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My Life in Books: A Reader’s Dream Job

Betsy GrobanBy Betsy Groban, SVP and Publisher, HMH Books for Young Readers

I am one of those incredibly lucky people who have been able to turn an avocation—in my case, a passion for literature—into a vocation as the publisher of Books for Young Readers at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Reading has always been both utterly transporting and incredibly important to me. I was an early reader and a bookish child, checking out the maximum number of books from the local library every week. My nose was always in a book. One summer I convinced my parents to let me do nothing but stay home and read. Sheer bliss! I never for a moment considered studying anything other than English literature (okay, maybe a bit of Comp. Lit.) in college. I have the fondest memories of one especially extraordinary semester spent reading only one short play–Hamlet–in the deepest and most satisfying way imaginable.

When I was younger, reading provided the best way for me to figure out my place in the world. Now that I’m older, it is still one of my greatest pleasures. Within two weeks of graduating from college, I landed my first job in book publishing—very entry-level, of course—and I have stayed with it for more than forty happy years now.

Just starting out

When I graduated from college, my first job consisted largely of answering my boss’s phone, typing her correspondence, and organizing her bookshelves. All I could afford was an apartment in a decidedly marginal neighborhood with a somewhat dubious and constantly changing cast of characters. But I couldn’t wait to get to work every day. Just knowing that I was contributing to the overall effort of creating literature was enough for me. I stayed in that job for nearly five years, immersing myself in the culture of publishing and learning everything I possibly could. More recently, working on books for young readers has been especially meaningful for me, because I believe that the books you read as a young person have the potential to make a greater impact on your life than those you read as an adult.

Celebrating a legacy: 150 years young

For the past decade, I have worked at HMH, where we are celebrating 150 years of distinguished children’s book publishing, an incredibly rare and enduring legacy. Many of our books have won awards, many have been bestsellers, and, most importantly, many have made a real difference in the lives of readers. And I’ve found that having a deep understanding of the impact of your work, and embracing and celebrating that legacy, whether a decade or a century long, is key to ongoing success and happiness in your career. I love working with talented authors, artists, and colleagues, and I find my work both ennobling and fun. Our challenge now, both humbling and thrilling, is to publish books that will be celebrated enthusiastically 50, 100, or 150 years from now.

Another bit of good news is that, relative to other industries, publishing has always been a welcoming environment for women, with fewer impediments to success. This could be because it is essentially a collaborative effort or because it has traditionally been a haven for English majors (read: underpaid), but, whatever the reasons, women have thrived at all levels of the book publishing business.

Redefining going for the gold

I know many young and not-so-young people who are only interested in pursuing careers that will be safe and lucrative. I think this plan is both impossible and unwise. Everyone has the power to define success in her own way and I encourage people to expand the definition beyond financial considerations. In the course of our lives, we spend so much time at work; why shouldn’t we expect it to be rewarding and soul satisfying? I hope it doesn’t sound like an idealistic pipe dream, but my advice is to do what you love and love what you do. The rest will take care of itself, even in a lousy economy. Of course, you should always be challenging yourself and learning new things, whatever your situation. And I do believe that doing meaningful work that makes your heart “leap up” (as William Wordsworth so beautifully put it) will lead to a happier, healthier life.

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