When I'd just started writing seriously again (around spring 2006), I had this idea that if I read published books while I wrote, their style would somehow leech into my own writing. I also had a much more fragile ego, so I thought reading a great book would make me all depressed.
Then I finished my first book and went in search of information on how I might get it published. (Ah, the greenie days...bright-eyed, hopeful, and so very naive. Good times.) I read a lot of blogs and websites and noticed an excellent piece of advice—know your genre.
I felt a little sheepish because I'd spent a lot of time writing YA, but I hadn't read much in the year and a half it took me to write my first book. I'd always enjoyed reading, but college had replaced my previous "fun" reads with books about semantics and sociolinguistics. I was behind—I really didn't have a good idea of what was out there.
So I started reading. I picked up the books people were talking about, the ones they weren't, and everything in between. I still have a mile-long reading list (which I plan on getting to in a big way once my WIP is done next week), but I feel much more confident about my knowledge of YA.
And guess what happened? Reading my genre made me a better writer. I haven't accidentally stolen ideas or adopted someone else's style, but I've learned how to make my own cleaner and a little bit different from what's out there. I know where I fit on "the shelf," so to speak, and that there's room for me if I can get the right people's attention.
I know it's hard to read and write at the same time, that one often takes over the other, but I highly recommend taking little breaks from your WIPs to pick up a book in your genre and see what's out there. (I'm currently enjoying The Graveyard Book.) You need to know, see for your own eyes, what's selling and what's not. And you better make sure you actually like the genre you're writing in, because you're probably going to be there a while when you do make it. And if none of that is incentive enough, consider it research on which authors would be the best fits to blurb your book;P