Writing and Gambling

Problem gambling is a complex psychological and social phenomenon with many aspects to it. It resembles other forms of addiction and people with gambling problems may often have other issues. I don’t want to trivialise the nature of gambling addictions or reduce it to a single set of causes.

Having said all that…there is one aspect to gambling as a psychological phenomenon that struck me just now when discussing writers. Gambling is pleasurable and the nature of that pleasure has been much studied, including by people who design machines for gambling on. One of the notable features of gambling (and a factor that can lead to it becoming a problem for some people) is that people still gain pleasure from it even when they are losing. The phenomenon called “loss chasing”

“Although the traditional view is in agreement with neuroscientific data, it fails to explain why people often describe gambling as a pleasant activity rather than as an opportunity to gain money. During gambling episodes, PG report euphoric feelings comparable to those experienced by drug users (van Holst et al., 2010), and the more PG lose money, the more they tend to persevere in this activity—a phenomenon referred to as loss-chasing (Campbell-Meiklejohn et al., 2008).


The features of gambling that make it pleasurable (and hence potentially dangerous) are the way rewards are structured. Those features are:

  • Occasional small rewards
  • Unpredictable, irregular rewards
  • An illusion of control (I.e the chance element may be disguised or the gambler rationalises that they have more control than they actually have)
  • Losses disguised as wins (a payoff that helps hide the fact that overall the gambler is losing)
  • The real chance of a large payoff

How many of those features match aspects of writing fiction for money?

  • Occasional small rewards – a short story accepted by a magazine, a small payment from Amazon etc
  • Unpredictable awards – the last story sold, the current story only gets rejections. People bought your last book on Amazon but not your current one. How come?
  • An illusion of control: its the cover, match your genre, follow these rules for writing cosy mysteries etc etc.
  • Losses disguised as wins – perhaps less obvious but present when considering sunk costs or for writers considering only the income per effort on their more successful work when in reality the income represents the effort on their total output (including the stuff that didn’t sell – which loops back to the illusion of control).
  • The real chance of a large payoff! You could be next John Scalzi or Larry Correia or James Paterson!

23 responses to “Writing and Gambling”

      • Cora Buhlert: But if you’ll become the next Larry Correia, you’ll get a mountain in Utah.

        Don’t forget the “pompous, ranting dick” part of that package. 😀


      • @Cora —

        “But if you’ll become the next Larry Correia, you’ll get a mountain in Utah. Isn’t that tempting?”

        I’ve lived in Utah, and I can honestly say NO.

        (And contrary to popular assumptions, it isn’t because of the people. Most Mormons are very friendly people, even if they have screwy beliefs. It’s because Utah is high desert — tends to be brown all summer — and the winters last waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long.)


      • Well, Larry Correia seems to believe a mountain in Utah is a really impressive achievement, that’s why he won’t shut up about it.

        Which is why the “yeah, good for him, if that’s what rocks his boat” responses must have really pissed him off.


        • (also, it’s just a house that’s ON a mountain – he doesn’t actually get the mountain)


    • Unfortunately, Martha Wells had a very bumpy career trajectory, and while I love most of her work, early and present day, she lost contracts and had to find a new agent due to low sales numbers. There is a definite divot in the middle of her career. Thankfully, a top name agent did decide they believed she would be worth taking another chance on, and so we have Moon and Murderbot… but I really really don’t want to follow her path if I can avoid it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s not an uncommon path. It’s called mid-list where most of the authors are. People seem to think that written fiction is an automatic inclining line, where you start off and, if you don’t hit a home run right out of the gate, build up your audience and eventually become a bestseller. And that can happen — slow burn bestsellers are much more common than fast burn ones.

        But for most authors, even most bestsellers, their careers are up and down lines that depend on a lot of factors, primarily because one book will not reliably sell the same or better than another book. Readers don’t like all books by the same author the same, especially when it comes to one series versus others for series writers. They don’t always spread word of mouth. Having a book not do well doesn’t mean a writing career is done, though it may mean that a relationship with a particular publisher is done. Having a publisher go under and mess up one of your books, also doesn’t necessarily mean that a writing career is done, though it will be a set-back. When there is a recession, mid-list authors get squeezed in the marketplace. The booksellers don’t want to stock as many of them, publishers get less interested in them for acquisitions over new debuts, they have to perform better to get more support and keep series going, specialty bookstores that rely on mid-list genre fiction can go under. A mid-list author may have a lot of doors closed and then have a book that opens them up again.

        And nobody knows what it is going to be. A mid-list author can have an old series get a reissue and start selling better than it did when it was first out. A mid-list author can have a new book that goes bestseller through word of mouth and then gets optioned for film/t.v. And that option can lapse and nothing come of it. Stephen King was going to retire because his sales had dropped in market conditions in the 1990s — nobody is protected and everybody has a possible shot at connecting with a large audience. Charlaine Harris and her publisher were not expecting her flyer on a vampire fantasy Southern mystery to take off more than her past mystery series. That’s why it’s gambling for the publishers and the booksellers.

        There’s a difference between gambling, like having a poker game with your pals, and gambling in a casino or other gambling games offering establishment. A gambling games offering establishment is trying to make money off of the gamblers. There’s a house and the house always wins. But there is no house out in life, (well, not counting rich people,) there’s no “house” in fiction publishing that makes money whether you win or lose on a gamble and which is hoping that you mostly lose so they keep your money.

        Writers aren’t the gamblers directly. (Self-publishers are also publishers, spending money on producing and selling their books, and that’s where they are mainly gamblers.) They’re the objects of the gambling game. Each book or work they do is a gambling game. But again, they aren’t in competition with the other fiction authors — they all drag in customers, which helps each other, because you give a reading customer lots of choices and a percentage of the customers will keep coming back to buy some of them on a regular basis, as opposed to not buying any books at all, which is what three-quarters of the population does. Essentially, written fiction authors — and the publishers, booksellers, magazines, etc. — are trying to make reading fiction a pleasurable neurological experience that some readers who find their particular work pleasurable will repeat.

        It’s kind of more like a tasting menu, actually.


  1. One thing I’ve noticed when hanging out with self-publishers is that a lot of them are/were professional gamblers. The first time someone said, “Well, if I can’t make money writing, I’ll go back to playing online poker”, I laughed and said, “Good joke.” But it wasn’t one. That person was completely serious.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well yeah, gambling is games. Human beings love games. They will spend huge amounts of money on sports games, electronic games, trivia games, RPG, table top and card games, with no possibility of earning any money from it. So when there is also a chance to earn money from playing and competing in a game, that’s also a fun type of game, even if you end up losing. We regularly have friends over to play poker. We have a poker table top, professional heavy chips, decks of cards. We play for twenty bucks with nickel-buck bets. Only a couple of people usually end up winning any money. But it’s fun and we eat food and play weird forms of poker games as well as hold’em. People participate and pay money to enter tiddlywink competitions and eating contests. It’s a combo of challenge and risk.

    And fiction publishing is gambling. The publishers are gambling when they pick titles to produce. They have guesstimates of what a work might sell in their subjective opinion, but they don’t know for certain, promotional efforts are expensive and unreliable and they can’t predict word of mouth. A self-pub author can’t predict it either, much as some of them try to find magic keys in content and/or publicity efforts. Written fiction is a time-consuming, not very effective way to make money. But it is pleasurable to write fiction and it can be rewarding to please a few people even if you don’t sell very well. So fiction authors aren’t really gambling, but those who invest in them financially are — publishers, booksellers and readers who gamble on the chance of reading their work in hopes of liking it.

    A lot of the marketing-oriented authors who are trying to pan what they think is a gold rush — they’re going to lose. They won’t make money and they’ll burn off and stop. Same thing happens in the craft/art/online sales market. You can pump out product, try all sorts of things to promote it and grab advantage of algorithms and get customer attention, overspend on ads and such, and some of them will make quite a bit of money and the rest will makes some to not much money. And a lot of lower sellers will drop out and the ones who remain aren’t worried about making big bucks. It’s the same thing as make a fortune in real estate, sell jewelry or kitchen stuff or cosmetics at house parties, whatever make money in your spare time comes up next. And with creative products, there is an enormous amount of luck involved that cannot be controlled. That has its gambling side in whether to try to write fiction at all, for some. But a lot of writers write fiction to write, because they like to make stories. It is also a pleasurable human activity for many.


  3. I like to think of writing as like weight-lifting, except with more crippling existential despair.

    No, really. You make a little progress every time you do either one, and it adds up over time. You can run into setbacks with either one (my bad knee, the 78,435 words in the first draft that I have to cut because seriously what I was thinking), but you can always get back on track.

    Also, I can’t do either one first thing in the morning.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I like to think of writing as like weight-lifting, except with more crippling existential despair. I don’t have a WordPress account, so I can’t ‘like’ this, hence: LIKE.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. […] (4) SHRINK RAP. Larry Correia talks about “getting paid” all the time, and Harlan Ellison extolled the importance of a writer’s work being acknowledged by a “check of money.” How to explain everyone else who keeps pulling the handle on their typewriter? Camestros Felapton searches for parallels between writing and an addiction in “Writing and Gambling”. […]


  5. Speaking as someone working in the gambling industry, the problem with this analogy is that the barrier to entry is ridiculously high in publishing. You actually have to do the work before you can “gamble”. This is only gambling in the way that say musicians get gigs and album deals, or many other industries where a creator is trying to market and sell their products.

    In real gambling there’s a lot of effort made to keep the barrier to entry quite low (but not too low, as then you attract/create problem gambling behaviour).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The writer’s pay-off doesn’t even need to be monetary – attention/adulation can work as currency. Imagine there was a way of writing small snippets of fiction, and getting an instant reward of people sharing and liking and commenting. Those would be small rewards, but you might go viral, get thousands and thousands of people liking and sharing, and bringing in more readers!

    Good thing there is no such thing, I bet a writer could find that addictive…

    Liked by 4 people

  7. For me, the big gamble with writing would be going full time. In all areas of my life, I’ve always been very risk averse. Writing is something I do because I enjoy it, and I’ve been fortunate to have a certain amount of publication and a few accolades. Letters from readers are always the best.

    But throughout my career, any full time writing gig has always been a gamble. I’ve leaned toward a separate career field that is stable and pays well, with writing bringing in money on the side.

    The largest gamble I’ve made so far in my life was starting a business. I didn’t spend the kind of money that people can easily drop on small businesses and I still came out 50k in the red. In relation to this, I see self-publishing as hardly any gamble at all. For less than 2k, I can have a book professionally edited, kickass cover art, and purchase a solid marketing plan, and so far, I’ve made a good return on those investments. If one book doesn’t pay out, I can stop and evaluate how things are going… I’m not locked into rent, insurance, products, supplies, employees… the list goes on.

    Going full-time and depending on writing for my family’s income and health insurance isn’t a gamble I’m willing to take. I’d rather focus on the multiple income streams Joanna Penn recommends. At least for now, writing has been a great side business that, at least recently, remodeled my bathroom and is sending my kid to college.

    I don’t get to call myself a “full-time” author, but most writers I know, award winners even, don’t say that either, so it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I got to join SFWA and I get reader email, so what more is there, really?

    I guess my point is that I have never expected writing to pay, so any money I made was gravy. I’m too risk-averse to be addicted to it. Writing is a compulsion that comes from somewhere deeper for me than a cycle of short term highs and lows.

    Interesting post though, thank you. I’ve found myself thinking about this quite a bit for the last couple days.

    Liked by 3 people

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