Reviewing Books For A Living Has Taught Me An Important Lesson About Reading — And It Might Be Helpful To You, Too
"I have a dream job: I get paid to read books," I frequently say when I meet someone new. It's true, getting to work with books is a strange and wonderful adventure. But I certainly did not start my career the same reader that I am today.
In the summer of 2013, I began my first official foray into the publishing world with an internship at the Texas Book Festival. I remember the first time I walked into the TBF office and glimpsed all of the books, many of them Advanced Readers' Copies (commonly known as ARCs) of forthcoming releases. I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast: "I've never seen so many books in my life!" My first task was to log the literally hundreds of books that had been sent to the office for consideration. As I touched each one, I felt an unending sense of wonder. These books hadn't been published yet, so they had only been seen by a select group of people, and I was one of them. It seemed absolutely magical. When my boss let me take a few home to read, I was absolutely stunned. I carried them home like they were precious jewels.
Alas, that sense of wonder hasn't stuck with me. These days, you can find me frantically emailing publicists, begging them to stop sending unsolicited books to my apartment because I receive far too many to handle. If there is one thing that reviewing books has taught me, it is that there are hundreds of books released every day, many written by hard-working, deserving authors. Unfortunately, I will never be able to read them all.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned in working in books is that you have you to prioritize your reading. When there are so many books available to read, how do you choose which one to pick up first?
Before I started working in publishing, I didn't think too much about the consequences of which books I chose to read. But as a book reviewer, I'm very aware that every time I pick up a book, I am contributing to a gigantic mechanism. The time that I spend on any book and the things that I have to say about it contribute to the buzz surrounding that book, which translates to book sales, which in turn sends a bunch of data to the publishers that influences their decisions about which books to publish next. I want to be intentional about where I spend my energy, because it ultimately makes an impact on which voices are able to be heard.
Before I went into publishing industry, I didn't feel a huge responsibility about what I read, but that has changed immensely. These days, I track nearly every fiction book coming out in the coming months, and I collect data on everything from the author demographics to which outlets have already praised the book. I have a system for researching each book, and I know exactly which reviewers I trust. I receive dozens of emails from publicists every day asking me to read the books they're representing, and I've learned how to make judgements on which titles to request. As I comb through all the books coming my way, my goals are two-fold: I want to find books that I love and that others will love, and I want to make sure that I am reading diversely, so that I can support and represent as many voices as possible.
My process has become a little intense in a way that is certainly not necessary if you don't work in publishing. Yet, those goals are not exclusive to people who read for a living. I wish I could go back in time and urge my past-self to think more critically about which books she was taking off the shelf. After all, even if you read for your job, there's no way you'll be able to read every book. The books that you do choose to read are important: they make an impact on you as an individual, and they contribute a much larger system. You might not need a spreadsheet, but you can certainly take a moment to think about the book you're about to pick up, and what it ultimately means to read it.