have been a tremendous help.
Novel Marketing podcast listeners, and especially those of you who support the podcast financially, have also been a huge source of support and encouragement. Your patronage made me feel like I didn’t need to do a million things. Since I loved teaching people, maybe I could focus on teaching and it would be enough.
While I enjoy building a website for someone, I I get more joy when I see the confidence of a person who has learned how to build their own author website. People feel empowered and influential. I love giving people that feeling.
I want to teach authors how to fish more than I want to sell them fish, even though there is a lot more money to be made in selling fish.
When I was growing up, adults told me I was destined for great things. They saw my hustle and expected me to run for political office or run a big company. I used to want those things too. I’ve had to let those dreams die. I’ve stepped back from politics, and I no longer run a big company.
Now, I want to spend time with my family and get my mental and physical health back. I want to record podcast episodes and create courses. I want that to be enough.
My little ones will only be little for a short time, and I don’t want to miss it. I also want to live to see them grow up. While the lockdown has been hard with stir-crazy babies, it has also been a chance to spend time with my wife and kids.
I am still in the process of getting down to that one business card, and I turn 35 in November. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Thanks for celebrating 250 episodes with me.
Share Your Story
Thanks to the following listeners for sharing these lessons they’ve learned from Novel Marketing over the years. I love these pieces of encouragement. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged as you see the success other authors have had.
Thank you for listening, sharing, and supporting the podcast. I could not do this without you, and now that you know my story, you know I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
“I’ve learned so much from your wonderful podcast over the last years. But mostly, I’ve learned the value of time and how to make the most of the time I spend each day writing.”
You shared a sermon you heard by an old man and how he said time is like a wheelbarrow full of gems. That resonated with me because time is precious. Thank you for teaching me how to use the time that I devote to my writing wisely. And I look forward to your next 250 podcasts.”
—Linda Buchard, author of the forthcoming children’s book, The Witches Three Count on Me.
“I learned how to lasso keywords on Novel Marketing.”
—Jamie Foley author of Emberhawk
“I’ve learned so much from Novel Marketing Podcasts that it’s hard to pick one thing that stands out above all others. But I must say, episode 68, Where to Spend your Marketing Money, really put me on the right track and steered me away from wasteful marketing efforts. Novel Marketing continues to deliver actionable information that helps authors sell more books and get more readers. Congratulations, Novel Marketing, for reaching this milestone, and thank you so much.”
—William Timothy Murray, author of the epic fantasy The Year of the Red Door
“From Novel Marketing, I learned about the fascinating trends that will likely come from COVID-19.”
—Shauna E. Black author of The Phantom Nightingale
“I’ve learned so many things from listening to your podcast. But one episode, in particular, was an interview with David Rawlings on his marketing. What he learned about marketing really stuck with me. I especially learned that I need to think of what my unique strengths are. He looked at his strength as being from Australia and letting people in on all things Australian. I also learned from him to consider where I invest my marketing dollars and to be careful about choosing the right opportunity instead of scatter-shotting things.”
—Lori Stanley Roeleveld, author of The Art of Hard Conversations: Biblical Tools for the Tough Talks that Matter
One thing I learned from Novel Marketing that knocked my socks off was how to focus on the importance of your website. That is just huge.
—Robin Luftig, author of Ladies of the Fire
Two of the episodes I found especially meaningful were 164 on getting reading clubs to choose my book and 165 on creating resources for those book readers. In particular, the discussion questions and tips on crafting a really tremendous leader’s guide were so helpful.
—Cheryl Elton, author of Pathway of Peace: Living in a Growing Relationship with Christ
Using Thomas’ advice from NMP, my Kickstarter overfunded by 358%, and I was able to fund an audiobook version as well.
—Jonathan Shuerger author, of Shades of Black and The Exorcism of Frosty the Snowman
I have been writing a children’s picture book, which is about to be published, and it wasn’t until I listened to your podcast on how to spend less time marketing your book that I realized a missing detail.
At the end of the podcast, you mentioned your friendly toddler and how she hasn’t had the opportunity to be with other children her age. It struck me that children all around the world are missing that socialization and the facial cues that come from smiles and things we are now covering up while wearing masks. As a writer, I feel challenged to use more friendly warmth in my stories. So, thank you for that and for the many hours of important and informative podcasts.
—Amry Cortidino, author of Eventide Trilogy
“I learned three important things listening to Novel Marketing. First, I learned how to have an effective book launch. Second, I learned how to do effective marketing without going crazy. And third, I learned how to create the most effective website.”
—Michael Jack Webb, author of Infernal Gates
“I’m so thankful for the Novel Marketing Podcast for showing me how doing a podcast can be an important part of getting my message and stories out there as a nonfiction writer. Not only has it shown me how to do it, step by step, but it has also been a constant source of encouragement along the way.”
—Roger Lowther, author of The Broken Leaf
Very interesting to hear your history, Thomas. I’ve been a listener for several years and honestly would not be much of an indie author without your podcast. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned from listening is not to be intimidated by marketing, but instead to play with it, accept that some, maybe most of my efforts will fail, but to keep what works for me and not worry about everything else that others say I “must” do to be successful.
Thanks so much for all your work and I will be praying for complete restoration of health for you.
I just discovered your podcast and this is the first episode that I listened to. I enjoyed your personal story. Thanks for sharing.