Friday, 6 November 2009

the sunk cost dilemma, the concorde effect and the economics of trunking novels

Let's say, hypothetically, that you wrote a novel.

And let's also say that hypothetical you is a slow writer and took about two years to write and edit the novel. Unfortunately, your hypothetical novel is an unreadable pile of garbage which you may or may not be able to fix, and even more unfortunately, you don't realise that until now.

Should you trunk the novel?

Welcome to the sunk cost dilemma. If you trunk the novel, you write off all your time and effort. If you keep working on it, hoping to somehow turn it around, you're pouring yet more resources into the project which may also have to be written off.

People are naturally loss-averse. That is, they value not making a loss of £100 more than they value gaining £100. This leads to the sunk cost fallacy, wherein people commit ever more resources to a failing project in the futile hope of saving their initial investment. (See also: Concorde.)

That's why my gut instinct tells me not to trunk the hypothetical novel: I think of all the hours of work, and I hate to write them off as a bad investment. Perhaps if I just put in more hours of work, I can rescue the project. But thanks to the sunk cost fallacy, I realise that that's irrational - just a stupid instinct interfering with logic.

The hypothetical investment is a writeoff. It's time to move on.

Winners never quit, and quitters never win, but those who never quit and never win are idiots.


  1. Too true. The first novel I wrote was for Nanowrimo last year, and it wasn't much good. I spent ages working on it, until I finally came up with an idea for another one which I'm much happier with. I've put that on hold though, while I do my third novel for this year's Nano.

    I hope you weren't thinking of The Infernal Family while you wrote this. Judging by the teaser, it's far from being a sunken cost.

  2. I think we're ignoring an important fact here. The time spent writing that trunked novel was not completely wasted. That's a whole lot of writing practice right there, and only if nothing in the way of improvement occurred between that novel and the next one is it a true waste of resources.

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  4. Ah! Great point, atsiko. I tend to think of writing as a succession of projects, one novel after another, instead of a continuous upward (I hope) curve of increasing writing skill. But hopefully, each book teaches you new skills that you then use to write another, better book.

    Jeff, I'm thinking about trunking a lot at the moment. I've spent two and a half years working on the same novel, and I need to do at least one round (and perhaps more) of heavy revisions, at the end of which the novel might be a writeoff. I can't work on it forever - so if it doesn't shape up soon, I'm going to have to trunk it. Sad but necessary. :)