Reading for a Living

A Woman Reading by Claude Monet, 1872

Everyone knows that agents and editors are reading practically all the time. We read queries and manuscripts of people hoping to secure representation, we read the manuscripts of our clients, and we read as many published books as possible – partly because we love reading, and partly because we need to stay on top of what’s happening in publishing.

One of the most common things people say to us is, “Oh, I would LOVE to read for a living!”

And yes, I admit, since reading is my favorite thing, I love that I get to read for a living. However, I have to admit that “reading for a living” is not as wonderful as it sounds. The main reason is that, like anything you’re doing for work as opposed to simply because you want to, you automatically look at it differently.

It takes much more energy to read for work, whether I’m reading my client’s manuscript or the work of new writers seeking representation. It’s not relaxing, because this kind of reading involves a persistent critical eye. I’m constantly assessing the work, making notes to myself, trying to identify problems and weaknesses, and evaluating the quality and saleability of the work. If there are issues – I’m bored while reading the story, I’m having a hard time staying engaged, I don’t care about the characters – then I’m asking myself questions and sleuthing out the reasons for these issues.

So my mind is processing on two levels while I read: I’m paying attention to the the story itself, and I’m also paying attention to my reactions to the story. There’s awareness, and then meta-awareness. Like I said, not relaxing!

I love what I do. But whenever you catch yourself saying (or thinking) “How great it would be to read for a living!” remind yourself – it’s not quite that simple.

Q4U: Which parts of an agent’s or editors job do you think you’d like the best? The least?

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Shelley Watters

    >Least: rejections (both sending them to hopeful authors and receiving them from editors for client ms's)

    Most: Locating that gem in the slushpile and getting to have the 'call' offering representation. Also, the 'call' telling the author that you sold their book. Release day when I would get to go into my local bookstore and pull a book off the shelves that I picked out of the slush.

    As always, thank you for your wonderful blog!

  • T. Anne

    >As a reader I come to books with judgment. If the book I’m about to read is on the NYT bestseller list I have an expectation of what caliber this read might be. If I procure it from the ‘free for Kindle’ list, or pay less than $2.99, I lower my expectations.

    When I critique work for another writer, I don’t know what to expect. I find myself scrutinizing sentences, taking down notes, mercilessly stabbing at the manuscript with a scrupulous eye looking for cause to interject my opinion. You’re right—it feels different. It puts me in the position of responsibility, and that detracts from my leisure. (Although my crit partners can pen a pretty mean read!)

    As a writer who has work out there, I have grandiose delusions over an agent reading my work. I envision fist-pounding excitement, eyes glued to the kindle while drinking my novel down to the dregs in a single sitting. Then of course the mad dash to the phone and a call of representation. ~Hey, a girl can dream, right?

    And to answer your question; if I were an agent, I think it would be a blast to make ‘the call’! That, and the sale of my clients work would be my favorite part.

  • Micah Maddox

    >What an excellent artist for this article. Impressionism often insists on a certain perspective; get too close and the work as a whole is lost in the elements of composition.

  • pathunstrom

    >Only tangentially associated with my writing life, but I design table top role playing games as a hobby. Once I started doing that, I started examining games in a different light, very similar to the meta-awareness you describe while reading for work.

    Another example is explained on the tvtropes website that after learning the common tropes, you start seeing things differently about television.

    I don't think it's a bad thing, necessarily, of getting to that point where you enjoyment of the thing needs to change because your awareness of it, and its construction has changed. But I do think, every once in a while, you need to be reminded what it's like for everyone else, to be wowed by a book, show, or game so much that you forget to examine it.

    And to answer the question, I'm not sure what my favorite part would be, probably meeting and talking with people about what they want out of the partnership. It's closely related to the sales jobs I've had, and I LOVE those.

  • B.R. Paulson

    >Least: telling people no

    Most: telling people yes!

  • Buffy Andrews

    >I think the part of your job that I would like the most is working with the authors, helping them do the best work of their lives. That would be my goal each and every day.

  • Jessica Nelson

    >I wouldn't like anything that had to do with numbers. LOL But reading, yes. Possibly the querying too. :-)

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Reading quit being totally fun when I learned more about writing. LOL. And when I became a critique partner and read no matter what and try to help a total newby learn the craft.

    So I can see where you are coming from.

    But still, reading that great book and that great manuscript gives me a thrill so I am sure you experience that exhilaration as well and that is what keeps you going.

    I think the best part of an agents job would be calling a client and sharing GOOD NEWS.

    I hope you can continue to do what you do for many years.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >I find I read books I'm reviewing differently than books I've chosen for enjoyment. I like to be honest in my reviews and helpful for a potential buyer so I read with the review in mind.

    But I don't take on near as many reviews compared to what you are powering through.

    As an agent I'd love making that call, guiding and helping shape a client's vision, brainstorming, seeing my client's books release, etc.

    Wouldn't like the feeling of unreasonably being placed on a pedestal, anything with math, and dealing with misguided writers of all kinds.

    ~ Wendy

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >By misguided I meant those with a unrealistic expectations for you, the agent, wanting you to fix or solve their problem, teach them the A-Z’s of writing or those with lack of real knowledge about the publishing process.

  • BK

    >Reading isn't such a joy as a writer either. Since I began writing, I cannot read any book without a critical eye. Sometimes I wish it would just go away and let me read.

    Occasionally there's a book good enough to shut off that analyzing voice in my head, but very very rarely.

  • OneBigHappy

    >Best part of the job: For me, it would be that moment when I could tell a writer that they are going to be published. It's got to be great to be able to participate in that and see the reactions, etc.

  • Cheryl Barker

    >I think the part of an agent's job I'd love the best is helping to launch a new author, getting to see and be a part of their joy and excitement. That's gotta be good stuff!

  • Amy Dawson Robertson

    >Most: The unbridled power! Just kidding. Finding the gems.

    Least: Reading lots of prose that hasn't been cooked enough. And saying No.

  • K.L. Brady

    >Sounds sick I know but I actually love editing–other people's work. Absolutely HATE editing my own, there is no greater pain. But I truly love to read a story and tell them what in the story is working, what part may need more development, or just help them shape it.

    Someday, when my name means something in the business, I'd really love to really expand my indie press and help turn writers into authors.

  • Laura Maylene

    >Right. If my job entailed sitting on my couch reading exactly what I wanted to every day, and when I finished a book I simply had to put it down and pick up the next from my list, that would be fabulous. But that job doesn't exist, unless you have a trust fund or a really nice benefactor. I don't think I'd want the "reading job" that agents and editors have. It sounds exhausting and it must take time and pleasure from your personal reading time.

    What I'd like most about an agent/editor's job: Helping and guiding an author I really believe in get published and get her excellent work out there in the world.

    Absolute worst: Watching as that same author is unable to secure a deal not because of any weaknesses in the work, but because of market/financial reasons.

  • Erica Vetsch

    >When I first started writing fiction, it changed the way I read fiction. Everything passed under a more critical eye. I found it much more difficult to really lose myself in a story, because if it was (in my estimation) badly written, I wanted to pick out why and how to avoid that mistake in my own writing. If I felt it was well written, I wanted to pick it apart and find out what the writer had done, so I could try the techniques myself.

    I lost the ability to just enjoy a story. A lifelong reader and lover of fiction, I mourned the loss of 'storyland' in favor of 'writer's eye.'

    The truth is, I had been educated beyond my intelligence for awhile. It took me several years, a lot more reading, and to be honest, a few doses of rejection and humility to be able to let some of that critical spirit go and to enjoy reading again just for the sake of reading.

    Question Answer: I think I would like the least when I had to tell a client that the book that has been climbing through the pub boards and committees for so long has met with a final 'no' from the publisher.

    I think I would like best getting to work with clients and help get books I was passionate about into print.

  • Janice Phelps Williams

    >Your post has communicated for me what I've experienced as an independent publisher (I write as well). When I started in this role 10+ years ago, I rarely had time to read for pleasure. Fortunately in the last few years I have been able to set aside my thinking cap and read in my precious spare time without analyzing each paragraph…but it's taken a while to get there. If a book doesn't grab me in the first chapter, forget it. I am now an impatient reader, and not proud of it.

    What I love about being a publisher is reading seeing the potential in a manuscript and in an author. Of imagining the places he or she will go, the people touched by the writing and the future work from this writer. Do I want to be a part of their promising beginning? Do I want to be the one who says, "Yes, it really is good!"

    It is very difficult sending out rejection notices. Writers want more information, but there is not enough time to give it and a publisher rejecting your work is not the entity to provide it–that's what writer's groups, critique partners, agents, and conferences are for.

    It is wonderful holding a new book from the printer in my hands for the first time, and thinking of the author receiving it as well. The numbers? A drag, I'm afraid. Fortunately some of us publish for reasons other than profit. But a profit must be realized at some point. Writers might want to keep in mind that publishers have dreams as well.

    Thank you for your blog, it is very insightful and I love it.

  • Juliette

    >This is exactly why I like editing in the life sciences. I love to read and love that I get paid to read, but I find that reading science topics keeps me objective, supports a good cause, and lets me learn as I work. =)

    Things I dislike as an editor: Sometimes I feel like I'm hurting people's feelings. I try to soften 'blows', but it's not easy in some cases.

    I do love watching my clients succeed and improve; nothing like wanting to high-five your client! =)

  • Nicole Zoltack

    >least: receiving rejections from a publisher

    most: calling an author with "the Call"

  • Anonymous

    >As a writer/editor, it's hard to read for pleasure. I'm constantly revising sentences and thinking of better ways to form a sentence…need to let go!

  • Tom M Franklin

    >one of the ms editors at the well-respected university press where I work told me she took the job because she loved reading. now, she reads and edits manuscripts all day and cannot read at home. the job has strangled her love of reading.

    as a writer, i still mentally edit books to my own taste, but i still enjoy reading — and enjoy well-written books more than ever.

    – Tom

  • Teenage Bride

    >One of my favorite paintings!

  • Rachelle

    >I have to admit that my years in editing and agenting haven't ruined my love of reading. When I "clock out" for the day and read for myself, I totally enjoy it and don't find myself picking apart books so much like others are saying here.

    But then, I'm probably just strange. Years ago, I worked at Starbucks for a year. And it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for Starbucks one bit. :-)

  • Nikole Hahn

    >I love cooking. I bake and cook everything from scratch. I love to make it look beautiful like the work of art in a fancy restaurant because in a way it's a treat. One day I looked into becoming a personal chef. As I looked into the rules and licenses I would need, the money I would need to spend, the hours, etc, I realized that in order for this to stay a relaxing passion, I must keep it a hobby.

    Writing is my life. That is work, but it's work I love.

    I couldn't imagine being an editor or an agent. A friend once asked me to read her manuscript. I honestly tried, but having to read because I have to rather than because it's relaxing, well, I never got around to it. Then, to make matters worse, I lost it in a box in my house somewhere. Someday I'll find it. But what does that say to my friend? Ugh.

  • Jill Kemerer

    >This is a great post! I used to tell my husband I wanted to read for a living, but then I thought about it and realized it was too broad an interpretation. I decided reading for a living would only be fun if I could choose the books. :)

  • Keli Gwyn

    >I'd like calling potential clients to offer representation and clients to let them know about contract offers, and, since I enjoy editing, I'd like helping clients get their manuscripts ready for submission.

    I wouldn't like disappointing those I couldn't represent, living with the constant stress of having more work to do than I had time in which to complete it, and having to be "up" for days on end at conferences.

  • Beth

    >An agent's job is not easy, and I can think of more things I would not like than things that I would like, but the best thing of all would be to help a writer achieve his or her potential and get published. That has to be very satisfying. It would be like watching a child open a Christmas present and become so excited by it. I love to see people succeed.

    On the other hand, the tough stuff would be:

    • Confronting the author about what's not working in a manuscript. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on the author's ability to take constructive criticism.

    • Believing you've found a perfect match for the author's manuscript but having it turned down. (There has to be a level of rejection there that touches the agent, too.)

    • Ending the business relationship when it's not working for agent and author. This has to be very hard, because it is a relationship, even if it's only a business one. We're only human, after all.

    • Hoping that each manuscript will be one you're looking for. I think it's something like 80% of the slush pile that isn't even usable, and of what's left, only about a fourth is what you might be looking for.

    • Making decisions. Sometimes I hate making decisions.

  • Susan Bourgeois

    >I think the lady in the picture must be uncomfortable in that attire.

    One can only imagine what type of underclothes she might be wearing.

    Surely, she had to hold her posture a certain way with that hat on her head in order to read the book.

    That picture, although beautiful, makes me appreciate the simplicity of the way we now dress.

    In today's world a woman can go to a park, lay down a blanket and read a good book in a comfortable jogging outfit.

    We are so lucky to have so many choices in today's world!

    As an agent or editor I know which part of the job I would like best.

    It's the part where each day you're provided with an opportunity to sift through mounds of possibilities knowing there's always a chance you'll hit gold.

    I'm a competitive person. The part I would like least is realizing that I passed on something that later turned out to be huge!

  • Renee Gold

    >Finding an undiscovered new talent!
    I get the idea that part of being an agent is like panning for Gold….I like the idea of striking Gold.

  • Aimee L Salter

    >If I was an agent I would love the moment when I read something that was BRILLIANT and realized no-one else had read it yet and I was going to be a vehicle to put it out there for the world.

    But that's just me.

  • Michelle DeRusha

    >I think the part I'd like best would be a day like today (Snow Day) — seeing a project come to fruition on publication day.

    And the least — rejecting so many people!(or I should say rejecting manuscripts…you don't really reject people!)

  • Christen Krumm

    >I would LOVE to read for a living (and everything that comes with that :)). I think my least favorite thing would have to be having to reject someone… I don't do good with having to tell someone "It's not good enough". Of course, also having the feedback there for them, maybe it wouldn't be so bad…

    xo,
    Christen

  • Beth

    >My favorite part would be editing grammer and punctuation!Sigh….. your, you're/two, too, to/ their, they're/it's, its and the list goes on….

  • Stephanie

    >Least favorite part: Dealing with angry clients (or anyone angry, really). Angry people scare me. I also wouldn't like the business part of the job. I wouldn't be good at it, and it wouldn't interest me. So in short, I'd be a terrible agent!

    Favorite: A toss-up between reading requested manuscripts (I read with a critical eye anyway- thanks, AP English) and combing the slush pile. I find queries fascinating, and the horrendous ones are at least entertaining! :)

  • Liberty Speidel

    >I think I'd love telling someone that I want to represent their books.

    I think I'd hate having to go back to that person and tell them that I've exhausted all my leads and haven't found them a publisher. (Hopefully that doesn't happen too often!)

  • Chambray Blue

    >Best: Helping authors bring good books to fruitation.
    Worst: Burning eyes from reading so much.
    blessings, bobbi

  • Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side

    >The title of this post really jumped out at me because as a young college student I fell in love with literature. I knew after that Lit 101 class that I had found "my thing," and so I called my parents with the great news. My dad, ever-so-practical, just kind of sneered and said, "So what are you going to do, read books for a living?" So disgusted was he. My quick response was, "Well, yes, if I could find such a job I would!"

    We still laugh about it today, 25 years later.

  • Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side

    >The title of this post really jumped out at me because as a young college student I fell in love with literature. I knew after that Lit 101 class that I had found "my thing," and so I called my parents with the great news. My dad, ever-so-practical, just kind of sneered and said, "So what are you going to do, read books for a living?" So disgusted was he. My quick response was, "Well, yes, if I could find such a job I would!"

    We still laugh about it today, 25 years later.

  • Julie Geistfeld

    >Honestly, I don’t think I could handle either of those jobs.
    I write. I do it because I love it. It takes every bit of my extra time (yes, I mean about 9 pm – midnight every night, 3 am if it’s just going so well I can’t stop.) I look forward to that time, and I usually wish I could find more of it.
    I guess some writers have a harder time dealing with agents and publishers, but I can’t imagine that. I don’t want those jobs, at all, so I know how much I need them there to do their jobs. I’m really glad they like what they do, fun or work!

  • twinklebelle

    >this is my fear – I love to read, I love to write but what happens when that beautiful day comes and I am paid to read and write? My stomach turns at the thought of my passions becoming work. my dream career is a paradox.

  • sue harrison

    >I think one of the great things about an agent's job would be to do what is going on today with Billy Coffey's SNOW DAY! I've been following his numbers on Amazon and having a ball being a cheerleader all the way from here in Michigan. Unfortunately for me, although I bought 3 of his books (1 for myself to review for Nov/Dec ENCOMPASS Magazine; 1 for a Christmas gift; and one for a give-away book on my blog) I didn't realize I should buy them today to up his numbers. I bought them on preorder and received them a few days ago. Already read it, already loved it, already did that "wish I would have written that!" about 14 times while I was reading it!!

    Congrats, Rachelle and Billy on a terrific book!!

    Worst part of being an agent? the rejections (any kind of rejection).

  • Judith Robl

    >I occasionally do screening reading for a small publisher. I love seeing what people come up with.

    I am ecstatic when I get to give an unqualified thumbs up on a manuscript for the editor to read.

    I love seeing the possibilities in those manuscripts that are not yet ready for publication.

    I have no problem saying no to people who really cannot cut it and directing them to resources for improvement.

    What really gets to me is the manuscript on the cusp – the one that is a really good manuscript, catches my eye, needs very little line edit, but may have only a small niche market. That decision is one I'm very glad to leave to the editor.

  • Beth K. Vogt

    >I think both agents and editors have the opportunity to help a writer find and develop their voice.
    I edit a magazine, and when a writer tells me that I've helped them sound like a "better" version of themselves, I'm satisfied I've done my job well. My goal is to never tamper with a writer's voice–but to untangle it from whatever is hindering it from "singing."
    I think that's the best part of being an agent of an editor: helping a writer "sing."

  • Edwina

    >Even with your comments on reading, that would still be my favorite because that is where the great books are found. Then I would love to take that great book and help the author turn it into a superb book!

  • Mallory Snow

    >It's the same for me when I critique a friend's work. It usually takes me twice as long and twice as much brain power!

  • Kelly Combs

    >Best: Making THE CALL, and making someone's dream come true.

    Worst: Rejection – or killing (or at least injuring) someone's dream. Or I guess we could call it on the job training, or the pathway to improving their work. That's what I'd have to tell myself.

  • KJ Bain

    >I would definitely hate to have to send a rejection out and possibly hurt someone.

    However, the phone call to tell someone I'd represent them would be the best feeling. I imagine there would be tears on both ends of the line.

    I also like to see what other people consider to be good ideas for a book. I've always found it interesting when I've critiqued for writer's groups I'm in.

  • Lauren

    >I've always wanted to read for a living, but not by way of agenting and/or editing. I've always wanted to review books for, I don't know, the Times or the LA Review and such, and write my opinions of the book. I review books on my blog now. Of course, I don't get paid for it, but that is pretty much my dream job. To read books for authors for review and get paid for it. Of course, I understand that I would feel the same things you do about not getting into the story, not caring about the characters, etc. I've been there, experienced that, and loathe it while it's happening, but then I like hashing out my qualms and concerns with the work – in a nice way, of course. :)

  • Neil Larkins

    >When I was a young man about to enter college – which was a LONG time ago, I might add – I wanted to be an architect, a designer of beautiful buildings. I loved to draw and paint, had for years, and also liked houses and buildings of all sorts. So, to my thinking, the two likes meshed well.
    But when I thought about having to "work" at what I had always done for pleasure, my perspective changed. I felt somehow that my love of art and creating would fade when I had do it on demand. I therefore decided not to mix work with pleasure, even though many people have and do and also knowing the importance of loving your work. For me, this mix would have made me miserable. So when I see people who are able to blend a pleasurable hobby or pastime with "work", I feel a little envious. I'm glad they have been able to do on demand and make a living on what I knew I couldn't. I'm happy for you, Rachelle.

  • christianne

    >I love this post, Rachelle. You articulated for me the exact experience of reading as a profession. I'm also like you in that being an editor and reading for work hasn't dampened or diminished the experience of reading for pleasure on my own time. I do find, however, that life gets so busy outside work that my time for reading books is less and less than it used to be. I've started re-engaging the habit of reading a bit before bed, which used to be my all-time favorite indulgence but hasn't been as much of a priority for me the past couple years. Re-engaging in this small activity feels like meeting upon an old friend. :)

  • CraftyMama

    >I would love to be an editor! I have the training, but haven't been able to find work. :( After finishing a book the other day, I found myself piecing apart the work, trying to figure out why I didn't enjoy parts of it. Critiquing the book was just about as enjoyable as reading the book! ;)

  • Crystal Laine Miller

    >I would love the acquiring part, the looking for clients, talking to potential clients. I would like getting excited about a project and the pitch to editors. I would like working on the manuscripts of my clients. I would like working with my clients on building their careers and the personal relationships with "book" people.

    What I wouldn't like–feeling behind all the time with stacks and stacks of queries, manuscripts (both the requested and my clients',)people constantly in my face. I would not like it when I thought a project fit a particular publishing house–and they didn't agree with my judgment. (Ha)

    I admire agents because I think you all do a great job overall/provide a needed service, and really care about what you do. While "reading for a living" is a calling and one I think you are obviously doing well (judging your clients here!) I know it has its moments and frustrations.

    It's easy to stand outside, saying what you would do or wouldn't do.

    And I'm late on all of these topics. You've had some good ones that I can't resist commenting on!

  • Crystal Laine Miller

    >Oh, and I have to say, in all that I've learned about editing/story/fiction and working as a reader, I have never lost my joy of reading, either, Rachelle. I can still get lost in a story. What you said totally resonates with me. :)

  • Prem Nair

    A4U:
    Introducing new talent to the world, and their reader’s gratitude for it! :)

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