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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Econ 101: Opportunity Cost


There are plenty of people who are eager to tell you how to write. (Or more accurately, eager to sell you their book/program/webinar/master class/whatever that purports to teach you how to write an award-winning bestselling novel at home in your spare time, without all that messy trial-and-error and practice and learning by doing stuff.) There are almost as many people who are eager to tell you exactly what to write, or when to write, or why to write—

[Actually, that last one doesn’t seem to be a problem. Most successful writers I’ve known only started to wonder about why they wrote what they wrote after they were successful. When they were first starting out, for most of them writing was more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. As one particularly well-known and award-winning author I knew put it, “Why do I write? Because I can’t not write.”]

Hmm. If the how, what, when, and why are already covered (and then some!), what else could I possibly teach you? How about… 

What not to write! There is an open niche! Now, how do I turn this into a two-hour webinar complete with slide deck and accompanying workbook and follow-on consulting services? Hmm again.

Wait. Whoa. Deep breath.

Somewhat more seriously: I will admit that I am sometimes tempted by the teaching path, from time to time. My parents were both teachers. I did a stint as a TA in college, and another stint teaching in a Federally funded arts grant program, which I’d rather forget. I do get offers to teach writing every once in a while, which usually are withdrawn in haste the moment the offering party discovers to their abject horror that I do not have at least an MFA in Creative Writing. [My God, how did this happen? He somehow managed to become an award-winning and world-famous writer without being properly nobbled and gelded by an accredited university English department! What went wrong?!?!?!]

But I digress. Which is precisely my point.

If I were to take something like a teaching position somewhere, in the English department of some backwater university or small-town college, I wouldn’t want to teach Creative Writing anyway. What I would want to teach would be something like ECON 101: Economics for English Majors. Because one of the things that was really drummed into my head while I was serving on the SFWA Board of Directors, and that has been reinforced by repeated experience ever since, is that most creative writers don’t have a flippin’ clue about how real economies actually work, on a macro scale, a micro scale, or anywhere in between. They can’t even balance their own checkbooks. 

Yet they continue to create fictional worlds in which human societies run on utter economic nonsense—Star Trek is particularly egregious in this regard—and then, if their fiction is successful, they presume to extend their fantastic notions into the real world. After all, it made perfect sense in their imagination.

It is charming, in a childish and naïve way. Sort of like the little kid who tells you he’s going to tie a big bunch of balloons together and fly away to the Moon.


So let’s begin a conversation about practical and tactical economics, as they apply to writers and publishers. My purpose in writing about these subjects is not to convert you into a Hayek-quoting Chicago School-believing free-market libertarian—Lord knows, we have enough of them in the SF field already—but to give you some insights into the changes we’re going to be making here at Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories in the coming months. More importantly, I want to give you some ideas to think about as you develop your own writing career. 

First up, let’s consider a concept that has had a very direct impact on my own life and writing and publishing career, and thus on the fortunes of Rampant Loon Press, and which therefore has been very much on my mind lately: opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is, to put it very simply, the cost of doing something expressed in terms of other opportunities not pursued. Every decision you make carries an opportunity cost, sometimes trivial and sometimes life-altering. Every time you choose to do something, you are also choosing not to do something else, and usually several other something elses. 

It seems obvious, right? When an opportunity presents itself, choosing whether or not to follow up on it should be an easy problem to solve. If I choose to do this, what else am I giving up? Except—

  • Your resources—time, money, and energy—are finite. You will never have the resources to pursue every opportunity that comes along.

  • You will always be making your decisions based on incomplete information.

  • You will never know the true opportunity cost until after—sometimes long after—you have made a decision and chosen a path of action.

  • Here’s the real headache: every writer’s basis for calculating opportunity cost is different. What seems like a reasonable opportunity cost for Writer A might be an absolutely catastrophic cost for Writer B.

    [We writers are, deep down, a highly competitive lot. Whether we admit it or not, we are always acutely aware of how well we are doing in comparison to Writer A. This comparison will drive you nuts if you let it, and there is probably at least one column that needs to be written on the subject of how Writer A’s skewed cost basis is changing the sort of fiction that is being written and published now. That is a topic for another day, but this differing cost basis is what makes it so difficult to teach you how to decide what’s right for you.]

Someday, if we’re lucky, the Rampant Loon Press story will be a case study in business school, and it will be a study in opportunity costs. It will be a ten-year saga of a small business that was always going off in six directions at once and trying to do too many things simultaneously with too few resources, because the founder (me) was always bubbling over with curiosity and treating the company as an experiment and an opportunity to learn new things, and not as a business. It had some resounding successes, and some flops so bad they augured in and left smoking holes in the ground, because the one thing the founder didn’t bother to learn was how to make his successes repeatable, because he was systemically incapable of resisting fascinating opportunities and interesting digressions!

So that’s my job for the next six months: to learn how to better calculate my opportunity costs, and thus to learn how to resist the siren songs of fascinating digressions and focus on the RLP projects that have a very high probability of marketplace success. 

Hang on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

—Bruce Bethke


Dan said...

I for one would welcome the creation of "The Bruce Bethke Famous Writers School". We could have endless fun arguing about the Oxford comma or if the period belongs inside the quote marks.

Mark Keigley said...

looking forward, going forward...

Kersley said...

"I will admit that I am sometimes tempted by the teaching path, from time to time."

That's so cute.