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What Edgar Allan Poe Can Teach You About the Gig Economy, Playing the Long Game, and More

By Chris Hill – Sep 7, 2021 at 11:42AM

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A surprising business guru can offer some great advice on getting ahead.

Why was one of history's most celebrated writers vastly underpaid? In this episode of MarketFoolery, Catherine Baab-Muguira gives you the answer and shares a few highlights from her new book, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History's Least Likely Self-Help Guru.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 1, 2021.

Chris Hill: It's Wednesday, Sept. 1st. Welcome to MarketFoolery. I'm Chris Hill. We got something a little different today. I know you've heard of Edgar Allan Poe. Of course you've heard of him. It's Edgar Allan Poe, of course, you've heard of him. You're probably familiar with The Raven and possibly even some of Poe's other works. But what you may not have realized is that Edgar Allan Poe can offer insight on business and financial issues. I was not aware of this, but it's something that comes up in the brand-new book, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History's Least Likely Self-Help Guru. I'm very happy to be joined by the author Catherine Baab-Muguira, who joins me from her home in Richmond. Thanks so much for being here.

Catherine Baab-Muguira: So glad to be here.

Hill: By way of disclosure, we worked together, although we worked for the same company. Our paths don't actually cross all that much in terms of what we each do, you are a copywriter for our company, but you've been a writer on the side for years. You've written for CNBC, Playboy, Slate, and my experience with writers is that writers have their favorites. For one reason or another, they look to writers who really resonate with them. Before we get into the book, I am curious, what was the moment when you looked at Edgar Allan Poe, and you said, this is my guy?

Baab-Muguira: Surprisingly, it was a pretty dark moment in my own life. One moment I was extremely depressed, and for the first time since I was a kid, I got the idea to read Edgar Allan Poe. When I came back to it as an adult, I saw something completely different than I had when I was a child. It was that his dark stories of torture and the Spanish Inquisition, there were metaphors for the pain of the human condition, and he had so much psychological insight that he'd never really gotten credit for at least that I had seen, so he drew me in that way and I discovered a writer I never knew.

Hill: Well, and there are plenty of things in your book that I never knew about Poe and one of them is something that has been a very hot topic in the business world for the last five to eight years, and that is the gig economy, which I and probably a lot of other people just thought, "Oh, yeah. The gig economy, this is a new thing. This is one of the Uber (UBER 4.97%) and Lyft (LYFT 4.28%) and DoorDash (DASH 9.21%) and all these businesses, and this is this new thing." One of those things that I discovered in your book is that now the gig economy has been around for a long time, and Poe was right there in the center of it all.

Baab-Muguira: Yeah. We think of it as a new development. But Poe's life teaches us that the gig economy has been around for a very long time. Much of his career was him being a freelancer, not having a staff job, and we even know the rates that he earned for his freelance contribution, some of the most famous stories, for instance, The Raven, he earned $9 in 19th century dollars for that poem. While in a way, that's a depressing message in that the rates were quite low, it also has the potential for us to feel less alone, and those of us who do this today. Actually, he was quite good at what he did, he managed to publish extremely widely and to adapt himself to a strange marketplace at the time.

Hill: That's another part that I love, which is that he has his passion, he has the things that he himself enjoys writing and they're not really selling. Part of what Poe does is essentially go where the work is. It's like you want stories about ghosts? All right. Let me bang out about those.

Baab-Muguira: Absolutely, and while we tend to think that the marketplace corrupts art, it actually can be true that it makes you better. What made Poe a great writer was writing for the marketplace, writing for the widest possible audience, and not for some elite. I think that's why his work survives today because he wrote in commercial genres that we still enjoy.

Hill: You mentioned the money, and when you start to put the numbers together, it really is incredible that someone whose work outlived him by centuries now, all of the evidence points to, he made a couple of $100,000 like that was the full amount in today's dollars. That's the full amount of what he got paid. What stands out to you? Are there financial lessons you can take away from that? Because Edgar Allan Poe was one of those people who would have made a great fictional character if he weren't a real person himself.

Baab-Muguira: Yeah, absolutely true. I think maybe the first thing that jumped out at me is that you're playing a long game. No matter what business you're in, you can't necessarily look over the next three to five months or even three to five years. But look out to the much longer term. Poe is a much more widely read author today, even though he was in his own lifetime and he's been dead for 17 decades. I think it also shows us the potential when you work in popular mediums, say popular mediums today like YouTube videos or TikTok or Twitch. He was writing the version of those things in his own day and it shows that those things can endure.

Hill: One of the things I was struck by was because there are points in his life where he is trying to get ahead and does something that a lot of us have done from time to time, which was he embellished his resume. Although in Poe's case, he, in some cases, just sort of flat out lied. But that's another thing to go back to the gig economy where we think it's this new thing. The saying in Silicon Valley for decades has been fake it 'til you make it, so like part of what he's trying to do in his time is essentially that where he's like, I've got the talent. I just need to get past the hiring process.

Baab-Muguira: Absolutely. In his quasi cover letters, Poe vastly inflated his experience in the magazine industry when he was trying to get his first editorial jobs. Later, when he wanted to launch his own magazine, he, again, vastly inflated his contributions to the workplaces he had already been in. For instance, he said to one would-be investor that increased subscriptions to this magazine 700%, and scholars have since discovered it was more like 40%, less eye-popping, still good. But it's just like an investor presentation today where the numbers are a little bit cooked in many cases or they're presented out of context. Anyway, it's nothing new, and maybe it shows us that self promotion is essential. We live in a chaotic information age just like Poe did, and to stand out, sometimes, you have to puff yourself up a bit.

Hill: Are there instances in his life where he is trying to get ahead, whether it's locking down a particular job or even starting his own business, where there are obvious reasons why he can't get it done?

Baab-Muguira: Yeah. I think this is another one that's familiar today. Just as when you want to launch a business today, you may need venture capital, some kind of investment dollars. It was no different for Poe. The reason he never could pull off his great professional dream of launching his own magazine, was just that he couldn't nail down the VC.

Hill: I mentioned you're in Richmond and you can go up and down the East Coast. In fact, the majority of the East Coast from Boston to Philly to Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, South Carolina. There are all of these cities that claim Edgar Allan Poe in some way, shape, or form. There are businesses in those cities that are built around him and his work, which is pretty incredible when you start to learn more about him and some of his behavior, some of his habits, not that great, not really the exemplary figure that you would necessarily want to build a business around. Why do you think that is? Why do you think there are all these cities and all of these businesses within the cities that are built around this guy?

Baab-Muguira: I think it's because he was a genius who was working in commercial genres that we still understand today, and that's why he translates so easily to TV and film adaptations, even Poe-themed restaurants. There's a small chain of Poe-themed restaurants. You find Poe T-shirts for sale at Hot Topic, Poe books at Urban Outfitters (URBN 1.40%). It is really because he wrote for the marketplace. It's not because he ignored it, he wasn't able to ignore it, he couldn't afford to ignore it. In some ways, he hated having to cater to it, but he catered to it so successfully that we still enjoy him. We read him for pleasure, and how many 19th century authors can you say that about? To the point that in Baltimore, they have the NFL team named after one of his poems. There's no other NFL team or any sports team anywhere named after a poem.

Hill: Have you been to one of those restaurants before?

Baab-Muguira: I have not, no. Actually, I have been to Poe's Pub in Richmond. There's also a little independent and I've been to a number of the Poe-themed bars in Philadelphia.

Hill: Again, other than maybe Shakespeare, I'm not sure which writers from centuries past are having restaurants and pubs built around them. The book is Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History's Least Likely Self-Help Guru. It is out next week, but you can pre-order it now on Amazon and we'll put the link in the episode description so people can check that out. I know I said this to you a few weeks ago, but I'm going to say it again for the dozens of listeners. People are going to buy this book for themselves. But this is one of those books that people are going to buy as a gift because they're going to look around at their family or their circle of friends and recognize, "Yeah. That's the person in my life who is going to love this book." Anyway, Cath, I know you are in high demand this week, so thanks for making the time, really appreciate it.

Baab-Muguira: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a lot of fun.

Hill: As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. That's going to do it for this edition of MarketFoolery. The show is mixed by Dan Boyd. I'm Chris Hill. Thanks for listening. Remember the market is closed on Monday, so we will see you next week on Tuesday. 

Chris Hill has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Uber Technologies. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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