Becoming an author requires a lot of work, from the writing to publishing and marketing. It’s easy to get caught up in writing-related activities that don’t yield much, if anything, in results. In the lingo of economists, this phenomenon is called the sunk cost fallacy—really a high-fallutin way of pointing out how you’re wasting your time.
I just read an article about the sunk cost fallacy, and it resonated with me since I’ve so recently fallen victim to it. So, what is it and how does it work?
In economics, a “sunk cost” is a cost that you’ve already paid, says Robert Wood on Standout Books. For writers, this payment can be financial, but usually the resources that you spend are time, energy, and emotional commitment.
For example, if you spend an evening writing or editing a story, that evening is gone. It’s a sunk cost. Sunk costs also include the times you turn down recreational plans for work, or you write a chapter even though you’re exhausted. You intend that these sunk costs get you to publication and sales. But what happens when it seems that you might not achieve your goal?
Common sense says you should give up on the project and move on to something that will reward your efforts. However, usually people keep plugging away at the same goal, even if it shows no results. They do so because of the sunk cost fallacy, which says that the more you invest in something, the harder it is to abandon it. People think sunk costs are something to be recouped rather than something that’s gone, regardless of the outcome.
How can you know when it’s best to give up on a book? The one you’ve worked so hard on? Your baby?
It’s easier to avoid the sunk cost fallacy if you decide before you start writing how far you’re willing to go. Set realistic, even generous, dates for completing first and second drafts. When you’ve put nearly a year into a book, and you’re looking at another year before it’s anything close to ready, having a piece of paper that says you should have been done three months ago will help you walk away. (Wish I’d done that.)
But let’s say you’re two years into that project with no end in sight. You’ve blinked hard and decided to quit. What then?
Your time and energy can’t be recovered, but you might be able to repurpose some of the work—such as the characters, plot, themes, or setting—for your next book. Best of all, you can “repurpose” the time you would have spent trying to make the old project work. The sooner you quit, the more time you get to pursue a bestseller.
And if you still can’t give up your baby, put it away for five years. The sunk cost fallacy will be far less powerful with some distance, and you’ll be able to look more objectively at whether it’s worth investing more time and energy.
I spent more than two years working on my last project, and I fretted for the last year over quitting, although I never did. Do I regret all that time? I sure do. Now I’m 500 words into the new book (first day!), and you can be sure I’ll be working on a realistic time for completion. Life’s too short to spend it on one book.
Have you ever been trapped by the sunk cost fallacy?