Normally on Novel Marketing we talk about how to build your platform, sell more books, and change the world with writing worth talking about. But this is episode 250 and we are going to do something different. I am going to tell my story.
So, who is Thomas Umstattd Jr.? How did he come to start podcasting and how did this podcast get to 250 episodes? At the end we also have some fun voicemails from listeners with their top lessons learned over the years of the podcast.
The School Years
Around 1992 my dad brought his old 8086 green screen computer home from the office.
Even in 1992, this computer was a dinosaur. The screen had two colors green and white and you had to type commands into it 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 mostly watched, but he showed me what he was doing as he did it and I played close attention. 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 which meant if we wanted to listen to a CD, we had to listen to it through the tiny little computer speakers.
Back then I was a poor reader and an even worse writer. To this day I am a slow reader which is probably why I like audiobooks so much. I was especially insecure about my handwriting and my spelling. I cooped by doing everything on that computer.
These were the days of Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia and using a computer to do a book report was not necessarily easier than just writing on paper. Around 12 years old I went paperless for almost all of my school. The only time I would touch a pencil was for math. I got away with this because my mom homeschooled us.
The problem was computers in those days were not very reliable. I learned how to fix and upgrade my computer and 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 closing in on six feet tall and incredibly awkward. The bass section was filled with what nerds. Or at least that is what we would have been called if we were in a real highschool 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 then when websites cost a small fortune to build. 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 around the age of 14 years 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 this new way of doing school called a co-op. Homeschool parents had been teaching classes to each other’s kids for a long time, but this coop was the first time all those teachers would be brought into one place. This reduced the amount of driving the moms needed to do. The classes were once a week and the 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 weren’t any I offered to teach a class on web design. I was an “award winning webmaster” afterall. Sure I had never had a technology class in my life but I had built several websites at that time. I had also served as a intern legislative aide for a State Representative.
They were so desperate for teachers that first year they let me teach, provided I build a free website for the organization. I found adults in those days were very willing to trade influence and responsibility for free websites. This gave me a lot of access to the room where it happened despite the fact I was a third the age of everyone else there.
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 in the textbook as I taught them all how to build websites.
I still remember that classes were on Tuesdays because our second or third class of the year was on September 11 2001. I remember 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 had 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 as a 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 right now because of the pandemic. I will say 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, worked as a legislative aide and as a full time volunteer & online coordinator for a congressional campaign.
Most importantly though, I learned how to learn on my own. I could take a book and learn a skill from that book without having a teacher spoon feed me the information. This is a skill most homeschoolers end up learning because their moms don’t know everything. It is also the most important skill you can learn.
My homeschool education prepared me for a job that at the time did not even exist. 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 of building people free (or cheap) websites. I swore I would stay out of the IT world and become a businessman. My plan was to start a business either 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.
I remember running into an author at one of those conferences who lived in my area. I was so excited to meet a real author, I offered to do something for her 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 them 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 them a website. I had total strangers writing me checks for new websites right there at the conferences.
Publishers were not excited about my book idea despite the fact 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. I am glad I didn’t publish it. I suspect God’s purpose for me writing that book was the change writing it would bring inside of me, not the change the book would bring about in the world. Writing that book is what led to my first podcast and 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. Writing that book helped get 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 surly 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 on 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.
- would want to listen to them in their cars, they did.
- unable to listen to mp3s in their cars. They didn’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 for an unabridged Victorian novel. CDs don’t retain your playback position like a cassette tape. If you take your CD out of your car and put it in your home stereo it starts again at the beginning of the CD. Oh and a dozen CDs is always going to be expensive which is not a good fit for Homeschoolers on only one income.
CDs were worse for audiobooks than cassette tapes. This is a big reason why audiobooks are growing so quickly now, they still have ground to make up that they lost during the heyday of the CD.
The year I graduated college, 2008 was the year 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 sat down for lunch with a serial entrepreneur. I shared with him my frustrations with my failed audiobook business and that somehow I was back in the web design business despite my best efforts. I told him about a new business idea I had about 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, paid, and 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 highschool, 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 on marketing and social media. In those days, social media actually helped a few authors get 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 authors wanting help than I had time to help them, so I started hiring webmasters. First one person, then another. Finally I came to work one day in 2012 and there were around a dozen people working in my office crafting wordpress websites and helping authors launch and sell more books.
One challenge we faced was the amount of time it took to build out book pages for prolific authors. The best practice is for each book to have its own webpage on an author’s website so Google knows where to send people who are search for that book. But for an author with three dozen books, this is a lot of work. So we developed a WordPress plugin in house to help make building book pages easier. For about a year we just used it ourselves.
Something was changing in the industry about that time. 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. These readers were looking to fill their Kindles and they were doing it with inexpensive indie books.
Traditional publishers got scared and started being more conservative with advances and less adventurous with new authors. Author Media mostly built websites for traditionally authors who were spending their advances on new websites. When those advances get smaller the website is often the first thing to get cut from the budget.
Indie authors didn’t have $10,000 of advance money to spend on a new website and in general were building their own websites, which was getting easier and easier with each new version of WordPress.
So, we decided to make a version of MyBookTable for this new breed of “do-it-yourself” author. 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 where we started targeting 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 we also 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 that 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.
It got over 1 million pageviews and suddenly I had a whole community clambering for me to write a book about courtship, dating and relationships. Having worked with authors for all these years and going through the book writing process before I knew how much work it would be 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 editors’ the cover, typesetting and what not. This was also my way of seeing if there really was 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 and it was only a few years till I started going steady with the woman who would become my wife. 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) everything I started I was still doing in one way or another. I counted up my areas of responsibility and at one point I had at least 18 roles of responsibility.
These included running meetup groups, sitting on the board of directors for nonprofits, hosting five podcasts, serving as a Fractional Marketing Director for a marketing company, and traveling the world speaking, and dabbling in real estate, and on and on. Oh yeah and I was also a Literary Agent.
Even if I wasn’t married. I was doing too much. Even if we didn’t have a baby with another on the way I was doing too much. And what is worse, since I was doing so many things, none of them were flourishing. Everything needed more of my 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 had had but it wasn’t the first. My mental state was getting worse and worse.
Something had to change.
I came across this 700 year old tree while speaking in Switzerland that had been pruned down to its nubs. Those nubs were bursting with life. I realized that needed to be me. 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 also going through a similar season of being spread too thin. Jim stepped down from hosting the podcast and I set myself a goal of getting 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 I had in doing that thing. I tallied up the scores of joy, money and easiness and started cutting the things that scored poorly. It was easy at first but got harder and harder the more things I cut.
I have spent the last year or so getting rid of things. I sold the MyBookTable and MyBookProgress plugins to Stormhill Media. This is a painful process. Pruning is 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 chart. The podcast is a lot of work and until recently didn’t make much money. When I mention 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 been pruning other things which has allowed me to put more energy into the podcast. Novel Marketing was never my #1 project, at least not until 2020. In some ways the podcast is brand new. We have blog posts for all new episodes now and I am able to spend more time on the episodes which I would like to think has improved the quality, although that is hard for me to judge.
Overall, I still feel like I am recovering from that breakdown last year. 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 highschool class.
One thing that has helped were the masterminds in my mastermind group who have walked with me though all of this for the last seven years.
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. Maybe I could do what I most love doing, teach, and that would be enough.
While I enjoy building a website for someone, I much more enjoy seeing the confidence in someone’s eyes who has learned how to build their own author website. It is a feeling of power and influence. 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 in selling fish.
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 some big company. I used to want those things too. I’ve had to let those dreams die. I’ve stepped back from politics and 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 make 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 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 listening to this different kind of episode! Also thank you to everyone who sent in congratulations and lessons learned. I got way more recordings than I can share in this episode, so I will play some here and I will also play some at the end of some episodes moving forward.
The post Episode 250: The Story of Novel Marketing and Thomas Umstattd Jr. appeared first on Author Media.