Writing vs the Lottery: Which is better for everyone?


Some online comments I read recently made a point about the potential success of the indie ebook writer that I had never considered before: The odds of becoming a successful indie ebook writer (and by “successful,” I mean earning a significant income from ebooks) is actually lower than your chances of winning the lottery.

Once I got past the depressing implication of that statement, I started thinking about it practically, to wit: If I had the choice of either writing or playing the lottery, which would be better for me… and for everyone in general?

Sure, it sounds on its surface like a silly question, but consider this: Both activities can be said to pay dividends to the user, and to everyone else.  In the case of writing, the writer is said to gain a personal reward from the process of writing itself.  Their readers are also supposed to gain from reading said books.  And if the author is very lucky, they will gain a significant monetary reward from writing.

Now consider the lottery: It is presented as a game, so the player is supposed to gain some enjoyment from the play and from the suspense of the outcome.  Lottery money generally goes to charities or community funds, so the money spent by a player benefits others in providing finances for community services.  And if the player is very lucky, they will win a significant cash outlay from playing.

So let’s compare the benefits of the two: First, the personal act.  A writer and a lottery player both receive an abstract psychological pleasure out of writing and playing, neither of which can be directly quantified.  It can be said, however, that whereas the writer is performing an act of creation that is worth some monetary amount based on the time spent in writing—which can be roughly quantifiable—a lottery player is not engaged in an act of creation which could be quantifiable, but in the process of spending money, which is specifically quantifiable… in negative numbers.  Of course, while the writer writes, they are not earning money for the work they’re putting in.  So at the outset, both the writer and the lottery player are essentially losing money in the pursuit of personal enjoyment.  Is that lost money equal to the amount of enjoyment they get from writing or playing?  That is an arbitrary question, and left up to the writer and the player to figure out.  But at this point, they are the only ones who have lost anything.

We are assuming, of course, that the process of writing and of lottery playing is not being done at the expense of other tasks in need of their time, or budgets in need of that money to balance.  It may also be worth noting that the average writer will put in hundreds of hours in writing, a market value of thousands of dollars worth of their time; a lottery player who spends that much money on the lottery may be considered to have a gambling addiction.  (Hmm… if expending so much effort, despite a probability of no success, could be considered an addiction… maybe we need a Gamblers Anonymous for writers…)

Second, the benefit to everyone else: A writer’s book can be sold to individuals, who can derive enjoyment or knowledge out of reading it.  Unless it is a textbook, the enjoyment or knowledge will likely not extend much beyond the reader; perhaps to a friend or loved one who is the recipient of some action or information imparted by the reader.  And the number of sold books may be small, limiting the benefit it provides to a very few individuals.

Compare this to a lottery cache, which will enter a charity or community coffer, and potentially benefit many people through its application to community works.  In this case, the lottery will probably receive the larger benefit, and therefore, so will the community.  Certainly the community benefit will be more lasting, even if the writer’s book turns out to be fairly popular.

Many individuals (okay… a few individuals, really) may not be enamored about the loss of a good book to entertain them.  However, as Mr. Spock once said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one”.  So, in this case, giving attention to the lottery, as opposed to writing, would be the greater good.

And finally, the chance of being a big winner: The potential success of a book can net a writer thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars; very few authors can expect or get better than that, and many “successful” authors don’t make that much from a single book (which is why they keep writing).  In contrast, a single lottery win can easily surpass the million dollar mark, and potentially pay out enough to make sure the winner never has to work again.

But the odds of making a lot of money from writing are incredibly slim (this is based on the number of indie writers, and the number of books produced in a year, versus the number of indies who score a significant success in the market).  A regular lottery player has better odds of winning money from the lottery… even big, multi-million dollar payouts have better odds than writing success.  The odds are clearly in the lottery’s favor here—funny how that works, as in fact, the odds are within the lottery’s favor to keep most of the money it collects, including the interest it makes on the money it holds until it pays out (the lesson being that if you want to make real money, maybe you should be running a lottery).

So: When you put all of this together, it suggests that the writer who writes specifically to make money would be better off replacing his computer with a handful of lottery tickets, for a number of reasons: The personal sense of enjoyment from playing the lottery would be roughly comparable to the act of writing; the proceeds from playing would benefit more people, through community support, compared to writing and benefiting the few readers who buy the book; and the payoff is more likely and significantly higher than the expected payoff from selling books.

Does this mean that all of us hopeful writers should abandon our stories and take up lottery playing, for the public good and our own more likely success?  Clearly.  Will we?  Probably not.  We may need an intervention to get us to Writer’s Anonymous, but don’t expect us to check ourselves in.  After all, we’re not out of control.  We can stop writing… anytime we want to…


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