A Peek into Publishing: Interview Tips from Hiring Managers

Earlier this year we asked our senior management team about good and bad job applications and how they narrowed down the pool of candidates when hiring for entry level roles – if you missed it you can find it here. This week is #WorkinPublishingWeek, so what better time to answer your questions about publishing interviews – what stands out, what not to do and what our senior managers were specifically looking for when hiring recent positions. 

Fiona Robertson is Publisher here at Watkins and she hired a new Editorial and Audio Assistant in October 2020. 

Laura Whitaker-Jones is our Marketing and Publicity Manager and she recruited a new Publicity Assistant last January. 

After 1,500 job applications across the two roles, Watkins interviewed approximately 30 people across the two roles, so we asked the hiring managers how they narrowed down the interviewed candidates. We hope you find some insight below that helps you with your own publishing interviews. Remember, each hiring manager is different, as shown by Fiona and Laura’s answers, but some tips are universal.

Can you tell us a bit about the interview process you created?

Fiona: The applications closed 1 September 2020. After creating a longlist of the best candidates, we narrowed this down to a shortlist of ten. The decision-makers were me, the Sales and Marketing Director (now the Deputy Managing Director) and the Editorial and Audio Manager.

I sent the top ten candidates an editorial test to complete and, on the basis of this, progressed seven candidates onto stage two: the Zoom interviews. These took place in the last two weeks of September. Each interview was with the Editorial and Audio Manager and me, and lasted one hour with the same ten questions in the same order.

We then selected the top two candidates from the Zoom interviews and asked them if they would feel comfortable coming into the office to meet a few members of the team and try out some of the tasks they would be expected to do in the role. By the start of October, lockdown rules had eased, allowing six people in the office at once. We paid for the candidates’ travel and lunch expenses.

Laura: I spent six weeks interviewing candidates for my Publicity Assistant position, progressing them through four stages. After receiving over 500 applications, I interviewed the top 20–25 applicants in 30-minute “get to know you” phone calls. From these conversations, I asked ten applicants to participate in a second zoom interview with the other members of my team. Six candidates were then provided with an AI (advanced information) sales sheet for an upcoming release and asked to pull together a comprehensive publicity plan for the title. Finally, after reviewing the plans, I asked my three top choices to complete a final interview with myself and our Deputy Managing Director.

What were you looking for at each stage?

Fiona: In the first stage – the editorial test – we gave each of the shortlisted candidates a cover and a double-page spread from inside a book to see if they could spot the typos and layout errors we’d introduced. Candidates were asked to spend about an hour proofreading, using Adobe PDF to make comments.

In the second stage – the Zoom interviews – I was looking primarily at how the candidates would work as a part of our editorial team. Would they show initiative and the ability to manage a large workload while also being able to take direction and learn on the job?

In the final stage – the in-person interview that involved completing various tasks in the office – I was looking primarily at how the candidate would work with others.

Laura: In the initial 30-minute interviews, I asked candidates about their favourite books, the difference between publicity and marketing and what they knew about our Watkins/Nourish list. I wanted to get an initial impression of what they were like as people outside of their CV.

Having my existing team join me in conducting the second stage of interviews was very important to me. In this stage, I paid particular attention to the questions the candidate asked my team. I’m a strong believer that publishing interviews should not be just about the hiring manager interviewing a potential employee; they should be a two-way street. If the candidates didn’t take the opportunity to ask questions, it signalled to me that they weren’t interested in doing the research necessary to know whether the job and team were right for them. The successful candidates were the ones who asked my team a multitude of questions about the role, the company, how I was as a manager, the pros and cons of working for an independent publisher, etc. I also looked for potential candidates to ask follow-up questions in response to my team and my answers – I was looking for the interview to turn into a dialogue. 

In the third stage – the publicity plan – I looked for candidates to demonstrate a willingness to look at the bigger picture of a campaign, and to think outside of the box. I paid close attention to which podcasts, TV programmes, and newspapers/magazines they suggested for the publicity plan, as well as the different ways we could incorporate virtual events. In short, I was looking for innovation, ingenuity and creativity within their suggested plan. 

The fourth stage with our deputy Managing Director was important as a publicist needs to be comfortable speaking to people in high level positions. The candidate who was successful immediately demonstrated an ease and level of confidence in establishing a connection with someone at a very high level. That’s invaluable, and can often take time to teach.

Can you give an example of one question you asked and what you were looking for in the answer?

Fiona: One of the questions was “What is an editorial assistant’s most important skill?” This was a key question for me: I wanted people to acknowledge the importance of attention to detail in their answer. In fact, the successful candidate cited two important assets: attention to detail and the ability to combine working on your own with calling in help when needed. This answer stood out as it showed initiative yet also reassured me that they wouldn’t go off and make a mess of something instead of asking for guidance. Very important for a new starter in this era of working from home!

Another question was about the candidate’s main strength and weakness. It’s not a particularly helpful question but it’s one hiring managers can rarely resist. I’d recommend you prepare a genuine but not too embarrassing weakness. Don’t suggest a weakness that is actually a strength – that’s just irritating and doesn’t give any insight into how you work. On the other hand, don’t be too frank with your weaknesses. A good answer might be an admission of some lack of practical know-how (for example, that you don’t know how to use InDesign) combined with an assertion that you’re a quick learner and eager to learn. (Although if you’re going for a job as a designer, admitting you don’t know InDesign won’t do you any favours – as I said, pick your weakness carefully.)

Laura: in the first interviews, I asked, “How did you offer value in your previous role?” I was looking for insight into how the candidate assigned value to a job, as well as a list of what the candidate felt were their biggest accomplishments and strengths. 

In the second round, my team asked, “What would you do in the first week, month and year in this role?” I was looking for insight into how closely the candidate had read the job description, and then insight into how the candidate would spin the position into something beyond what I had listed – in brief, how the candidate would make the job their own. I was also looking for an indication of how closely the candidate has listened to my list of my own goals for the team and the company over the next few years.

What interview answers did you hear that you didn’t like?

Fiona: When I asked about the best asset of an editorial assistant, one candidate cited the need to know the market and what the current trends are. From her answer, I had a feeling that she didn’t really want an entry-level role and probably wouldn’t stay for long if we gave her the job.

Laura: If I asked how a candidate offered value in their previous role and it was clear that they hadn’t been listening to my goals for the team and the company, or that their goals weren’t aligned with the company culture or mission, or that the candidate wasn’t capable of sharing their own aspirations/goals, then they did not progress.

What are some of the best questions you’ve been asked at the end of an interview by a candidate?

Fiona: The successful candidate asked what her priorities would be in the first month of the job. It showed she was engaging and thinking about what this specific job would be like – she didn’t want just any publishing job, she wanted this one.

One person asked how I got into the industry and my experiences at Watkins. This is a great one to have up your sleeve, because the answer is unlikely to come up during the interview and people do love to talk about themselves. You definitely need a question to ask at the end, so have this in reserve in case the ones you prepared are answered during the interview.

Laura: My favourite question was “What do you wish you had asked in your interview for the role you presently hold that you wish you had asked?” Very clever!

In terms of following up after the interview – do you expect a thank you email? And does following up regarding timeline affect your view of them?

Fiona: Following up is a great idea. If the hiring manager gets a nice email saying “I really enjoyed talking to you. Sounds like a great job to me and would love to work for you”, it creates a brilliant impression. I would strongly recommend!

Laura: I really recommend writing a thank you note after your interview via email. This is quickly becoming a lost art, and it shouldn’t be. Even a simple sentence or two will suffice. I guarantee that, in addition to providing a place for you to quickly and easily reiterate why you are a top candidate for the position, it will make you memorable in the best way possible.

How did remote interviewing over zoom and phone influence your process and experience?

Fiona: It’s a bit more difficult working with people’s unreliable internet connection or background noise, but we made an effort to set people at ease at the start of the interview, saying not to worry if the connection cuts off. We acknowledged that a Zoom interview might feel strange at first. Ultimately, however, I don’t think the experience was that different from an in-person interview.

Laura: It enabled us to interview candidates in the comfort of their own homes, which I think helped them to relax a bit more!

Do you have any additional advice for applicants?

Fiona: Even if you’re interviewing on Zoom, make sure you look like you’ve made an effort, at least from the top up! It’s still an interview and you want to give a good impression.

An interview shouldn’t be just about the employer asking you questions. You are also interviewing the hiring manager to see if this company is a good fit for you, so show interest back and ask them questions.

My final piece of advice is to be authentic. Really you should only apply and interview for the jobs you genuinely want. If you don’t want the job, it will be evident in the interview and you’ll struggle to come across as authentic. 

Laura: I 100 per cent agree with Fiona. The interview should be a conversation where you are also interviewing the potential Manager and team to see if they are a fit for you. Hiring managers don’t want you to take a position for the sake of it. The job you are taking, the team you are joining, and the atmosphere you work within should also be the right ones for you, or else you’ll be unhappy in your new position and company.

I also always think it’s a good idea to thank the interviewer for their time at the conclusion of the interview and ask for a timeline for the next stage of the publishing interview process.

People on social media also asked …

When is it reasonable to ask about salary if not listed?

Fiona: The job ad we created gave a salary band so all our candidates should have had an idea of what they would be paid and whether this was liveable for them. We didn’t discuss where they fit within this band until I called them to offer them the job.

If a salary band isn’t given (which it definitely should be!), I would recommend candidates ask after the first interview, when they’re offered a second interview. There is no harm in saying that you can’t continue the process without knowing if the salary would work for you.

Laura: If a salary band isn’t listed, I’d recommend you use Glassdoor to get an idea of the company’s salary range for your position. I don’t think there’s any harm in asking for clarification to the band at the end of the first interview.

We hope you found this useful – a huge thanks to Fiona and Laura for taking the time to talk us through their hiring processes and offering their publishing interview tips!

As you can see from some of the varied responses, hiring is a situation very individual to each publishing house and each member of staff, so there is often no right or wrong answer. Nonetheless, we hope you gained some insight into the individual perspectives and found some top tips to use in the future!

If you’re an aspiring publisher, check out our regular Peek Into Publishing posts – where you can find insights into a number of departments, what the staff do and some useful key terms.

Feel free to reach us on Twitter if you have any questions, and we wish you the best of luck on your publishing journey!

A Peek into Publishing: Application Tips from Hiring Managers

We’re very aware that publishing hopefuls often write hundreds of cover letters and CVs, and can never hear back about the publishing applications they submit.

Our senior team have hired two entry-level positions within the last year and we thought we’d ask them to sit down and offer application tips, feeding back on the good and the bad throughout the process – what stood out, what not to do and what they were specifically looking for. 

Fiona Robertson is Publisher here at Watkins and she hired a new Editorial and Audio Assistant last October. 

Laura Whitaker-Jones is our Marketing and Publicity Manager and she recruited a new Publicity Assistant in January. 

Collectively, they looked through more than 1,500 applications across the two roles, so we asked them how they narrowed down the pool from application to interview. We hope you find some insight below that helps you with your own publishing applications. Remember, each hiring manager is different, as shown by Fiona and Laura’s answers, but some tips are universal.

Can you tell us a bit about the application process you created.

Fiona: I was looking for an Editorial and Audio Assistant to fill the gap created when the previous employee moved on in their career. We advertised for the position last August on LinkedIn, the IPG website and in The Bookseller, leaving the advert open for one month.

A huge number of applications came in – almost a thousand! Our Sales and Marketing Director (now our Deputy Managing Director) did a pre-filter of the LinkedIn applications, and the Editorial & Audio Manager and I did a pre-filter of the rest. This involved scanning for a number of things which I mention below.

Laura: In October 2020, I advertised for the position of Publicity Assistant on social media, the Watkins website and LinkedIn. I found the most impactful way we reached candidates was through the post being shared in the Publishing Hopefuls Facebook group. Unlike when I hired my Marketing Executive the year prior, I didn’t use an agency because I didn’t have a specific candidate in mind. Instead, I was just looking for a new, innovative voice who was willing to think outside of the box of a traditional book campaign.

I received over 500 applications for the entry-level role and screened and read the CVs and cover letters for each one myself. I immediately rejected the applicants I knew I wouldn’t progress and saved those I wanted to take a second look at once the closing date had passed.

How did you narrow down the applications?

Fiona: We created a longlist, then narrowed this down further to the interview shortlist. Initially I scanned each application looking for any obvious ticks, as well as – and this was much quicker and easier so beware – anything that stood out as negative for the role. For example:

  • Typos: a huge no-no in publishing applications for an editorial job. If the would-be Editorial Assistant can’t spot a typo in their own CV, how can they spot it in a proof?
  • Unprofessional layout: our list includes lots of beautifully presented illustrated books, so a good visual sense is key.
  • Relevant experience: We don’t require previous publishing experience for entry-level roles, but any relevant experience, such as working as a bookseller or in an office, is great.
  • Evidence of interest in books: It’s a cliché but you need to be into books to make a good book editor.
  • Evidence of interest in our field: applicants who showed some personal interest in wellbeing and mind-body-spirit (MBS) immediately stood out. Some people seemed to be applying to every job they saw (for some reason this role had a lot of applicants who, reading between the lines, actually wanted to become fashion journalists!).  

If there were any immediate red flags, I moved onto the next CV. With so many applications, it was important to get on quickly with identifying the top candidates.

Laura: I created a longlist, then narrowed this down further to a shortlist. Any person with a cover letter who didn’t even mention the job opening (which clearly indicated that they were applying for any generic job, rather than the specific one on my team) was immediately rejected. Also, if an application had a misspelling, I immediately rejected it — you can’t imagine the number of applications I received that had misspelled words in them.

Always check and double check your applications for grammatical errors!

What do you expect to see from a good CV?

Fiona: A short CV is a wondrous thing. When you have to look through nearly a thousand CVs, one page is ideal, two is just about OK, but three is definitely too much. Be clear and brief. It’s such a long process and everyone is busy – try to make it easy on the hiring manager reading your application.

Sometimes people over-design their CVs in an attempt to stand out. Don’t do this unless you’re applying for a job as a designer. Hiring managers don’t want to have to waste time trying to extract information or figure out what the graphics mean. We just want to grasp the key info as quickly as possible. Make sure the layout is clean and tidy – no misaligned paragraphs, uneven tabbing or inconsistent mix of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes, for example. And, I’ll say it again, definitely no typos!

To help the hiring manager, I’d recommend highlighting your relevant skills and experience. It doesn’t matter how you do that, just make sure it’s clear and easy to understand.

Laura: I also looked for CVs that presented qualifications in a very easy-to-digest manner. While a highly designed CV is always attention-grabbing, if I can’t easily find the qualifications that I’m looking for, then I’m going to disregard the CV quickly. 

I also looked for candidates to share a bit about themselves in their CV – for example, listing “hiking the Grand Canyon” as a personal interest – as it always makes them stand out. Remember, hiring managers are looking for specific elements in your CV, but when you take the time to add a bit of personality, you become more memorable. I cannot tell you the number of times I saw two CVs that expressed similar levels of experience, but I chose to progress the person with a CV that listed something interesting personally about themselves over the candidate who did not. 

What makes a cover letter stand out?

Fiona: I believe there’s such a thing as a natural editor, and it’s rare to find. When I was reading the cover letters of the applicants who’d passed the CV scan, I was looking for someone with instinctive self-editing skills, who could write fluently, concisely and intelligently – if you can write well, you’ll be able to assess other people’s writing.

I was also looking for people who were interested in working in wellbeing publishing and specifically in working at Watkins, rather than just wanting to get into any old sort of publishing.

Laura: While I look through CVs to see what kind of experience a candidate has, I’m much more interested in their cover letter. I feel that one’s cover letter is an opportunity to stand out from other publishing applications, and I strongly urge anyone reading this to really put the time and effort into making a cover letter personal to the job you are applying for. For example, cover letters that cited recent books from the Watkins/Nourish list made it to my “interesting potential candidate” pile, whereas cover letters that were clearly formulaic were put in my “pass” pile. 

The successful candidate had a great cover letter, which was personally addressed to me and not to “the hiring manager”. This is such a small piece of information you can find out online that makes the cover letter more personable (most publishers will respond on social media if you ask who to direct the cover letter to). Our newest Publicity Assistant discussed her interest in women’s health and how she was particularly excited that we had recently published The Happy Menopause. She engaged with our list and spoke to how different MBS non-fiction titles had made a big difference in her life, and why she was eager to work at Watkins and Nourish specifically.

What made you reject an application on the first round of looking at it?

Fiona: As I said before, the big ones were typos and design laziness. Attention to detail is key in everything an Editorial Assistant does, so I expected the CV and cover letter to be perfect. I’d definitely recommend asking multiple people to proofread your application before sending it off.

A lot of applications also weren’t specific to mind-body-spirit books, or even non-fiction. It was very clear who had cut and pasted content from other publishing applications.

Laura: Similar to Fiona, I immediately rejected any application that didn’t mention Watkins or Nourish. Several applicants didn’t tailor their CV or cover letter to our company, which made me think they’d used the same application for multiple different companies. There were also a few CVs that came in without any cover letter at all, which I immediately rejected.

When you’re applying to so many publishing jobs, it’s hard to read a book for every imprint. If applicants haven’t read a Watkins book yet when writing their cover letter, what do you recommend they do to show company research and knowledge?

Fiona: Of course you don’t need to have read a book by the publisher in question every time you apply for a job. If you’re trying to break into the industry with multiple applications, you’ll end up with no time for reading the books you genuinely want to read. Look at the website, social media accounts and Amazon listings to see what we’re publishing and what’s selling and reviewing well. Then you’ll be able to talk about, say, the jackets, content or authors that appeal to you.

I also loved it when candidates said they practised yoga or mindfulness, which showed they’re engaged in the areas we’re publishing, even if they haven’t yet read our yoga books.

Laura: I agree with Fiona. Another great way to see the books a company is publishing is by looking at their recent catalogue on their website – most publishing companies will have one. It’s very important and very easy to download and read. Folks can easily show company research and knowledge just by spending some time looking around a publisher’s website. 

I also recommend visiting your local bookstore and looking for what books from an imprint or company are carried in store versus online. Anything carried in store is usually a lead or very important title to a publisher, and always worth mentioning in an interview. 

A publisher’s social media feed is also a great resource for quick and easy research for a job interview, especially for a marketing or publicity role. Recent releases are highlighted alongside bestselling titles, and it’s a great way to get a feel for a company’s internal vibe. 

Do you have any additional advice for applicants?

Fiona: It’s great to come across as collaborative, helpful and easy to work with. If you send a very long email, or can’t edit your cover letter down to one page, I might worry you’re going to be long-winded at work!

The successful candidate took the trouble to get in touch with the person who was leaving to ask them about the role. It showed they were genuinely keen to work at Watkins and made a great impression. It also showed they valued themselves enough to find out about what doing that job would really be like.

Laura: I recommend finding out who the hiring manager is and connecting with them on social media and/or LinkedIn. In smaller companies, they won’t have a dedicated HR team going through your application – it will be the manager of the department you’re applying for. A few applicants connected with me on LinkedIn and messaged me to emphasise their interest in the role. I immediately called them for an interview.  

People on social media also asked …

A lot of companies say you don’t need publishing specific experience. What other types of jobs have looked good on a CV for a publishing job?

Fiona: I like it when applicants say they have bookselling experience. It usually means they love books and also have some sense of how competitive the market is. If you’ve previously worked in an office, you can talk about paying attention to detail, or prioritising competing requests, or managing a busy workload.

Laura: Promotion or marketing within any specific field. We look for ingenuity and delivery of KPIs. If you show me that you grew a brand or a person over expected numbers, I’m immediately interested. Similarly, if you demonstrate that you are an outside-of-the-box thinker, you are interesting within any field.

Does it make a difference whether the content of the cover letter is included in the body of the email / as an attachment?

Laura: Please, please put it in an attachment. It’s okay to take a few core elements of your cover letter and put it into your introductory email, but I personally prefer applicants to attach their cover letter and CV as separate documents.

Fiona: I disagree with Laura, I’d rather have it in the body of the email so there’s just one attachment to open! But I wouldn’t mark anyone down for sending the cover letter as an attachment, of course not.

I was wondering how often you get publishing applications from non-native English speakers (but with a degree in a similar field) and what are the odds for a foreigner getting in?

Laura: I have interviewed several non-native English speakers for positions throughout my career and it’s never a disadvantage. As long as you can demonstrate that you are proficient in English and a creative thinker, I’m very happy to interview you. 

I am a foreigner to the United Kingdom – a 16-year American publishing veteran living and working in the UK – and I believe (and I know Fiona would agree!) I bring a tremendous amount of expertise and innovation to my leadership role and to publishing within the UK because I provide a fresh perspective. 

And does years of experience in completely different field put one at a disadvantage for entry level roles?

Laura: That depends on how you tell your story in your cover letter and CV. If you can clearly demonstrate how your skills and experience within one field will translate into publishing, then a disadvantage does not exist. 

Does it make a difference if you apply straight away or 2 weeks after the advertisement has been put up?

Fiona: I’d say it’s helpful to get it in straightaway. We waited until the window for applying was closed before starting to assess the applications, but not all hiring managers do this. Some only keep the window open until they find enough great candidates to interview.

We hope you found this useful – a huge thanks to Fiona and Laura for taking the time to talk us through their hiring processes and offering their publishing application tips!

As you can see from some of the varied responses, hiring is a situation very individual to each publishing house and each member of staff, so there is often no right or wrong answer. Nonetheless, we hope you gained some insight into the individual perspectives and found some top tips to use in the future!

If you’re an aspiring publisher, check out our regular Peek Into Publishing posts – where you can find insights into a number of departments, what the staff do and some useful key terms. Coming up, Fiona and Laura have also answered some of your interview questions, which we’ll share on our blog in a few weeks.

Feel free to reach us on Twitter if you have any questions, and we wish you the best of luck on your publishing journey!

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