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Interview advice from a publishing guru

Have a publishing interview coming up but have no clue what to expect? We caught up with our former Harlequin UK intern – turned Head of Zeus Commissioning Editor, Rhea Kurien, to ask her about her top tips for acing those interview questions…

1. Tell me a little about yourself and your experience to date.

They ask this 9 times out of 10, so do think carefully about how you present yourself. Try and be succinct and tailor your answer to the job you’re applying for. It’s a question that trips a lot of people up, so it’s worth practising this one out loud so you don’t blank when asked.

  1. Why do you want to work for us?

Be specific – show them that you know their list, have read their biggest books and are keeping abreast of what exciting things they are doing. Don’t just read their website (websites are usually out of date), really study their social media feeds and search for articles about them on The Bookseller. What are they doing that you feel really passionately about?

  1. What have you read recently and really loved?

If you’re fresh out of university, I know it can be difficult to think of any books beyond what you read on your course. However, to work in publishing (especially editorial, marketing and PR), it is crucial that you have read books that have been published in the last year or so. Go into bookshops and see what books are charting, compare that to the kind of books that are featured in supermarkets, look at the Kindle bestsellers on Amazon as often as you can, and then read read read.

Here is a chance to showcase that you have read books on their list, do try and read a couple of their big books of the last couple of months.

  1. What is a recent marketing campaign that really stood out to you, and why?

This will depend entirely on which area of publishing you’re looking to go into e.g. commercial, literary or academic. A couple of stand out campaigns for commercial fiction in the last year or so are Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie and Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare. Lots of pre-publication buzz, a really standout and high concept package, great endorsements from other authors and trade publications, lots of visibility both digitally and on the ground e.g. tube advertisements for Queenie at Brixton station. A similar non-fiction example is Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. With literary fiction, two examples are Margaret Atwood’s Testaments and Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (did you see when they placed the Wolf Hall Tudor rose emblem on a billboard in Leicester Square?).

You don’t have to use an example from the publisher you’re applying to – they want to know you know the wider market.

Be your amazing and authentic self, make good eye contact, smile and be enthusiastic

  1. Why should I consider hiring you?/What makes you the right candidate for this role?

Here, you want to do the same thing you should have done for your cover letter: refer to the job description. Pick out key phrases from this, boring but important things like good at meeting deadlines, managing conflicting priorities, good people skills, and yes, ultimately, that you love and are excited by the idea of seeing a book from concept to finished product.

  1. What have been your major achievements to date?

This doesn’t always come up, but if it does, don’t be afraid. It doesn’t have to be work-related, you can talk about something you did at university or something you achieved outside of work or study. Having other interests is a good thing, and having an example that shows you are capable of taking initiative is even better.

  1. Any questions?

Always prepare at least three questions for this. You want the interview to be a conversation. Something I always like to ask is which books the interviewers are really excited about publishing this year.

Competency-based questions

With entry-level positions, there is really only so much they can quiz you about the industry. For the most part, if you’ve got to the interview stage, they already think you’re qualified. They just want to know if your work style will fit in with their team. That’s where competency-based questions come in, things like ‘give me an example of when you had to juggle conflicting priorities’ or ‘tell me about a time that you had to handle a difficult client’. This guide will help you construct your answers in this format: the situation, the obstacle you had to overcome, your strategy, and the (successful) outcome.

Your examples can be from situations you faced at university, any part-time jobs, or even previous internships. It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that you highlight that you know how to handle difficult situations. Publishing is all about working to really tight deadlines, working with lots of different people, and multi-tasking so show them you can do these things.

Final tips for interviews

Be your amazing and authentic self, make good eye contact, smile and be enthusiastic about being there, drink water when your mouth gets dry, don’t panic if you need a minute to think about your answer before you reply, and thank them for their time.