any of us who want to become writers were first drawn to the craft because of our love of reading. We haunt the local libraries doling out recommendations to passersby and linger for hours over a stack of freshly bought paperbacks in a Borderís coffee shop. The opening of a used bookstore in town is cause for absolute celebration. But, as with many addictions (or, if you prefer, passions), being a bibliophile can have its downside. Namely, at a cost of $10 per paperback, and around $25 for a new hardcover, building up a library comes with a hefty price tag, especially for those of us who can go through multiple books each week. Even the most diligent users of public libraries tend to rack up a few late fees. But what other options are there? After all, a weekend spent with no new reading would be downright unbearable. Wouldnít it be fantastic to be paid to sit around reading?
Oh, itís possible. Work as a freelance reader not only pays reasonably well ($25 - $100 a manuscript), but it also provides you with an absolute surplus of reading materials. But, what exactly is freelance reading? How does one go about getting such a job? And what sort of work does it entail? Thereís surprisingly little information available on this fun and profitable aspect of the literary process.
What is Freelance Reading?
Many literary management agencies are deluged with so many submissions that they canít possibly read the complete manuscripts that authors submit to them. For this reason, many agencies use freelance readers.
The duties of a freelance reader are fairly straightforward. You read through the manuscript, and then compile a 2-3 page report on your opinion of it, and whether youíd recommend the agency pass on it or represent it. You also provide a description of the main characters, major plot points, and analyze the prose style. In many ways, itís a process that harkens back to writing book reports in high school.
Freelance Reading if Youíre Working in Publishing
The transition to freelance reading will likely be much easier if you are already working with a literary agency. You should not be discouraged from asking about the opportunity to do freelance reading, regardless of your level of employment in the agency or publishing house. Freelance readers are often recruited from the pool of assistants and interns. That said, a brief internship at an agency, if you have the time or the inclination, can provide amazingly beneficial information about the publishing process and makes for an easy segue to freelance reading.
Most agencies or publishing houses are delighted to have anyone enthusiastic about helping them file and read through unsolicited manuscripts, and will be happy to have you even if you can only put in a day or two a week. Once you come to know the people at the agency and chat with them about books you enjoy, theyíll know that youíre someone who has a commitment to the written word.
From there, you need only ask whether they have any manuscripts lying around that they need freelance readers for, and tell them that freelance reading is something youíre very interested in. The probability is high that they will, and you can continue freelance reading for them long after the internship has ended.
"Freelance readers are often recruited from the pool of assistants and interns."
With literary agencies located everywhere from Topeka to Turin, thereís a good chance youíll be able to find one in your area. Certainly, if itís a possibility, interning, or even applying for a job as an assistant, might be something worth looking into.
Freelancing if Youíre Not Working in Publishing
Of course, for many of us, time constraints and other commitments are too great to consider an agency internship. That means selling yourself as a freelance reader might take a little bit more work, but is still entirely possible!
Literary qualifications will be a big help when pitching yourself as a freelance reader to an agency. If youíve worked in publishing or for a literary agency in the past, the agents can probably trust that you have a good idea of what makes a book marketable.
However, the position would also be ideal for anyone with bookstore experience, librarians, English teachers, or simply a devoted and passionate reader. If possible, try to schedule an appointment to meet with someone at the agency in-person rather than pitching them on the phone or sending an email. One-on-one interviews can give you a better perception of whether the agency is a good fit for you and will also allow the people at the agency to see you as a person rather than just a faceless email.
Upon meeting with a member of the agency, bring any samples of writing youíve done in the past in order to show that you can write well and coherently. Published pieces are particularly great, as being a writer yourself means that youíll likely have great empathy for other writers and read their submissions in the best possible spirit. Any book reviews youíve done would be exceptionally useful.
"...the position would also be ideal for anyone with bookstore experience, librarians, English teachers, or simply a devoted and passionate reader."
Be sure to request any samples of the freelance reading reports that the literary agency has on hand. Each agency you freelance for may want you to focus on different aspects of the writing, and itís helpful to know what they want. Offer to submit some sample reports done in the style of the reports given to you by the agency. If they like your work, they may be willing to give assignments to you.
Location Location Location
One of the greatest difficulties posed in freelance reading is that the manuscripts have to be transported to and from the agency by hand. Unfortunately, many agents only have one hard copy of a given manuscript.
In this electronic age, we often believe that every aspect of business can be conducted by email or fax machines, but there are some good reasons that account for what may seem like a Luddite standard in publishing.
The concerns about emailing are that a manuscript might be mishandled, and often an electronic version is not available. And given the limited turn-around time (manuscripts generally have to be read and returned within two weeks), it might simply take too long if the hard copy is sent through the mail.
The fact that youíll have to transport the manuscripts by hand is something to take into consideration when choosing what agency to work with. While an hour-long drive to meet for an interview may not seem like a great inconvenience, making that same drive twice a week may grate on your nerves. That said, if an agency specializes in a genre of literature you particularly love, the extra long drive might well be worth it.
Opinions Sold Here
The monetary rewards of freelance reading can be substantial, provided you have enough time to read a few manuscripts a month. While the pay at some agencies may be completely independent of your opinion regarding the manuscript, other agencies base the amount youíll receive on whether or not you recommend the book.
At the agency I worked for, readers received $25 for every manuscript they passed on, and $100 for every one they recommended. Obviously, agents want the manuscripts they receive to be good, and to find places to publish them. And as a reader, knowing that youíll make an additional $75 for a manuscript you like, over one you dislike, certainly puts you in a charitable frame of mind while reading them, but those arenít the reasons for the pay difference.
The difference in pay is based on the belief that you will only spend a quarter of your time reading a manuscript thatís awful in comparison to the time you will spend reading a manuscript thatís good. After all, you can probably tell after about thirty pages if a story seems stilted and unbelievable or just mind-numbingly dull. At that point, many freelance readers are apt to skim the rest of the manuscript, and then move on to the next one. And thatís okay.
The average consumer isnít getting a pay incentive to like a bookóso they will be much, much less kindly disposed to it than you are. If it canít hold a freelance readerís interest who would really like to earn an extra $75, it definitely wonít hold the interest of someone who has doled out $25 in a bookstore to buy it.
"The monetary rewards of freelance reading can be substantial provided you have enough time to read a few manuscripts a month."
Meanwhile, if you love a book, youíre going to have to read it all the way through. Not just because you love itóthough, obviously, that should provide a great incentiveóbut also because a good book could turn bad at any minute.
If you start off reading a manuscript peppered with spelling errors and characters who only speak to one another in bold declarative statements: "I will go to the store to buy bread!" exclaimed Sue; "I will accompany you! I enjoy shopping! Then I will go to work!" replied Bob, and so on, in the manner of a high school foreign language textbook, you more or less know that manuscript isnít going to get any better.
However, manuscripts that start off amazingly well can sometimes slack off and become significantly worse a hundred pages in. Recently, I read one book that began with a hundred pages of beautiful, eloquent prose about the narratorís dying wife and then, tragically, around page 150, devolved into a weird, incoherent 30-page rant on how the author felt about yoga, after which the author was never really able to get back on track. I was so disappointed I nearly cried.
One question Iím often asked is whether freelance readers are tempted to recommend everything in the hopes of racking up a significantly larger paycheck. The answer is no, not really. Not because all freelance readers are people of honor and integrity (though hopefully most are), but because the agency would catch on really quickly. If you consistently recommended books that were unmistakably terrible, they would never use your services again.
"...manuscripts that start off amazingly well can sometimes slack off and get significantly worse a hundred pages in."
What if youíre on the fence about something? Well, itís true; the extra money does give you a little incentive to recommend it. But then, thatís how the system is supposed to work. If youíre genuinely on the fence, itís probably worth someone at the agency looking it over. They may have stronger feelings about it than you do.
Keep Reading Other Books
True, you may feel like you should devote a considerable amount of your spare reading time to the books youíve been assigned. However, itís incredibly important to have a good grasp of the other literature out there.
A freelance reader I know recently recommended a book which she thought was brilliant, and was later mortified when the agent reviewing it remarked that the author of the manuscript had plagiarized sections of Breakfast at Tiffanyís. Not teeny, tiny sentences in the Opal Mehta style eitheróhuge, ten page selections. Of course, that kind of thing can happen to anyoneóyou canít be expected to know every book in the English canon. But if you are familiar with a broad assortment of novels, you lower the odds of that mishap occurring.
"...itís incredibly important to have a good grasp
of the other literature out there."
Recently, when one author stated that their work was ďjust like Bret Easton Ellis,Ē I found it helpful to remember that Bret Easton Ellis was funny and saw quirky, ironic twists in situations, rather than just presenting a straightforward account of wealthy people committing murders. The greatest difference between Easton Ellis and the aspiring author was that the aspiring author forgot to add that strange, dark blend of humor.
Knowing some other novels written in a style similar to the manuscript youíre reviewing can sometimes help you pinpoint why manuscripts donít quite work.
Remember That Your Taste is Not Everyoneís Taste
You have to realizeóand, at times, it can be a very disheartening realization indeedóthat the majority of the populous may not have the same great taste that you do.
Not so long ago, I read a manuscript that I thought was absolutely brilliant. It was about a tax collector for the Mediciís in 16th century Florenceóa period I find completely fascinatingóand it contained many hundreds of pages of description on what life was like in that period. I enthusiastically recommended it and when I visited the agency the next week, I checked to see if it had already been sold to a publishing house. (I really did believe it was that good.)
"...sometimes the most difficult part of freelance reading
is putting aside your own personal opinion about a manuscript that you know wonít sell very well."
"Jennifer," my editor sighed, "The author went on for ten pages about a manís doublet and another twenty about varying kinds of hats. Nothing ever happened. They wandered around admiring the architecture. You are the only person who would ever love that book." I begged to differ. The author of the book probably loved it too.
That said, sometimes the most difficult part of freelance reading is putting aside your own personal opinion about a manuscript that you know wonít sell very well. At those times, you do still have to advise the agency to take a pass on the manuscriptóthough you can certainly write in your report that you strongly recommend that someone take another look at it. Just for the record, apparently 16th century mood pieces donít sell very well.
Keep Up with the Best Sellers
To get a better conception of what does sell well, and what does appeal to the widest group of people, try to keep up to date on the bestseller list. Of course, itís impossible to know exactly what will grab the publicís attention, but paying attention to the bestseller list will provide a reminder not to be too quick to dismiss anything that strikes you as a fun, easy read, but not a serious literary work.
Itís quite often those fun, easy reads that sell to the widest number of people. If youíre able to pick out manuscripts that will sell quickly and easily to publishers, the agency youíre working for will appreciate it enormously (and may even throw a bonus your way).
Choose the Pieces You Read Wisely
Given the brief amount of time youíre apt to spend in the agency looking at manuscripts, itís pretty hard to tell right off the bat which ones are going to be fantastic and whichÖarenít. You can tip the odds a bit in your favor by having a brief read-through of the different manuscripts at the agency before heading home with them.
You can probably tell just by looking over the cover page whether or not the plot strikes you as interesting, and whether there are any glaring defects in the writerís style. If they donít sound coherent in their cover letter, the book isnít going to sound any better.
"Itís quite often those fun, easy reads that sell to the widest number of people."
Of course, you might also think that you should just take all the manuscripts at once, and sort them out when you get home. This is actually a really bad plan. If you try to carry out all the manuscripts that an agency has on handóand that can be about ten or more at any given timeóyouíre going to find that your next week is completely consumed with reading them so you can return them to the agency by the date theyíre due.
Reading that way is not pleasurable at all, and will mean that you have to neglect other fun aspects of life, such as eating, and bathing. Nobody wants that.
With all the manuscripts building up, you may find that you donít need to make the standard weekly trip to the bookstore or the library anymore. However, when you do, youíll have plenty of extra cash to lavish on new volumes.
And who knows? Perhaps one day, when passing the bookstore, youíll see prominently displayed on the new release table, a book you were the first to recommend.
* * *
Jennifer Wright is an English major who has spent a great deal of time reading over the slush pile and making very mediocre coffee at a New York based literary agency. She also does a fair bit of freelance reading when not desperately trying to build up clips for her freelance writing portfolio.
Jennifer was featured in WOW! Women On Writingís How 2 Column: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/15-how2.html