Sunday, 13 October 2013

How to Get a Job in Book Publishing

As well as being a writer working towards that first break into publication, I am a book editor with over 25 years experience. (‘Publisher – publish thyself!’ you might well advise, but sadly I don’t work in the same area of publishing that I write for!)

Picture courtesy of

Here then, are a few tips for those wanting to get work, or an internship, in book publishing.

1)      Brush up your CV – but don’t overdo it! I don’t know who is advising people these days on CV writing, but again and again I find myself reading CVs that suggest very strongly to me that someone is giving out wrong advice. Of course, you need to describe your experience in a positive light. However, so many of the CVs we see are ridiculously spin-doctored and overblown, with every Saturday job described as though it qualifies the applicant to be Governor of the Bank of England, at the very least. As a result, we have to put on a shrewd, cynical state of mind that cuts every overdone statement down to size in order to glean what the applicant has actually done. Sadly, the effort put in to titivate the CV has the opposite effect to that intended and leaves the reader slightly less well-disposed towards the applicant. Likewise, if we have to trawl through three pages of A4 to find the few nuggets of information we need about you, we will already be put off. One and a half pages of A4 is the maximum. One page of relevant information – even better (see below).

2)      Make your CV relevant. This means researching the publisher you are applying to join. What type(s) of books do they publish? What is their speciality? What new books/series are they publishing around now?  I work for an art and craft specialist, and you would be amazed how many CVs we receive for both jobs and internships that make no mention of any interest in art or crafts, either in the work history or the hobbies of the applicant. We would almost always discard such a CV as unsuitable, because anyone with absolutely no interest in our subject is going to get very bored working for us. You don’t have to be the world’s best knitter or have worked your way up through four other art and craft publishers , but some passing interest is essential. Emphasise the parts of your CV that are relevant to the publisher you want to join. Personally, I played the ‘My Dad is an art teacher’ card when I applied. Presumably, if you’re applying, you are actually interested in what they do. If you are just applying to every publisher you can think of, without reference to the material they produce, you will not stand much chance.

3)      If you are applying for your first job, some relevant work experience or internships will really help. Increasingly these days, applicants all have similarly good school grades and qualifications, so we turn to early work experience to set apart the best. We don’t necessarily feel that it’s fair that young people need to jump through such hoops to find work, but this is the situation we are faced with, and we need to make a choice. The best applicants for the last internship we offered had done several internships already, often unpaid, sometimes losing money because of having to spend it on travel. It was a little bit heart-breaking to hear about, but it spoke volumes about the applicants’ determination.

4)      If you are applying for an internship, we will not expect you to have had four relevant Saturday jobs and a proven track record in publishing. However, even here, we get lots of good applications, so if you can show that you have done some relevant work experience while at school or university, this will really help. It’s all about showing an interest, and just saying that you like books isn’t enough. There is another rule for internships and it’s:
Be realistic. If you are proposing to commute hundreds of miles to work every day or get your own flat nearby for the duration of a 6 months internship, we will worry that this isn’t really viable. We want it to work for you as well as us.

5)      The interview. There is plenty of advice out there, but to summarise:
 Dressing smartly is always the safest bet. We have employed people who didn’t, but their application and the rest of their interview needed to be fairly spectacular.
Be interested, enthusiastic and well-informed about what the publisher does. One of the first questions we ask is, ‘Do you know our books?’ This isn’t some kind of mind-game test question. We are about to invest time in telling you about what we do, and what the job entails. It really encourages us if you show a genuine interest, and have made a little effort yourself.
If you are applying for an editorial position, be ready to do an editorial test. We do this to everyone. Once again, it’s not to frighten people or to turn the interview into an exam – we use it as a tool to separate applicants who have a genuine aptitude for editing. You can have all the interest and relevant experience you like, but if you are not good at nit-picking detail, you will not be suitable. Don’t be put off, though, we don’t expect you to get everything right.
Be confident, but don’t over-do it. To be fair, the latter is rare in interviews, but a colleague and I did once sit opposite an applicant who made us pull back in our seats because she was so alarmingly over-confident. She dropped into conversation that she ‘had a novel with a London agent’, and when we noted that she had done a little PR work, she drawled, ‘Well, one does, doesn’t one?’ You can be as suitable as you like, but you won’t get the job if people can’t bear the thought of working with you. Likewise, we expect a certain level of nervousness in interviews and allow for it, but extreme shyness would be a concern, so be ready with some questions to ask and some statements about yourself if these are not likely to flow naturally.
Try to make a strong first impression, but for the right reasons. First impressions are strange things, and an odd one can be hard to overcome. I was once put right off a candidate because she smelled overwhelmingly of talcum powder. I know, that sounds really unfair, but I couldn’t get over that whiff. If your first impression is a powerful smell, even a not unpleasant one, what does that say about your judgement? I have also interviewed someone who I am convinced was under the influence of something speedy in the drug department. This too, was a hard first impression to overcome.

Picture courtesy of

6)      Apply for jobs you are actually suitable for, and that you want. I know, it sounds obvious. I have made the mistake myself of thinking, ‘I just need to get some work, I’ll go for that’. It became glaringly obvious early in the interview that I wasn’t interested in doing PR work for the local sports centre. I fell down at the first ‘how would you advertise a new badminton club?’ question. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I couldn’t disguise this fact. Seriously, the most impressive thing about a job application is always that the person displays a genuine interest in the job, has some relevant experience, and shows the ability to learn the rest.

I hope this is helpful to you if you are looking for a job or internship in publishing. It shouldn’t be so hard to get in – it’s not The X Factor! However, it is a fulfilling career and I do wish you all the best. Get in touch in the comments below if you have any questions; I will be happy to help. And if you do get an interview – well done and good luck! But go easy on the talc.