How Sunk Cost Keeps You Reading (and Writing) Bad Books

writing reading books sunk costs

It often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to stop a job or task once you start. You can’t recover what you’ve invested, so you feel obligated to keep going to avoid taking a loss. People call this sunk cost. 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 this: You pick up a book and get a little way into it. You 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, to 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 that you keep trying to finish it no matter how many truly unfixable flaws the book has. This issue can get worse over time. You can wrap your entire identity and self-concept as a writer up in the book. The thought becomes that, if you don’t finish, you’re not serious enough. You can get scared that you’ll 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 the equally insufferable problem is that you lock yourself out of other good ones. You unwittingly do an incredible disservice to the writers who deserve to be discovered and enjoyed.

This issue has been around practically since books first became mainstream. But the growth of self-publishing has made the problem worse. Don’t misunderstand here. 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. Readers have more opportunities and options, but the noise is louder. It can be harder to figure out which writers are worth the risk of commitment.

On the writer side, if you can’t let go of a bad concept that you’ve transferred onto your sense of skill or identity, 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 heard about the book through the grapevine overall, get a balance of 5- and 1-star ratings. This will help you feel as though it’s OK to go against the grain of 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. Alternately, 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 (e.g., if you’re not sucked into the book in x pages or minutes, you’ll put it back on the shelf).

If you’re a writer, lean on these tips to improve your manuscripts:

  • Use beta readers throughout 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 about what the book is for or involves, 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…”).

Pick the good stuff

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. 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.