One of the hardest things about being a creator or innovator is the sense of unrequited love.
I have created a lot of things in my life, but much of the time, I feel like I’m talking to myself. I spent ten years chipping away at my novel The Lords of Harambee but it sold fewer than 300 copies. It is demoralizing spending half a day writing a blog post, only to earn a mere handful of likes. In the past few weeks I received five rejection notices for short stories. I have been writing personal emails to influencers who I believe might have a particular interest in my new book Eating Glass: The Inner Journey Through Failure and Renewal. For every twenty emails I send out, I might get three polite dismissals and one lead.
My experience is pretty typical for creators. Most nonfiction books sell fewer than 250 copies a year and fewer than 3000 over their lifetime; some estimates put total sales of most books below 500 copies. The anecdotal acceptance rate for the SF magazines I send my short stories to is around 1%. Many bloggers spend years talking to themselves or a small core audience before they hit an inflection point. We live in a noisy world where supply far exceeds demand, so getting noticed often feels impossible. All we can do is keep at it.
It is easy to take this personally. We want the universe to meet our creative energy with love, enthusiasm, and whole-hearted acceptance. Creative pursuits often entail putting our whole selves on the line, so the world’s response (or lack of a response) feels like a referendum on our value as human beings. Entrepreneurs know the pain and sometimes humiliation of making a hundred pitches to win a single supporter. When our work goes unloved, our natural inclination can be an overwhelming feeling of rejection.
In his marvelous 2012 commencement address, Neil Gaiman presents the best reframe of this dynamic that I have ever encountered. He says:
“A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”
His words ring so true. Most artists build followings over years of hard, dedicated work. Most bottles go unanswered. A professional learns to play the long game. She spends little time fretting over the fate of any particular bottle; each time she floats one off to sea, she gets right to work stuffing the next one.
The flip side of this is the sheer joy that comes when we finally glimpse those first bottles bobbing back on the tide. Who would have thought? The metaphor evokes so much more intimacy than abstract click rates and sales figures. Someone sent me a message in a bottle!
I still remember the phone call I received at age 19, informing me my short story took 1st runner-up in a contest and I was being invited to an exclusive writing conference with famous authors I loved. More recently, one of my students showed up at my door with a dog-eared copy of my book Eating Glass, shaken in the best possible way; she opened up how my book spoke to her. I recently had the opportunity to speak with an undergraduate class about entrepreneurship, thanks to an invitation from a professor who read an article I wrote five years ago. This week a Polish science fiction magazine requested to translate and publish a story I wrote seven years ago. These moments of authentic, personal connection validate my years of investment in the writing process.
It would be nice to see the metrics on my side. Someday I would love to see upticks in newsletter subscriptions and book sales. But it’s the messages in bottles that I will always cherish, with their precious handwritten notes on rolled scrap paper, answering my humble call from across an ocean of improbability.
If your first contributions to the world go answered, do not lose heart. Keep placing your messages in bottles and sending them out to sea.