Friday, January 24, 2014

On the Value of a Book, Sunk Costs, and Being Ready to Publish or Trunk

I'm at the point where I figure basically everyone I know knows that I wrote ten trunk novels before getting my eleventh book published. I'm not ashamed of this fact--actually, I think it's important for people to know that often, "overnight successes" are really a decade + an overnight success. But perhaps because I have so many trunk novels, I've been hearing a lot of the same question, couched in different words:

When did you know to quit working on a book?
When do you know when a book is ready?
When do you trunk a novel and move on to the next?

The problem, of course, is that there's no answer to this. It's not like I can say, "invest exactly THIS much time, and you're done!" This isn't true of nearly anything at all. 

Across the Universe was one of the easiest books for me to write, and I got paid exactly the same amount to write it as Shades of Earth, which was the hardest book for me to write. The editing and rewriting phase for Across the Universe took me about five months, but the editing/rewriting for my new book have taken twice as far. Is one book better than the other? Nope. Much like a mother with children, I love them all equally, regardless of the labor time. (Pregnancy pun!)

Perhaps if I invested more time and energy into any of my trunked novels (something my mother would very much like me to do; her favorite of my books is one that's not published), one of those trunked novels would be worth publication. But I have decided that it's not worth my time. For each of those novels, I invested at least a year in writing and critiquing and editing. I treated writing as a job during that time--I basically considered myself to be working two jobs during that time, even though I was only getting paid for one of them. I probably spent around a hundred dollars each for printing costs and a hundred more for postage and mailing materials to send to agents. Several thousand in attending conferences (two of which I attended specifically to pitch my books to agents). Nearly a thousand in paying for critiques from publishing professionals. 

I hate math, but let's add this out:

$100 in printing costs X 10 novels = $1000
$100 in postage costs X 10 novels = $1000
$3500 in attending conferences 
$1000 in paid critiques

10 years x $50,000 (close to the median income of an American citizen) for the time spent working this job = $500,000

For a grand total of: $506,500

I spent more than half a million dollars (in time and materials) on ten trunk novels that have never--and probably will never--sell. 

I recently came across an economics term that sums this all up rather well: sunk costs
In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a retrospective (past) cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken.
In layman's terms, this basically means:

Sunk cost is the amount of money something costs you to do. If you want to bake a cake, your sunk costs is the money spent on the ingredients required to make it. Your prospective costs is what you'll make when you sell it. Hopefully, you gain more than you lose. So if it costs you $5 to bake a cake, and you sell it for $10, you did good. But if it costs $5 and you sell it for $2, then you lost money.

The sunk costs for my trunk novels is: $506,500.
The prospective costs for my trunk novels is: $0.

That's a rough number to face. And I think I should add that despite the fact that I'm more than half a mil in the hole with those numbers, I do not think that it's a waste--they were each learning experiences, and it can absolutely be argued that, much like paying for a higher education, they were investments in my future.

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about how and when I knew that a book's sunk costs were worth exactly so much and no more.

At the end of the day, after I invested time and money into each of my trunk novels, I...trunked them. I put them away. I consciously decided that they were no longer worth any more time or money.

So, when people ask me the questions I wrote out above:

When did you know to quit working on a book?
When do you know when a book is ready?
When do you trunk a novel and move on to the next?

What they're really asking is:

At what point do I accept the sunk costs of a novel as a loss and move on?

Unfortunately, there still isn't an answer. For me, I started out with the idea of giving myself a year a book. I wanted to write YA, and the YA market seemed to have authors releasing a book a year. I figured I should do the same, if I wanted that to be my career. So I started out knowing that one year would be my sunk cost. Not that it was always that neat--it's not like I gave myself exactly from January 1 to December 31 and no more, and it's not like it was easy to move on. But from the start, I did give myself permission to accept the sunk costs and move on, and that was the defining attitude of accepting my trunk novels and the fact they weren't worthy of publication. As I've said many times before: knowing your goal and striving for that without settling for less is hugely important. My goal was a career in writing, not one specific book published.

I do have a word of warning, though:

Do NOT let the sunk costs keep you from moving on. 

Writers are very, very often told not to query too early. Particularly after NaNoWriMo, it becomes almost a mantra on every agent's blog: don't query too early. Take the time to let the novel rest, edit, revise, get crits, edit again, etc., etc., etc. 

But too often, writers are never told not to take too long. Some--not all, but some--writers sink into a spiraling time-suck of rewriting, revising, and tweaking the same novel, over and over and over. I think they start to feel that their sunk costs are too high--they've invested so much time, and so much money into this one novel that they feel they can't move on, they can't let it all be a waste. 

And that's where the danger lies: when you stagnate. 

There are some authors out there that don't know when to let go. You revise and revise and revise and tweak and fiddle and...the book still isn't good enough. But you can't just drop it--you've invested so much into it! 

If you're in this position, you need to evaluate yourself and your work. Are you holding onto the idea of the novel, the beating heart of the story that you love? Or are you holding onto your sunk costs? 

Recently, the husband and I went to a store that sells local art. There was a stick. The stick was painted with sketchy drawings and words. It was...well, it was an ugly stick. I could see what the artist was trying to do, was a stick. With paint on it. The woman who owned the store raved about how long it takes this artist to paint the stick. And the price tag on it reflected that: $300. For a painted stick. For a painted stick that wasn't really painted that well. 

The artist was obviously trying to recoup for sunk costs. She spent so much time making this, and she put a value on the time, not the object. 

This happens with writing, too. We work on an idea so much that it can't possibly be trunked. But every author--published or not--must consider when a novel's purpose was to be published versus when a novel's purpose was for the author to gain experience.

Your work has value. But sometimes the value is in what you learned, not what money you gained. 

Even now, with a few published novels and a new contract under my belt, I still struggle with sunk costs. At what point should I stop trying to make an idea that doesn't work, work? Some of this is about art and integrity--I of course want to make an idea be the right idea, and produce the right work of art to go with it. But some of it is also about economics: no matter what you do, whether it be creating art or baking a cake, you need to be aware of your sunk costs, and be willing to know when you have to cut those losses and move on. 

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