A US non-profit is recruiting New Zealanders to read and take notes on New York Times bestsellers. They’re paying US$200 per book. Books editor Catherine Woulfe has questions.
I thought the first email was spam. One of those tricksy ones that’s all about getting you to click on the links. I thought this mostly because it was very hard not to click on the links.
I’m [Redacted], Research Director at WordsRated. We conduct studies that analyze content from hundreds of books.
We’re looking to level up our research and for that we need help. We’re crowdsourcing our research and are paying people to do what they love – read books! Here’s how it works:
– We send them books
– They make notes on specific areas of interest
– We pay them $200 per completed book
It’s not often you have the opportunity to get paid for reading so I thought this might make a fun news or lifestyle story. Is this something you might be interested in covering?
The full job post is available here – https://wordsrated.com/bibliophile-at-large/
You can actually click on the links, they are legit and so is the job. They’re looking to hire five, maybe up to 10 New Zealanders. I know this because immediately after googling “convert US$200 to NZD” (it’s $300, my friends) I looked this gift horse right in the mouth, long and hard.
Of course, even on the face of it, it’s not actually a gift. It’s work, there is a task involved. Reading is not nothing. When you’re doing it for work, it feels like work. And close reading, the kind where you take notes and tick boxes, is a very different and more intense sort of work. But at the same time, as anyone in New Zealand book-world will tell you, $300 to read a book and, as the job ad says, “take notes on specific details” still sounds like a gift.
You could, apparently, put in 12 solid hours as one of New Zealand’s highest-paid librarians and not get $300. You could definitely write a whole book and not make $300. We pay $300 for reviews at The Spinoff but critics in general, at least as of 2018, are paid bugger all. There’s the odd exception but generally, if you’re working in books in Aotearoa, you are thusly not creaming it. Just ask the poets.
When my friends go to PR or copywriting, for a good year or so they’re basically in a state of ecstatic shock. They cannot believe the money they get paid. At first this job sounded a bit like that – as if someone was finally recognising the value of books and reading and was reaching over the fence, benevolently waving a wad of cash.
There are other obviously good things about the role, mostly the fact that it’s flexible – you can read at your own speed, whenever you feel like it, which is perfect for those of us forever calibrating kids v work v everything else. Also it’s for a good cause: Words Rated studies things like representation in children’s literature, and the state of US public libraries; its mission is to “advance public discourse and understanding of major issues in the industry”. And it does get traction: its findings have been quoted by the BBC, The Guardian, Wired and Forbes, among others.
But I had two burning questions. Which books do you have to read, and what sorts of notes must you take, exactly?
The “Which books?” part was easy. I emailed the guy at Words Rated and he told me it’d be NYT bestsellers, at least at first, and yes you get to give them an idea of the sorts of books you like and send back any that you hate. Cool cool.
But the “What sorts of notes must you take, exactly?” part is more slippery.
Here’s what you’ll glean from the ad:
Hmm. Fair bit of wriggle room in that description.
Eventually, after pestering him to the point where he’s definitely not giving me a job any time soon, the guy sent me an Excel sheet as an example of exactly what you’d be required to do for your $300. Let me break it down for you:
Read the book.
List the book’s name, the author’s name, the author’s gender and race.
For every character, provide their name, gender, race and age.
So far this is fine, eh. You can totally do this for $300 a pop. But then, for each character:
Please list all of the adjectives / adverbs used to describe them.
This… could be fine? OK, now:
Please insert the number of times each character has dialogue / speaks throughout the novel.
You’re not done:
Please insert the number of words each character says throughout the book.
At this point what you’re doing is not reading, it’s pure analysis. You have to detach from the story and think only about the marks on the page. You might as well gaze at a screen full of code and count up all the ones.
The Words Rated guy said he knows it’s a lot of work, and very decently gave me a heads-up that they may down the track get readers to fill out two different spreadsheets for the same book. “It’ll be trial and error to start off to see how things work out and how difficult it is for people.”
I tested myself on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, at the time #5 on the NYT hardcover fiction list. It was an exercise in stripping away joy and depth; I love Emily St. John Mandel but “reading” this way I felt nothing. And it was even harder than I expected to transform words into data. Too many grey areas. Do “three children” mentioned only in passing, but living in the same house as the protagonist, count as characters? If an adjective is used to describe a character’s thought process or their tone of voice does that count as describing them? What counts as a new piece of dialogue? And so on. It took me 35 minutes to do the first 16 pages, and I’m not at all sure I did it right.
I had actually applied for this role, thinking it would tuck in nicely around the other stuff I do. But after this sad little trial I bailed. For me it’s been a lesson in reading the fine print, I suppose, and asking questions, and a reminder of that eternal shitty truth: no job is ever as cool as it sounds.
Brains are funny old things though. Maybe some of you are reading this and thinking I’m a fool, and that this job is a breeze, and you’d relish such read-by-numbers work and race through it. Also, the extreme flexibility of the job is hard to go past. So godspeed to anyone applying – I hope you get it and it’s awesome and you chuckle smugly as the free books and cash roll in. I hope this is the job that breaks the rule – the job that makes books pay.