If You Want to Build an Audience, Prepare for Rejection and Despair
Here’s the reality no one really wants to tell you
“How did you become a writer?”
The sleepy Greek restaurant purrs a low hum from a nearby refrigeration unit while Josh and I sit waiting for our lemon avgolemono soup. Josh, who also happens to be a Wall Street Journal Best-Selling Author, takes a sip of his water, then sits the opaque plastic glass down. Taking the condensation from the side of his drink, he rubs the moisture between his fingers, then looks up.
“Right now, I imagine there’s 100,000 people in our city that want to be a writer just like you.”
Josh continues to rub his fingers in circles.
“Of that 100,000, maybe half will sit down and write something, while the rest daydream about it. So now you have 50,000 people who actually sit down to write something—and it will be terrible, so they’ll never pick up the pen again. This halves the number again. Now we’re left with 25,000 aspiring writers. Of that 25,000, they’ll write a blog that no one will read, a book no one cares about, or they’ll pitch to a publication and get rejected. This rejection process will continue until there’s honestly maybe a few hundred people serious about writing.”
He pauses his incessant rubbing, then picks up his glass once more for a drink. Once finished, he leans across the table and makes his face neutral.
“Ask me how many times I’ve been rejected, Ben.”
Confused by where this story is going, but also intrigued, I oblige. “How many times have you been rejected, Josh?”
“Six hundred. I’m nearing six hundred times.”
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I often recount that story when people ask me how I became a writer, built an audience of over 40,000 people, and got a book deal with a traditional publisher. Like them, I started with zero readers. Nill. Nada. No followers. No one reading my work. Except my cat. I read my articles and stories to my cat while living alone.
Is that a sad writer’s stereotype? Probably. But I’m also tired of hearing men and woman complain that they tried writing and no one listened. They couldn’t find an audience and subsequently gave up. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither are audiences. So with this in mind, let’s do a brief thought experiment.
I want you to write about a subject or topic that lights you up. Then, I want you to put it on the internet. Tweet it. Facebook it. Hell, go wild and pitch your piece to an online publication or newspaper.
Here’s your best-case scenario:
It gets picked up by a publication, and millions of people see it and love it. But of the millions, you’ll have thousands contend you just might be the douchiest douche that’s ever lived. They can’t believe how juvenile your article is. Better yet, they want to pick it apart piece by piece.
Here’s your more likely scenario:
No one reads it. Or if they do, it’s your friends or parents. If you submitted it to a blog or publication, they won’t run it, and you probably got a rejection letter or no response at all. Deep feelings of rejection well up.
This scenario isn’t just for writing, but can be applied to everything from starting a business to personal relationships, because anytime we put our art into the world, we face the possibility of rejection and ridicule. And if I’m honest, there’s one of two ways I typically respond to rejection (and you do too):
I always have an excuse or defense prepared to mitigate my chances of being rejected by others.
I shut down and believe I’m a failure.
Rejection, however, is the one certainty you’ll be guaranteed if you ever plan on building an audience. And the simple truth is this: if there’s no follow through or consistency, you can’t ever build an actual audience who loves your work. You also get better at writing by facing rejection because it hones your weak areas. No one starts out as an awesome writer with an audience. You get better and build an audience by writing! Each member of the team here at The Write Life can tell you about articles they poured their heart and soul into, only to have no one read it. Still, we all kept writing, and with that consistency and rejection came growth.
However, an important question you have to ask yourself is whether I’m in this solely for the accolades or because I want to become a writer? People are intuitive and can sniff out bullshit. It’s why we don’t like fake influencers or people selling us products they don’t believe in to make money. And believe-you-me, there are plenty of authors who have found niches preying on people or churning out hope huckstering articles to earn an extra buck. It can be done, sure. Is it ethical? That’s for you to decide, but even they had to face down an audience of none and continue to write to build their follower count.
Here’s a fact—and anecdote—you may not like. I got my start writing on a 30 Seconds to Mars fan forum way back in 2005. On the now debunk website (don’t go looking cause it doesn’t exist), I would share stories about my life and interact with people which fanned the writing flame. However, I didn’t start writing articles until I met Josh in 2011. The day after my conversation with Josh about rejection was the moment I resolved to write. More importantly, I resolved to persevere in the face of rejection after that story he told. And boyeeeeeeee was I terrible at first. No one read anything I wrote, but I still kept writing. Many years later, numerous drafts that will never see the light of day, criticism, and rejection, people now ask me how I became a writer and I always start with what I’m telling you here. Success and acceptance are nice, but perseverance in the face of rejection and 10+ years of cranking out words are what finally caused the audience breakthrough.
So a word of advice if you’re looking to build an audience—whether you’ve been writing and no one’s reading, you’re an author who can’t catch a break, or you’re just starting out and wondering what lies ahead? My encouragement is simple: Keep going.
The valley may be hell, but the view on each new summit will help steady your resolve.
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