When I went to bed on Tuesday night, I had 50 subscribers on Tapas, a popular webcomic app that also has a “novels” section of its site. When I woke up the next morning, I that number had jumped to 88. I hit the “trending” page and the number kept climbing, clearing 200 before the end of the day. I got likes and comments of the “So glad I found this!” and “thanks for making this. Don’t stop!” variety. It felt and still feels really good. As much of a buzz as this is, I know not to put too much stock in the feeling – “con-crash” is just around the corner. It was, however, a moment to stop and reflect on success, and my own reaction to it. So, in no particular order:
Success will always be relative. Ok, so in a sense, 200+ subscribers isn’t that big a deal. Any popular Youtube channel dwarfs that, and most of the big-name novels on the site are in the 15k range of subscribers. But that’s always going to be true. There will always be a bigger fish than me out there, someone who’s got more fans, more financial success, more whatever. That would still be true even if I had 100k subscribers. But what I’m experiencing right now? This is a big milestone for me. A bunch of internet strangers who owe me nothing thought a thing I made was worth reading. So I’m going to enjoy that success without caveat or apology. If I don’t, if I keep waiting for a bigger win, I’ll never get around to it.
Good creative work does not sell itself, but it does put you in the game – and that’s both encouraging and frustrating. One of the biggest lies that was told to me as an amateur creative in college is this idea that “good work sells itself”. I’ve seen it have two big effects on creatives. First, many never learn or attempt to promote themselves on the grounds that if they just do good enough work, the success will come on its own. The second is that they feel an overwhelming sense of self-doubt and frustration when their hard work is not scooped up by the masses, propelling them to instant, overnight fame and success.
Here’s the thing: Nothing about the content of Book 1: Defrag of Glitch changed between when I first started uploading it to Tapas back in August and the night it started trending. Not so much as a comma splice. It was a good story before people noticed it. In a sense that’s encouraging. Just because the world doesn’t know it exists, or take notice of it, doesn’t mean it’s a bad work. On the flip side, you could be the Shakespeare of our time, and there’s still no guarantee that the world at large would notice. That’s insanely frustrating.
Having said that, as the Roman philosopher Seneca once noted, “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” If you don’t have solid work to begin with, the moment when an algorithm favors you or a gatekeeper happens across your work won’t avail you anything. I think the lesson I’m triangulating on is this: Do not attempt to assess the value of your work purely by who takes notice of it. That way lies madness.
Don’t lose sight of why you started. I, like most warm-blooded humans, am susceptible to flattery and the approval of others. Some of that is the endorphin rush, and some of that is good-old-fashioned ego. Having said that, when the dust of excitement settles, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to say thank you, reply to any comments, and then go back to writing, the same way I have for years. I want to tell good stories. I’ve been given a lot in my time – writing is one way I can give back. That goal is an anchor for my little craft in the ebb and flow of the tides of people noticing my work. It helps keep me stable. The only difference now is that when I hit ‘publish’, I know there are people waiting for the story on the other side of the internet. And that’s a really nice feeling.