What it’s like to read for a living.

what it's like to read for a living

I just listened to a fascinating edition of the Books on the Nightstand podcast. (It’s one of my favorites, although I’ve concluded that the hosts and I have wildly disparate tastes in books). In this episode, hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness answer what they call their most frequently asked reader question: how did they get their jobs?

I’m late to the party: the episode is almost two months old by now. Many MMD readers listen to the BOTN podcast, and I’ve gotten quite a few emails about my own book-related job and my day job (it’s not in books) asking for my own perspective on their background. Now that I’ve listened, I can finally talk about it.

By day, Ann and Michael work as sales reps for Penguin Random House, a position which inspires envy in readerly types. Their job is to read, talk books with fellow booklovers, and get people excited about reading. They explained how they got their jobs (short answer: bookish backgrounds and a fair amount of luck) and—since they say you can’t get a job like theirs unless one of them dies—they turned the conversation towards other book-related jobs. Because many, many readers want a job that revolves around books.

At the 20:00 mark of the podcast, Ann mentions that all kinds of new book-related jobs are popping up these days because of the internet and social media. More and more people are creating their own made-to-fit book-related jobs.

I have one of those.

Believe it or not, I was never particularly interested in a job that involved a lot of reading, for the same reason I didn’t last as an English major: I was afraid that making books my work would take all the fun out of it.

And yet, without exactly meaning to, I’ve made books a significant part of my life and my work. That’s not what I expected to happen when I started this blog back in 2011. But now I’m able to surround myself with books, literally and figuratively, and with people who love books as much as I do.

Now I devote a good number of hours to writing this blog, and various freelance pieces. I have my own writing projects in process (some of which may eventually actually see the light of day). I copyedit the books of other writers, pre-publication, and I review them when they’re published.

Good writers have to be readers. And to write about books, you first have to read them. It’s a nice little virtuous cycle, if you’re a book lover.

Every once in a while I’ll have lunch with someone—an acquisitions editor, a sales rep, a full time copyeditor—and think, I want her job. But on a day-in, day-out basis I am very happy with the odd kind of job I accidentally created for myself in the world of books.

open book

Lest you die of envy, right here, I’ll tell you that reading for a living does have its drawbacks.

Reading for work is time-consuming, and it will take as much time as I’m willing to give it, and more. It’s easy for my reading to feel rushed, like I’m going wide but not deep. And my TBR list is a million miles long.

Believe it or not (and I don’t expect you to, so don’t worry), early access to soon-to-be-published works has a downside. Vetting books before anyone else has read them or reviewed them makes you realize how much you depend on other people’s recommendations when selecting your own books, to steer you towards the good stuff and away from the bad. Without that guidance, you end up reading a lot of mediocre books.

Editing books is lots of fun: it’s fascinating to get to see a writer’s creative process, and how subsequent revisions bring a work closer and closer to a finished product that’s a pleasure to read. But in order to make that work the best it can be, you need a critical eye—and it can be hard to turn off your inner critic when the project is over.

But don’t get the wrong idea: reading for a living is pretty awesome. I love getting to talk about reading every day. I love needing to read widely and immerse myself in my favorite subjects. I especially love how I get to read backlist and hot new releases.

If you’ve gotten to this point and are tempted to hate me, don’t do it—just go check out this list of book-related jobs and hobbies right now.

How does reading fit into your job, or your fictional dream job? Do you have a different hobby that you’ve built a career around, or that you’d LIKE to? Tell us about it in comments. 

P.S. Dream jobs, and the work that makes more of you.

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  1. As a middle school English teacher, reading is a huge part of my life. I love that I get to read dozens of great (and some not so great!) young adult novels and nonfiction works each year. I get a huge thrill from matching the perfect book with its ideal reader, of helping my students find a series that they can’t put down. I also have challenged myself to read 100 books this year and am blogging about it. I couldn’t be happier that books are my life!

  2. Veronica says:

    I worked in social work for many years. I loved my job, but it was very stressful. When we all were notified of our work ending, I was sad, but not sad enough to take the therapuetic foster care job I was offered. I was fortunate enough to find another job working (part time) in a library. While the pay is on the low side, the rewards are great – around books, get to talk about books, and recommend books. The stress is so much less, and I have to read lots of books to recommend them!

  3. Jamie says:

    One of the things I loved about working at an Aerosciences Museum was reading books about planes, aviation history, and science and then being able to share them with the visitors who came through. I also loved using fascinating things I’d read as a potential starting point for exhibits or as fodder for articles in the museums’s newsletter or website. I was definitely surprised at how many ways there were to naturally work my love of reading into that position, so it’s great to see this post (and the comments!) and see how other people are doing the same in some many other fields as well. 🙂

  4. Rebecca says:

    I ended up working at a major chain bookstore. I loved it (most of the time! It was retail:) and I’d definitely go back; now that I’m “retired” I feel so out of the loop.

  5. Amy says:

    I work at a library, and while I don’t get paid to read for living (I’ve heard there are library systems big enough to have reading librarians, but our little on-and-a-half branch county system is not anywhere approaching that) it helps me a lot in my job. The more I read, the more confident I feel in giving book recommendations, or even in just striking up friendly conversations with patrons as they check out. It has also given me the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities at work, namely helping with collections management, which is is, in part, the selection and purchase of new materials for the library. Choosing books to buy is so much fun!

  6. Cassie says:

    Reading is definitely a hobby for me – one I cherish. I also strayed from my teacher’s recommendations of English major for the same reason. I didn’t want work to kill it. I love reading too much.

  7. Jillian Kay says:

    I don’t read for my job, but I do read like it’s my job!

    I thought you worked in law. Is this new job a change? Do you work for a company or freelance? Just curious.

    • Anne says:

      I still work in law but I’m continuing to cut back and will retire from that field soon, I expect permanently. (But never say never, etc.) Now I spend much more time reading and writing for that part of my work (mostly freelance, not corporate) than on legal stuff.

  8. Brittany says:

    Reading is a huge part of my job as an attorney. For the first year or so after I started practicing full time I had zero interest in reading for pleasure because I was so exhausted and disenchanted with reading at work. Finally I found found that reading for pleasure (very light books) before bed and on the weekends has restored my love of reading. Can’t wait to checkout the podcast!

    • Anne says:

      I’m glad you’ve found a way to enjoy reading off the job. Your daytime reading probably isn’t the kind of stuff you’d want to relax with at night!

  9. Julia says:

    I worked in a public library for 5 years (probably the best place to be if you want to be surrounded by books!) before diving into freelance writing so I could stay at home with my son. Now that he’s a little older (i.e., not waking me up in the middle of the night), I’m transitioning into book indexing. I’m surprised indexing didn’t make the Reading Rainbow list of jobs (or the original Book Riot list, though it is mentioned in the comments). It’s a well-paying field (once you know what you’re doing) and fairly flexible if you’re freelance. And it’s the perfect bookish job if you want to “read deep.”

  10. Mary Carver says:

    A lot of my work now involves reading, like yours. But I still hold on to the dream I’ve had since college of being a full-time editor for a publishing house. Maybe someday!

  11. Katie says:

    I’m a stay at home mom, but I am also an aspiring novelist. I consider the time I spend reading as an investment in me as a writer. I read to my kids often, too. In that way, I certainly read for my job.

  12. Alissa W says:

    I’m a librarian and specifically a collection development librarian and book discussion leader so reading is a part of my job and also one of my major hobbies as well. I LOVE reading advanced copies of novels and being able to recommend them right when they hit the shelves. Or being able to predict when a book is going to hit big (Girl on the Train). Another good source of books is libraryreads.org it’s like the indie next list from booksellers, except selected by librarians.

  13. Sarah M says:

    I always thought I’d end up at an East coast publishing house right after college, but instead I got married and had kids right after college, and we decided I’d stay home with them while they’re young, and homeschool.
    I worked at Barnes & Noble for years (I swear they only hire people who will spend 1/3 of their paycheck back in the store), was an English major in college, and worked on two collegiate literary magazines that my university was affiliated with, as an editor. Now I do think my bookish qualities have helped me with the kids’ schooling, but my goal is to continue blogging as practice and also write children’s books. Hopefully some of those will see the light of day at some point, too. 🙂
    Sarah M

  14. Hannah says:

    My training is in classical music–I’m a cellist. I’ve always read for the pure joy of it, though I never chose a major like English or Literature (music and German, instead). In my adult life this love for the written word translated into a passion for writing. I still read like mad, but now more critically than before. My hope, however, is that I won’t ever get to the point where I’m reading in a strictly utilitarian sense. I’ve always loved books and I don’t want to let that love grow cold under a microscope. I still love the feeling of reading a book and knowing it was very good, without necessary parsing it. It’s a balance for sure!

  15. Karisa says:

    I think I had lost some of the love of reading after college. It didn’t help that I was so out of the loop of what was good current fiction and tired of the classics. But now I’m a receptionist with a phone that rarely rings, a Kindle, and an excellent online library.I’ve read so many books this year, but I think I need to start a bookclub because I want to talk about what I’ve read.
    Now if I could just sit myself down and write, I could actually use my major….

  16. I probably do 8-10 book reviews a year, so I read those. I probably blurb a similar number. But I also wind up reading a lot of non-fiction books because I will write about the book topic, and often interview the author, and I really want to have read much of a book before talking to the author. The interviews go so much better!

  17. Debbie says:

    I was an elementary/middle school librarian for 32 years. I spent my days reading to children, reading the new books (mostly at night and summers), talking about books, recommending books and teaching how to use books for a purpose like research. The library supplied the whole school with teaching and recreational reading materials, so the subject levels expanded all interest, reading levels, and taste.I loved my job, loved the books. Being the head and only librarian in the school I was surrounded by books, I selected them, I catalogued them, I repaired them, I took classes about books. I was also in charge of all the media in the school. There were many opportunities to meet and talk to authors. Did I mention I loved my job?

  18. Courtney says:

    I have the same fear of losing the love of reading if I pursue a book-related job. My dream right now is to become a book reviewer – whether through established blogs or other publications. I work at a university and am thinking about picking up some English courses here and there as a test run, seeing if the passion is still there after diving deeper into analyzing books. I volunteer at my local library once a week and have found joy in recommendations though!

  19. Kate says:

    I have a degree in library science, but my (as yet unrealized) goal is to work in a special collection or corporate setting, not in a public library. Though I love reading, I’d rather not have to read certain things when I’m just not in the mood.

  20. Anne says:

    I wondered about this question! Hopefully, you have plenty of time for delight-directed reading, too, still. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look and thought!

  21. Angela says:

    Since you asked about other hobbies, I have managed to have a knitting related job. But like many have said it changes your habits and choices.for example I really need to knit using yarn the store I work for sells which takes some of the adventure out of it or use patterns we sell. Otherwise it makes those all important instagram, FB or Twitter pics less useful. Also people really don’t understand how long it takes to create content that is useful and not just advertising. But it is pretty unique and something I never imagined I could be doing. I also homeschool.

  22. Dana says:

    I worked in an indie bookstore while I was in grad school. I loved it and would love to do it again. I got my Master’s in reading education and spent 35 years teaching kids to read and to love books. I loved reading to my students and talking about books with them. I ran book clubs in my classroom. I am retired now and I love to read and do so quite a bit. I am also a writer. I have a finished novel that needs editing and I am working on a modern fairy tale for tweens, I have also written a couple of songs recently much to my surprise.

  23. I homeschool using a literature-based curriculum and LOVE IT! That is my primary “job.” Ten years ago I began representing the curriculum at homeschool conventions. I get to help new homeschoolers figure out how to teach using real books vs text books. I love my job!

  24. Before I became a SAHM, I was a copy editor. Which is a job I both adored and occasionally hated. Yes, I read for a living – sort of. I also went to a lot of meetings about business and titles and tried to make the graphic designer happy and worked with authors, some of whom were less kind than others. You don’t get to read what you want, and you read the same thing 8,000 times, until you hate it and become immune to it. (Strangely enough, I read Bible studies for a living, which puts a whole different spin on this!)

    Now I much prefer writing to editing, although I will do both. But I’ve always written about books and reading on my blog, too, simply because it is part of my life! How could I not? I LOVE talking books. I thought maybe my dream job would be to design book lists for parents who wanted their child to turn out with specific qualities. (You know, filthy rich people who would want said service.) I think I love children’s books more than anything.

    • Anne says:

      “You don’t get to read what you want, and you read the same thing 8,000 times, until you hate it and become immune to it. (Strangely enough, I read Bible studies for a living, which puts a whole different spin on this!)”

      Laughing so hard at this. I hear you!

  25. Late last year, I put a flip comment up on Facebook, “I wish I had a job where I read books all day.” Fast forward to day – I’m a radio talk show host interviewing authors, among others. PR reps are sending me books every day asking for their authors to be on the air. I’m not complaining at all – but you know, be careful what you wish for!

  26. Sharell says:

    I have always wanted to own a children’s book store. I find it sad that so much of their childhood is based on electronics, video games, etc., and I would love to open their worlds to books, storytelling, and theater. I have been dreaming of and designing my perfect, little bookstore and hope one day it can become a reality. Writing a novel is also #1 on my bucket list. 🙂

  27. Jenny Wells says:

    I bought a used bookstore last January that specializes in popular fiction. I started paying myself .25 cents every time someone sighed, “I would love to have a bookstore.” or “How wonderful to read all day.” I read sooo much. Book titles, lists, synopses. 🙂 But it might be awhile until I lose myself in a book again. I named my store Jenny’s Paper & Ink Books, but I’m finding audiobooks to be helpful. I just finished “The One in a Million Boy” that way and really enjoyed it.

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