“I started on a book, but another interesting project popped up, so I’ve stuck it in a drawer for the future.”
Do either of these statements sound familiar?
Writing a book is a serious commitment. As with any major decision, loss aversion can color our thinking and inhibit action.
The term loss aversion, from the field of behavioral economics, refers to the fact that we feel losses more deeply than gains. Economists can even quantify the effect of loss aversion; generally, it takes a potential $2 gain to make us willing to risk a $1 loss. Losses are roughly twice as painful as gains are pleasurable.
Why does this discussion belong in a writing blog?
Loss aversion prevents many potential authors from investing the necessary time and effort in a book. It may inhibit you from even getting started or from staying the course during the long haul.
As with any cognitive bias or tendency, the best defense is to confront and acknowledge it. Awareness is half the battle. We can also create defenses to protect us from its influence over the course of the project.
Tallying Up the Potential Losses
When writing and publishing a book, you put three things at risk: time, money, and reputation.
Writing a book absorbs a great deal of time and attention. Once it’s written and revised, you have publishing, launch, and ongoing promotion activities. Yep, it’s a time sink.
There’s an opportunity cost to that time: the value of things that you could otherwise be doing.
Consultants who defer projects or hourly work to write a book might be able to assign a dollar amount to the opportunity cost. If you bill out at $200 per hour and work on a book for 500 hours, then the opportunity cost is $100,000.
Be careful about this type of assessment, however. If you’re excited about the book, you may work longer hours on writing than you would on client work. Perhaps the writing replaces binge watching Netflix or gardening. Ideally, you will often enjoy the writing process as well.
There’s another type of opportunity cost – the unknown opportunities that may appear during the course of the book. When you’re deeply involved in the book, you find yourself saying no to many possibilities, including new projects. I know several people who have started books, only to be pulled off course by the fresh appeal of a different project.
Depending on how you plan to publish the book, you may pay for some or all of the publishing costs out of your own pocket. Even if you work with an established publishing house that offers an advance, you’ll spend money publicizing and promoting the book.
Eventually, of course, the book will earn royalties that you hope that will offset the costs. Reaching this point can take some time.
Writing a book can transform your career or life. But – will the book be good enough to take you where you want to go? A poorly-written or presented book might move you further from your objectives.
Then there’s the inevitable negative feedback. Whenever you put your thoughts out into the world for public comment and review, some people will won’t like it. They’ll leave negative reviews or write scathing comments. Negative feedback will happen – it always does.
Offsetting Loss Aversion Through Planning
You’ve faced up to the losses. If you’re going ahead, be aware: the screaming voice of loss aversion may plague you as you write. When you hit a rough patch, you’ll think “Why am I doing this when I could be [insert other activity]?”
Here are some strategies for quieting that voice.
Budget and “Spend” at the Start
Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of the book Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, suggest that we are happiest when we pay for things up front, then consume them over time. Compress the “mental pain” of deciding and paying all at once, so you do not face it again and again.
Put this advice to work for the expenses of writing a book.
Set a financial budget, including marketing and promotion costs. Consider putting the funds in a separate account dedicated to the book. As you face each small decision about spending money (should I buy one ISBN or ten?), you have allocated funds to work with.
Budget your time as well. Allocate a certain number of hours each week for the work. Schedule the time slots into your calendar, effectively “spending” it at the beginning. Having made these decisions at the beginning, you are more likely to stick with the project than if you must recommit time every week or agonize over every expense.
Create Deadlines and Goals
Deadlines can help you sustain energy during a prolonged project. Break the end-to-end work of the book down into smaller deadlines and milestones. Decide when you’ll have the proposal or outline, how many chapters you will finish each month, when the rough draft will be complete, and how long to allow for revisions.
You may find it easier to resist the call of lost opportunities by setting tight, aggressive deadlines. It’s easier to say “no” to everything for a well-defined three month period, for example, than for an indefinite period of time.
Enlist Moral Support
Have made the decisions about time and money, stick by them. If you find yourself flagging, find a coach or accountability partner to check in with.
Focus on the Gains
Knowing that you are inclined to focus on and over-value losses, make an intentional effort to remember and imagine the potential gains. Consider all of the possible positive outcomes of writing a book – not just the money.
Few writers make a killing off royalties. But writing has many other upsides:
- Business/career opportunities: Publishing a nonfiction book can transform your career, connecting you with people and uncovering opportunities previously outside of your realm of experience.
- Expertise: Writing the book deepens your understanding of the topic, even if you were an expert when you started. You may discover ideas and angles that hadn’t occurred to you before, and open new doors for exploration beyond the book.
- Personal growth: If you approach writing with a growth mindset, then you’ll be open to learning and changing throughout the process. Watch for signs of personal growth, such as doing things outside your comfort zone.
Regret has no place in your book plans.
For more on happier spending, read Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton.