Everybody wants to write a book

Ramit Sethi

There’s a difference between loving something and loving the idea of something. This is why studying the classics sounds so romantic, but reading Herodotus feels like playing that eat-licorice-from-both-ends-with-someone-you-like, except with a large and indelicate woodpecker.

I recently found 3 articles that summed this up nicely.

The first was a New York Times article by Joseph Epstein. He wrote about how 81% of Americans say they want to write a book. 81%! (The funny thing is he then exhorts people to not write books, saying how easy it is to find “oneself in a state of confusion, doubt, mental imprisonment, with an accompanying intense with that one worked instead at bricklaying.”)

I found the 81% number shockingly high, so I dug around a little. I mean, 81% of people don’t write books, so why do we all say we want to do it?

The second article was by Seth Godin, the bestselling author (who I worked for a few years ago). He pointed out that writing a book is slow, hard, and a horrendous return on investment.

“The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be disappointed. On the other hand, a book gives you leverage to spread an idea and a brand far and wide. There’s a worldview that’s quite common that says that people who write books know what they are talking about and that a book confers some sort of authority.”

The third article was by Hugh McLeod, who chimed in with some thoughts on why people want to write books:

A successful book agent I know tells me that at leat half the people he meets who are writing their first book, are doing so not because they have anything particularly interesting to say, but because the idea of “the writer’s life” appeals to them.

Tweed jackets, smoking a pipe, sitting out in the gazebo and getting sloshed on Mint Julips, pensively typing away at an old black Remington. Bantering wittily at all the right parties. Or whatever.

Doesn’t this book-writing example seem like so many other things? We all say we want to be rich, lose weight, read more, hang out with friends, etc. But it’s the idea of being rich that’s more appealing than the daily grind of doing it. Maybe it’s having a concierge take care of the details, or having a big house, or flying around anywhere we want. The idea sounds glamorous.

Except, if you’ve read this site, you know it’s not really a grind. Or even a daily thing! You just plan ahead, start early, and actually do something instead of talking about the idea of being rich.

Here’s a good example: Check out this calculator that JLP from AllThingsFinancial made: How Much Can You Save in a Lifetime? Notice how fast money grows at the end.

Here’s my bet: The enterprising people–the ones who really want to be rich, and probably will–will take away something like, “Wow–I better start investing today!” Maybe they’ll read some more on this site and others, and get started.

The not-so-enterprising people who like the idea of being rich will get caught up in the minutiae and have debates about the interest rate that JLP used–sort of like what’s happening right here:

“Ten percent is an extremely high estimate if one is talking real return. 2026 dollars will be worth significantly less than 2006 dollars, I guarantee you that.”

“to get a good understanding of valuation waves. we are in a trading range. trading ranges have pockets of rising prices, but the long term grind is sideays to down in such a secular bear market.

we are indeed in a position of relatively high historical valuations, and we will spend many years moving back to undervaluation”

“How long is the LONG RUN?

Equities have been flat or declining for many 20+ year periods. From the late 60s to the early 80s the markets did nothing. Same for the 30s to the 50s. Same for roughly 1880s to 1920s.

Stock appreciation comes in spurts. We just finished one of the biggest ever run-ups in 2001 and we’re still at record high PEs. It is EXTREMELY unlikely the next 20 years will have returns anywhere near the last 20 years. The market will at best run with inflation.”

The idea of being rich vs. actually doing the logistics of getting rich is so interesting. Now that I’m looking for it, I see the distinction everywhere. Maybe the difference is that one is a pipe dream to be savored, and the other is something that can be done right now.

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  1. JLP at AllFinancialMatters

    Thanks for the mention.

    Comments like the ones you referred to on are comments that are made in order to justify one’s laziness. In other words, I would be willing to bet the two people who made those comments are NOT saving anything for their retirement.

    Is a 10% rate of return realistic? I have NO IDEA. All I know is that over the last 70 years, the S&P 500 Index has returned around 10%. On top of that, think of all that the U.S. has been through over those years!

  2. Benjamin Yoskovitz

    I always feel like there’s lots of people who feel safer and more comfortable with the status quo.

    Part of that is laziness (as JLP points out), part of it is a fear of change.

    I wrote a book once. The return did suck. It was sort of a fun experience and I would consider doing it again, but I can absolutely see why so many people want to do it. I think it’s partially the lifestyle, partially people think they’ll get famous (which they likely won’t).

    People look at the Oprah book club and say, “I could be on there”… then they go back to the daily details of their lives, without ever executing any form of strategy / plan for improving things.

    Fear. Laziness. Distraction.

  3. Flexo

    The human mind is full of many desires. Sure, 81% of people may want to write a book… but that’s not the same as saying 81% of people have a trong desire to write a book. There are other priorities. So it’s no necessarily laziness, it’s just the fact that not everyone desires it as much as someone else.

    These “lazy” people could quite possibly have strong desires and work ethic when it comes to other things in their lives, but in response to a survey, sure, they’d like to write a book.

  4. J.D. @ Get Rich Slowly

    When I was young, my life was full of potential. I could do anything I wanted. Only I didn’t really want to do anything besides laze around. Maybe buy some comic books. Hang out with friends. Go out to dinner with my wife. I’d worry about doing all the great stuff later. There was plenty of time.

    Now I’m 37 and I haven’t done a goddamn thing. I wake up and, in my best Keanu voice, say, “Whoa!” Life has passed me by.

    But rather than wallow in self-pity and remorse, I’ve begun to do something about the mistakes I’ve made in the past. The best time to start any positive course of action is now. This isn’t just New Age self-talk; it’s the truth.

    Start saving NOW. Start exercising NOW. Start writing your book NOW. Start spending time with your family NOW. Start learning to knit NOW.

    Procrastination is the enemy of life.

    Great post.

  5. grant

    I tell some people that I’m a ghost writer and have written a lot of books. Hard to verify the veracity of that statement and impresses the hell out of pretty much anyone.

  6. John

    A good post with a good message – the way to accomplish something is to continually work for it and not to sit around wanting it to happen.

    The trick with writing isn’t to think you “have a book in you” but to sit down for three (or whatever) hours a day and just write with the wifi card turned off, the phone turned off, etc. 99% of that 81% will never do this – or if they do, they will stop after one day.

    STILL, I must say that I found the NYT article referenced to be arrogant in the extreme. “As the author of 15 books, don’t even TRY to be like me, because none of you are as good etc. etc. etc.” Your point in your post, derivative from his point, made sense, but his seemed to just be a whine-festival about how the world of literature needs to be more elite.

  7. Bookview

    I do write books. I’ve written and published over 30 books for children, mainly nonfiction for the school and library market. I can vouch for the part about people being in love with the idea of being published, but never quite gettting around to writing. I’ve met many people like that. I’ve also met many people who do get around to the writing, but don’t do the hard work of finding a good publisher, and get ripped off by the vanities or scam agents instead.

    I agree that wanting to be rich is similar. I think lots of people are conflicted about money — deep inside, they’ve absorbed the “love of money is the root of all evil” message, and believe there’s something morally wrong about working toward the goal of being rich. That may be why I hear so many people say, “Sure, I’ll get rich — if this lottery ticket pays off.” For them, wealth is okay if it falls in your lap, but actually striving for weath? That’s for greedy people.

  8. Mike

    According to Mark Twain, a classic is, “something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

  9. Chris Yeh

    The best reason to write a book is if you like writing.

    The worst reason is because you want to have written a book. Well, second worst maybe. The worst is to get chicks.

    I can believe 81% wanting to write a book. I’ll bet that far less than 1% ever write more than a couple of pages.

  10. Gabe Rosen

    Of course, imagine if all those folks actually did get off their asses and write books. I used to have this debate with my creative-writing major roommate. He felt that untalented writers should be discouraged from the very beginning, which struck me as negative and contrary to the best principles of education. After taking a few workshops with some hopeless Romantics (not romantics), I began to agree with him.

    And on the flipside, there are folks who really should write a book but would never presume to do so. I’m just thankful I know them and get to experience their brilliance firsthand.

    I think we’d all do well to revisit Ramit’s dictum of “week-long deliverables or an asskicking”. I used to fantasize about big projects and promote them enthusiastically to my friends, then accomplish nothing when faced with the reality of a few years of solid work with no guaranteed payoff or acclaim. These days I’m a bit more modest. I think about swimming to Alcatraz, but I’m starting out by mastering the local cove. I’d like to runa marathon, but for now I’m content to add distance one mile at a time. A book with my name on it would be nice too – but maybe I should update my blog for the first time in two months before I get carried away.

  11. Rosemary Esehagu

    I wish that the 81% who want to write a book would actually do so. The world would be a healthier (and happier?) place as a result. Writing is good for the soul/self, and there is no better way to track one’s self and one’s progress.

  12. John

    I have $50,000 in liquid assets, and I don’t think yearly 10% is likely. 10% is a good year! You think I’m caught on minutae? Yeah, minutae like the budget shortfall! How do you make profits when the dollar’s falling globally? You need to do much better to offset the reduced value of the dollars you have! You can be short on specifics and repeat the pap of mainstream investing maxims, but step to bears like Warren Buffett who are abandoning the American market? Now that’s rich! If you want to support the 10% number, you need more specifics about how. So far, honestly, you haven’t taught me anything, actually. Index funds, yeah, rah. Why is Buffet done with the American market? You need to say more than “index fund”. Or mock more bears. Yeah, right, whatever.

  13. Common Cents

    makes perfect sense.

    i have a mfa, have a manuscript, and spent lots of money on my education…yeah, i’d LIKE to write a book, but i’ve come to realize it is much harder than just saying it.

    it’s a long, hard, tedious process. so much so that sometimes the creative drive gets lost and you get weary. knowing what i know now…do i still want to write one?

    hell yes!

    (i’ve also started saving for the future…cuz i want to be rich too *smile*)

    good post.

  14. julie gasparro

    I have so very much to say! I want so very much to have someone help me lay out the groundwork of how to write out the amazing thoughts and feelings and dreams and stories that constantly run thru my mind and heart! I’m scard and apprehensive about laying out on paper what’s inside of me and yet I know that from everything that I have read and been amazed by in my lifetime, what I know is growing in me rivals it all! please help me figure out how to get it out and share what I know and feel with the world. thank you. julie

  15. k-couch

    after reading all of these comments I still want to write a book and turn that into a movie. I have a real story that i can tweak to seem like the most amazing tale ever…..but every time I get a couple pages of my ideas and thoughts down on paper I start to second guess the interest others will have in the book. Is that normal ? Is there any system or method to properly organize my work or do i just keep going and sort it all out at the end ?

    need a little help here

  16. Derek

    I do NOT want to write a book. It’s a hell of a lot of soul-destroying, frustrating, low-return-on-investment effort!
    But every day, new thoughts occur to me, and I wake up sometimes with passages running through my head…
    And in any case which one would I write, since there at least 7 books in my head, some even structured on paper, others even partly written?
    And why would I do so, since people mostly read, either to benefit themselves, or to be entertained, and while my books might do either, their intention would be neither…
    And so I do not write because I do not have a good enough reason to do so.

  17. Flexo

    I can completely believe that 81% want to write a book. It’s actually a perfect example of how surveys and statistics miss the mark. When you answer a survey like this you’re given two options: write-a-book or not-write-a-book. 81% of people who responded choose the former. Why not? There’s no obligation to actually write a book when you answer a simple survey. It’s quite safe, and it actually makes you feel good, to answer, “Yes, I’d like to write a book.”

    A more accurate survey would attempt to quantify the *amount of desire* but that would be a survey in which the level of complication approaches infinity. And no one would take it, they’d look at you with your long questionnaire and walk away.

    81% say they want to write a book. Maybe less than 1% do end up writing one (let’s round up to 1%). *That doesn’t mean that 80% are lazy.* Not at all. It just means that 80% would like to write a book if they didn’t have better things to do. Sure, they want to write a book — it’s better than not writing a book — but they also want to succeed at their job, spend time with their family, and *be busy being non-lazy at many other more important activities.*

  18. Flexo

    Just to be clear, I don’t mean to say that writing a book is not important for everyone… obviously it is important for those who do write.

  19. Ramit Sethi

    Flexo, that’s an excellent point.

  20. PAUL

    How is a sample size of 1000 surveyed going to conclude that 200 million americans want to write a book? A small Michigan publisher did the study and now the internet uses that statistic to market a plethora of self-help writing tools and programs.

    Statistically significant? I disagree.