The Sunk Cost Fallacy and Writing

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I don’t remember how I stumbled onto the term ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’.  It was probably in a forum and I tried not to give it a second though.  Yet, it really struck a chord with me because it touches on how I see parts of my life.  The meme kind of explains it, but I’ll give a better definition.  At least, I’ll try.

Sunk Cost Fallacy–  Sunk costs are money, time, effort, and power that have already been put into a project.  They cannot be recovered or reclaimed.  A person looks at these as a reason to continue on a path that is no longer garnering success.  We go ‘I already invested in this, so I may as well keep going’ and continue without much in the way of adjustment or considering walking away.  The past costs are included in our future decisions even though they’re gone and cannot be recovered.

Most times I see this is in regards to business or relationships.  Yet, it can be used for just about anything that a person invests time and money into.  We’re raised with a variety of sayings to lock in the sunk cost fallacy too:

  • Your time will come.
  • Hard work will always get you to success.
  • Quitting is for losers.
  • Determination is key.
  • Things will change for the better if you have faith.

All of these are phrases we use to make sure we never give up regardless of how badly things are going.  Makes sense in some arenas, but they turn up for everything.  Our society hates quitting, which is why we idolize those who appear to be those who never give up.  Although, if you look at most idols, many of them have a moment where they recognized a sunk cost fallacy and bailed.  Any rich person who saw the signs and left before a company went under actually quit in the face of inevitable disaster.  We call that smart for them, but other people who do it get laughed at.  That’s a whole other topic that I won’t get into.

How does this relate to me and writing?

I wonder if I’m living a ‘sunk cost fallacy’.  I’ve put so much money, energy, and time into my dream of being an author.  Now, it’s mostly time and energy.  Yet, I’m not going anywhere and it doesn’t look like that will change.  It’s even a challenge doing the writing part these days.  As it stands, I probably won’t be able to work on anything new until the summer unless I utilize my weekends properly.  That’s going to be touch since it’s a long run until the next break and I’ll be exhausted.  This is when people typically tell me that I just have to be patient and my time will come, but that rings hollow after 20 years.  In fact, this is what feeds the ‘sunk cost fallacy’.

The reason I keep going is because I don’t know any better and I think about all of the time and effort I put into it.  Quitting will make me feel bitter, defeated, and broken since writing and publishing was the dream.  Even if I couldn’t make enough money to live comfortably, I’d like to get a steady stream of sales.  An occasional blast usually gives me $15-$17, but that happens once every 2-3 months.  I’d boost the prices up to $2.99 again, but what would the point be?  Nobody seems to be interested, including many who cheer me on.  Don’t even get me started on how I’d only be able to get reviews if I paid people or sent out thousands of free copies, which I always thought was against Amazon guidelines.  I guess that’s only if you’re reported or not popular enough to get away with it.  End of that rant for now.

So, do I continue the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ or do I give up?  I know the rhetoric about following your dream.  I see that I have limited time and many on this side of the Internet aren’t supportive at all.  Me continuing to write is seen as sad and wasteful.  It’s not even considered a hobby by some while other people don’t even remember or acknowledge that I do it.  This amplifies the situation since I now have people telling me to give up and that I wasted my time.  Let’s leave out that I had a good run, but learned later that someone took action that secretly hurt me.  Guess there’s a sense that I’m not failing on my own terms too, which may keep me going.  It’s all a hodgepodge of thoughts with several that I can’t talk about on the blog.

Anyway, what do you think of the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ in regards to artistic endeavors?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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28 Responses to The Sunk Cost Fallacy and Writing

  1. I think, to some extent, it depends on what the end goal is. If it is to make money or be on book stands at the airport, then you may feel it’s not worth continuing.
    However, if writing gives you a sense of pride in what you can create and produce (and maybe you’re not writing for the masses but for a smaller, more select audience) … and you feel some people DO enjoy what you write … then it is worth continuing.
    For what it’s worth, I think you are extremely talented.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks. Though I think part of it is also wanting people to read my books. That doesn’t seem to be happening. So even if I remove the desire to make a living on this, the time and energy still don’t match the results. That’s where I think an author really runs into this. If nobody is reading the books one puts out then it brings in the question of ‘why bother publishing at all?’

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  2. “As it stands, I probably won’t be able to work on anything new until the summer unless I utilize my weekends properly. That’s going to be touch since it’s a long run until the next break and I’ll be exhausted.”

    Based on many of your past blog posts, you’re already exhausted, and have been for quite a while. It’s called burnout, and it’s not something you (or anyone else) can ‘just push through’ forever. Your options: rest now or crash later.

    Yeah, I know a lot of people think resting is the same as quitting. It isn’t. Resting allows you to come back and do more later (if you want to), when the work will be more productive because you’re not worn out. Resting allows you the opportunity to decide if you truly want to continue writing, or if you’ve just been doing it out of habit or whatever. At any rate, your decision whether or not to continue will be a better one if you’re not exhausted when you make it (and ‘Maybe I should quit’ could just be the exhaustion talking).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Burnout is a possibility, but then we’re talking me being in that state for at least 2 years. Rest doesn’t happen much either because of other aspects in my life. If I rest and ignore them then things become even worse.

      With resting equating quitting, I totally agree. It has another wrinkle too. Way back when my marriage was crumbling, I announced a semi-retirement/temporary break to get my life together. I didn’t tell people what. I didn’t actually leave my blog, but I saw the interactions drop a ton after 2 days. I saw people go off to support other authors and never came back even when I was posting. So, I think people who think resting is quitting end up abandoning those who need a break. That makes the decision even more daunting.

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      • The past two years have been really hard on creative people — myself among them. Be gentle with yourself, as gentle as you would your best friend. This has been a time when we have had to focus on survival, while being in a time of high vigilance/alert.

        My thoughts are with you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. It doesn’t help that the year before covid was all about my divorce for me. So I went right from that situation to the pandemic. I don’t think I even remember what it’s like to be entirely free of anxiety.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. kirizar says:

    I agree with Don’t Lose Hope. If your writing goal is financially based, that is going to be a heavy thumb on the decision scale. Even professional writers with publishing contracts and a following have a hard time breaking even when they tally the effort and time involved and the lackluster return on personal investment.

    My struggle to write doesn’t even begin to approach the level of commitment you’ve made. That in and of itself is an accomplishment. You’ve written. You’ve published. You take pride in your efforts. Those have value even if they don’t garner a commensurate financial success. If writing were easy, everyone would do it. You have to decide whether the ‘cost value’ is worth the pain of the struggle. Only you can decide that. But I hope you find a way forward that allows you to write, but maybe takes the pressure off of ‘being a success’ by the standards of the rarified book industry top grossing authors.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s the thing. I wrote. I published. Now what? I’m not even working off the extreme standards that people seem to think. I just want to write, publish, and sell something. Nothing moves for me. There’s no way to publish, sell nothing, and not question if I’m wasting my time and energy on putting my stuff out there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kirizar says:

        I suspect writing is one of those acts people commit against all logic. The stories we tell in our head rarely reach the page as we thought they would. Why would the expectation of reaching an audience be any different. There is nothing wrong with deciding you’ve had enough with the hamster-wheel world of put-it-out-there-and-hope-it-sells. But as much writing as you have done, I have to imagine those stories clamor to be told, regardless of whether they expand beyond a modest horizon.

        I’m sure this is not at all helpful in determining whether to continue as you have. I just know that, even as I struggle to see myself as a writer, I’d much rather describe myself as a struggling writer than identify as being good/exceptional at anything else.

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      • I think I’m just tired of being the struggling author. Especially with there being more people either telling me to quit, ignoring me completely if I bring up writing, or routinely telling me writing was a mistake. That wears on a person along with not reaching any audience because then you feel like the negative people are right or winning. This gives an author less energy and heart to sink into their work too, so the cycle strikes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • kirizar says:

        I get that. I once read a piece entitled something like “Maybe you are not a writer?” I can’t find it anywhere by that title, and perhaps it is better not to share that kind of downer prediction. I did find something that I enjoyed reading and made me think. I’ll attach it.

        Only you can decide what you will be/do with your allotted time on the planet. Perhaps it isn’t to be a world-renown author. A majority of people fall in that category. But, if you can find a path that makes you happy again, that is the one worth walking. Even if you never write another word because of it.

        https://writingcooperative.com/maybe-im-not-a-writer-and-maybe-you-aren-t-either-f88eebb87f0d

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      • I’ve looked at other paths. They’re all ones I’d take solely to survive. Modern society isn’t friendly for artists who don’t start rich or with contacts. Eventually, most have to slow to a crawl or quit because necessities are expensive. Existing in general is expensive. At this point, I think the decision of my path has been made without my consent. It’s just to suffer and push on until things either change or end. Again, this is what most artists who don’t make it by their 40’s seem to do.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Grant at Tame Your Book! says:

    I can relate! With decades of corporate work and decisions in my rear-view mirror, making tough calls on when to “bail” is something I do, but it’s never easy. As others have suggested, maybe the goal (not the current result) is what needs to change.

    When I began focusing on having fun (i.e., a form of “re-framing the problem”), my writing took on new meaning. Like a three-legged stool, I now write to entertain, inform, and inspire, but it all starts with my priority of having fun. That makes for a simple decision: if I’m not having fun, stop.

    There are hard stops, and then there are soft stops. For example, stopping for needed rest and reflection often provides the insights to make your ultimate decision regarding a hard stop.

    If you want a delightful read that expands on making such decisions, consider Derek Sivers’ book, Anything You Want. He writes, “Don’t waste years fighting uphill battles against locked doors.” Derek recommends, not saying “yes,” but making your answer either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.” Bottom line from his view, if you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s kind of where I am. I always have fun writing. I always write to entertain. Now, it feels like I’m just not going anywhere. Almost like I’m having fun spinning my wheels, but I’m getting drained doing it. Been writing since I was 15, so it’s hard to pull back even more. Last new thing I wrote was finished in last August, which feels unnatural or defeated to me. For some reason, I was able to write among the chaos a few years ago and even sell a bit. Now it’s a battle to do anything. So, I’m confused and questioning.

      I’ll admit it doesn’t help that I have so many people in my life who wish my good luck and never buy my books. I get a lot of lip service and empty cheerleading, which hurts. Especially when all my books were .99 cents.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Grant at Tame Your Book! says:

        People may appreciate your writing style, yet prefer to read a different genre. For example, I like your blog posts, but read mystery novels, and pricing does not play into my purchase decisions.

        Regarding your chosen genre, have you fired up an app like Publisher Rocket to perform a thorough analysis of the competition? For me, it was an eye-opener, helping me focus on what people were actually buying.

        An analysis (if you haven’t already done this) may help you tweak book category, tags, content, cover art, story title, and cover blurb. I read hundreds of competitors’ book reviews, and the one-star and two-star comments gave me some of the best advice on what people really wanted to read.

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      • I can’t tweak my covers due to funds and I don’t talk to my first series’ artist any more. So those are out. I’ve tweaked everything else over the years with no luck.

        What I’ve found people buying in my genre are stories that copy whatever is popular. Fantasy seeks to be rife with that. I’d have to mimic Rowling, Martin, Tolkien, etc. in both style and story. If I’m writing books based off popular trends then I’m not enjoying myself.

        Things also get confusing when I look at my own reviews. People dislike my books for being ‘immature’. They also hate them for being ‘dark’ and ‘adult’. They hate the humor and wish it had more jokes. They love the magic, but want less of it. They want high body counts, specific characters killed off, no more swords, a full copy of Sanderson’s style, and the list keeps going. So, I feel what we I try to do in my genre as far as content won’t get me anywhere different.

        Marketing is probably the biggest issue. I can’t spend money on promotions or send out hundreds of free copies in exchange for reviews like others do. I can’t afford it at all because of my divorce. I can’t take much time to do interviews if those even exist for people like me. Not that I have any assured privacy these days unless I stay up until 1 am.

        All of that combines the make me question what to do or if there’s anything I can do. I guess it’s also me wondering if I have to change everything about my books, style, and author persona to get anywhere. Yet, that wouldn’t be me.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading what you wrote here and was surprised when you were applying the concept to writing. For me, writing is part of who I am. I couldn’t give it up, it is my water of life. I’d like to make money from it if I can, but that would be additional to how it keeps me alive.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love writing. It sucks that last year and this year are too much of a mess for me to do much of it. That’s another reason why I wonder about this concept. I mention the push to be patient from others too. After a while, it makes one question what the point is if the chance to even write continues to be elusive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Looking over your blog, seems you write st least a page a day. If you also wrote one fiction page a day, that’s 365 a year.

        Like

      • I actually schedule my blog posts a month or two in advance. I do them when I only have 30 minutes in a day to get stuff done. This clears space when I have breaks. At least it’s supposed to. I can never comfortably write one page and walk away too. I always have to finish the chapter section or my anxiety gives me trouble.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Never, never, never listen to people who tell you to give up. If you want to keep going, keep going. I know I feel happier when I’m writing than when I’m not, and that’s reason enough for me to keep going. Then, if people enjoy the books, it’s a bonus.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I guess this topic asks the question: What if nobody is even trying the books? Do you keep publishing and working hard?

      Like

      • Shawn Bailey says:

        This is a hard one because like another comment said, I’m a writer, so I’ll always write, regardless of success. In fact, I’ve just published a book and only have 2 sales and 103 KENP so far. But that doesn’t get me down. I’ll keep writing because I enjoy the process.

        If you’re not enjoying the process, and it may be other life criteria weighing down on it, then take a break. I’ve gone months without writing anything, and then something will click and I’m back at it. But I don’t think less of myself during those months (any more) and I’m not worried that I’ll never pick up the pen again (any more). Maybe just manage your expectations and don’t beat yourself up.

        My opinion is simple. Find some things that used to make you happy when you were a kid. Do those things if you still can. Remember what it’s like to have fun.

        Like

      • Depends on the situation. I think with this it was primarily publishing work and sharing than the writing, but it still wears on me. I haven’t actually written anything in 9 months due to life too. So, I’ve been forced to take a break. Not because I lacked the ideas, but the time and energy to work on them. That’s where this post came from. Part of why I write is to entertain others. While I enjoy it myself, I get more joy and serotonin from seeing someone else get absorbed by my stories. Without an audience, it becomes harder to drive myself forward. This is made worse by being surrounded by people who routinely try to get me to give up writing completely. They bash any attempt to do the stuff that made me happy as a kid too. When the most constant influence on your life is one of negativity, the sunk cost fallacy becomes more vivid. So, this has me thinking that everyone has a different level and it depends on their life situation. So, optimism and continuing forward can be an option for one author while another is getting beaten down so badly that their imagination is locked in the fetal position.

        Going back to the 9 month ‘break’, I’m finally getting the time and energy to write another book now. I had it planned out too. It was the perfect weekend for me to get back into it. So far, I’ve had to deal with an event for my son that was rescheduled to now (a sacrifice I’m fine with making), an air conditioner installation set up by someone else for the room I write in, and unexpected family visits. This is why I start to wonder about this topic because I tend to add in the ridiculous amount of obstacles that appear every time I dust off a book outline.

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  7. L. Marie says:

    This is a very thought-provoking post. I appreciate the comments that came as a result of it. You seem to be coming to grips with one of the hardest aspect of creating any sort of art. I’m in that boat too. For myself, I’ve already experienced what giving up on it is like. I did that for three years.

    You’ve been through some difficult experiences. Sometimes the expectations of others drive us to ignore what we need to do for ourselves. Sometimes those expectations poison the well of creative output. I don’t know about you, but I can’t be creative if I’m down or worried about something. It’s also difficult to be creative in a negative atmosphere–when someone is telling you, “This won’t work,” so why bother?” as you mention. Do what’s right for you.

    All the while I was in school people told me I was (1) stupid for majoring in what I majored in and (2) I wouldn’t make it as a writer. I needed to do something “useful” (like be a doctor or a lawyer). But unlike God, they didn’t know the future. They were going by their own opinion. They didn’t know I would be published. They didn’t know that the publishers who ask me to write now aren’t looking for a doctor or a lawyer–professions deemed more worthy–for these assignments. Has it been easy? No, So I’m not one to tell someone to just hang in there when I know the road is difficult. I can only say do what is right for you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I actually did take a 10 year break from actual writing after ‘Allure of the Gypsies’. Just got married and moved, so I thought I’d just outline future stuff until we settled. That never happened, I tried to run with it as a stay-at-home, saw the brass ring, and stumbled into oblivion. That’s probably adding to my frustration because I feel like I came close, but some people acted against me and I didn’t try to adjust as quickly as I should have.

      I can still be creative if I’m given time and peace. Weekends haven’t been all useless, but I only edit or outline now. Though the negative environment is a big thing. It’s one I can’t just walk away from either, which I wish people would understand too.

      Funny thing is that nobody tried to stop me from majoring in writing or suggest a double-major. Everyone was supportive until I graduated. Then I had people ask what I was thinking and telling me I screwed up. A little late there.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m living this, too. I enjoy writing and do it for myself now as much as anything else. I’m already bitter, defeated, and broke, so I keep going. Nobody can answer the big question for you. I’ve developed my own justifications to keep writing. “It’s still cheaper than greens fees,” etc.

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