For a lot of jobs, once you reach a certain point, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to stop. Whatever you’ve already invested demands that you keep going, or else you’ll probably end up taking some kind of loss.
This is known as sunk cost. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just apply to work. It applies to your reading list, too. It easily can keep bad books in your hands.
What basically happens is, you pick up a book, get a little way into it, and realize that it’s just not lighting any fireworks for you. But whatever the issue might be (e.g., poorly developed characters), you look at how many pages you’ve finished or the amount of time you’ve already committed, and you think that you’ll somehow be in the hole if you don’t keep going until the last page.
Or, let me rephrase–sunk cost just keeps you reading bad books.
Of course, sunk cost applies to writers as they create, too. You might feel so invested in a concept, for example, that you keep trying to finish it no matter how many truly unfixable flaws the book has. This issue can get worse over time, because the book can get wrapped up in your entire identity and self-concept as a writer–if you don’t finish, you think, then you’re not serious enough or have to let go of something meaningful for you.
3 horrible consequences of sunk cost in reading and writing
It’s bad enough that sunk cost related to reading robs you of your immediate joy. But an equally insufferable problem is that, because you commit your time to the bad book, you’re locked out of other good ones. And that’s an incredible disservice to the writers who really deserve to be discovered and enjoyed.
This issue has been around practically since books first became mainstream. But I think it’s gotten worse with the growth of self-publishing. Don’t misunderstand here–I think self-publishing can be a beautiful thing and put power back in the hands of writers where it belongs. But because it is so easy, there also are plenty of people putting out content that’s mediocre at best. So readers have more opportunities and options, but the noise is louder, and it can be harder to figure out which writers are worth a risk.
On the writer side, if you can’t let go of a bad concept that you’ve transferred onto your sense of skill or who you are, then you might never move forward to ideas that honestly are better and have more potential of bringing income and fame. You can deliver an inaccurate representation of what your best is, and as a result, struggle to be taken seriously.
How readers and writers both work against the problem
If you’re a reader, then combat sunk cost with three basic strategies:
- Read reviews–lots of them. No matter what you’ve been hearing about the book through the grapevine overall, get a balance of the 5 and 1 star ratings. This will help you feel like it’s OK to go against the grain of the popular opinion if needed.
- Scan the table of contents to make sure that the entire book truly covers what you need or are interested in, or scan a few pages or paragraphs from different spots within the text to get a basic sense of the writer’s voice and delivery.
- Set a test boundary you can apply consistently to any text. For example, if you’re not sucked into the book in x pages or minutes, then you’ll put it back on the shelf.
And if you’re a writer, lean on these tips to improve your manuscripts:
- Use beta readers through your entire writing process. There always will be outlier opinions, sure, but feedback can help eliminate most of the issues that disappoint readers long before your final copy is available, and you often can apply what you learn to your next book.
- Advertise transparently. It’s tempting to try to pigeonhole your work into a neat box you know buyers respond to, but if you are absolutely clear what the book is for or about, readers are more likely to feel confident in the selection. Bait and switches don’t earn you any long-term loyalty or referrals.
- Throw quantity out the window. This means that a book takes however long it takes to get right, and that you don’t try to quantify success by how many titles you’re cranking out. Being prolific is not necessarily synonymous with being a truly great storyteller.
- Hone your elevator pitch. Regardless of whether you like to outline everything down to the paragraph or fly by the seat of your pants, if you can’t pinpoint the key message of your book in one to three sentences, then you’re just not ready to write it. Period. And remember, the pitch is a summary. It is NOT a wistful or idealistic expression of your intent for the text (e.g., “I want readers to feel”; “I want to create a book that…”).
As a reader, you have more books at your disposal than you ever could finish in a lifetime. But life is too short to spend it committed to bad ones. Don’t let sunk cost make the experience of reading suck. And if you’re a writer, work hard to make sure that readers are sticking with you because you’ve done something exceptional, not because they feel like it’s too late to turn back. The easier it is for you to toss ho-hum or unworkable ideas in the trash, the more you’ll create work that’s truly awe-inspiring.