Preparing for a Publishing Internship Interview, and Follow-Up Questions You Should Ask Your Employer

Getting an actual interview with your dream publisher, or with any publisher, lit mag, newspaper, etc., is more than half the battle. Without fully knowing what the internship coordinator, editorial assistant, or HR rep looks for in a cover letter, getting a callback could be likened to winning the lottery—a lottery with decent odds, admittedly, but still leaving too much up to chance. Now, at the interview section of the process, you have much more control over making a good impression and feeling out what the interviewer wants from his or her intern.

In short, don’t let your upcoming interview stress you out. Most interviews follow a very similar, easy structure that this blog post will help you to prepare for:

  1. General questions about your publishing goals and background
  2. Questions about your traits, problem solving, attitude, and likes
  3. Logistical details and questions about start dates and dress codes that you should resist the urge to focus on;
  4. A Q&A period about your prospective position and publisher, a deceptively important opportunity to reveal things about yourself.

Interview formats

Interviews range in duration and style of questioning depending on the format of the interview. You may be questioned by the internship coordinator, the editorial/ production/ marketing assistants directly above you, an HR representative, or an assortment of each. See if you can discern from their emails—or directly ask if an in-person interview is preceded by a preliminary phone interview—the format of the interview and who will be questioning you, as this information can be extremely helpful in determining how to prepare for an interview.

For my seasonal (3 month) internship interviews, the number of interviewers ranged from 1-3, but the number didn’t matter. One person, usually your eventual supervisor, will take the lead on the majority of questions, while the remainder may have a question or two but generally aren’t as prepared or aware of your qualifications.

For a year-long salaried position I applied for, I ended up speaking with a dozen or so people in a three-round interview with editorial assistants, editorial department heads, and their HR representative. Fortunately, this interview was simply a longer, repetitious version of shorter interviews, with almost entirely the same questions coming up in each segment of the interview.

General Questions

Be ready for variations on the standard questions that come up in almost every interview:

i. Describe your interest in book publishing. Why are you interested in a career in editing?

ii. How have your past experiences/internships prepared you for this position? How are you qualified for this position?

iii. Why are you interested in this internship/working for publisher name here specifically?

iv. How are you a good fit for this position/company?

v. What do you hope to get out of this position?

The first two to three questions of an interview are usually these, so these questions will decide the first impression you make on the interviewer. I can’t help you in terms of avoiding nervousness and exuding confidence, but I can advise you on the content of your responses.

First, try to strike a balance between why they’re a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for them. These questions naturally invite self-centered answers, but don’t spend too much time explaining how this internship will advance your career or why X publisher has always seemed so interesting (though this personal touch is still important). If the internship listing/webpage had a list of everyday tasks, describe how your work for them will supplement the skills you already have—a chance to praise yourself while showing your awareness of what the job entails and what you will and won’t need to learn on the job.

Similarly, if the internship is in the same field as past positions on your resume, explain how old experiences prepare you for this position while explaining how this position is somehow different or better for your career than past jobs. And most importantly, try to describe your general interest in the profession as well as your specific interest in the position. If you explain your interest in a career in editing or your love of the publishing industry, you show that the position is more than a line on your resume, which makes you a more attractive candidate.

Memorizing Anecdotes

You will then likely be asked two styles of questions: describe a situation at work that shows certain qualities or problem solving, and state certain accomplishments you are proud of. I lump these categories together because in either case you should have a selection of anecdotes ready to answer such questions as the following:

  1. What is your greatest strength/weakness? Don’t just state a quality for each. For your strength, give a short anecdote that exemplifies your strength. If you choose leadership, be sure you have something on your resume that actually tested your mettle. For your weakness, describe a moment where you realized you had a weakness in that area and how you are now working to fix that weakness, or are at least aware of it. They will appreciate the honest assessment, particularly if it is an area they specified on the job description like organization, multi-tasking, customer service, independence, or other common qualities you feel uncomfortable with.
  2. Describe a moment you dealt with a difficult supervisor/colleague/customer and how you solved the problem. This question has almost always come up for me, especially in editorial positions where my job is to email or speak with authors on a regular basis. Have an anecdote ready for each of these if possible, but be sure to focus more on your patience and graciousness rather than how much you hated your boss or hate annoying customers—unless the story is hilarious or absurd, in which case draw it out! It never hurts to show you have a sense of humor about these things, and your interviewer will likely empathize and have similar stories from their own time in your position. I’ve also had two different internships give me writing prompts asking me to respond to an angry customer to diffuse the situation, one as part of the application and one during the interview.
  3. Describe a time you worked as a team/led a team. You should hopefully have a good anecdote from a non-work source for this type of question, like participating with a literary magazine, community service group, school group project (that has to do with publishing, hopefully), or other examples.
  4. Describe a time that you had to multitask/prioritize; describe how you plan or organize your day. This question speaks for itself. Basically, your employer wants to know that you can handle the pressure of having multiple jobs to get done at once and that you know how to prioritize, both at work and in your everyday life.
  5. What are you most proud of/what is your greatest accomplishment? As I mentioned in my very first post about what not to say during an internship interview, be careful about what you would choose here, and have something prepared. It doesn’t necessarily have to pertain to publishing, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. For instance, if you describe how proud you were to have your name on the masthead of your college’s lit mag, you can use that to segue back into your passion for publishing. However, you can certainly use something else so long as it shows qualities that your employer will want in his or her intern.

Miscellaneous Questions

  • What are some of your favorite books/authors?
  • What blogs/newspapers/publishing websites do you read?
  • What do/did you study in school and how did it prepare you for this position?
  • What writing experience do you have?
  • What is your dream job/where do you want to be in five years?
  • Are there any others you’ve run into that I’ve missed? If so, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll add them!

Questions to Ask Your Employer

For a good summary of the types of questions that impress interviewers, check out this thorough article by College Magazine. But to summarize, think hard about what you need to know during the interview phase. Some typical questions you might ask—what is the dress code, what will my average day consist of, when will I have your answer, can I take the internship for college credit—don’t tell the interviewer anything about you and bog things down. The interviewer may give you some of that information later anyway, and you can always figure out the office dress code and work culture on the job, or email about college credit or other logistics.

Instead, take the time to focus on the two people in the room, as well as the people that have been there before. Ask about how this will benefit your future career, specifically if this will prepare you for an entry-level position. As a follow-up, ask what other interns moved on to do, to see if they have found the kind of success you are looking for. Then feel free to shift the flow of the conversation toward the interviewer: how did they get involved in publishing/this publisher, and what is their specific job at the company? The above article notes that “interesting questions relating to background or questions showing that a candidate has researched and done his or her homework demonstrate passion and determination…[and]only a handful of people…[ask] personal questions.” Shining the spotlight on your future boss will show you the type or person you might work for, and allows them the chance to talk about themselves while giving you some breathing room as the interview winds down.

Conclusion

All of this information collected together may appear daunting, and there’s no way to predict every single question that a given editor will care to ask about. But that doesn’t matter as much as you simply coming into the interview with these key assets: a clear self-appraisal of what you want out of this internship and your future career, knowledge about the publisher and its books/authors, a series of personal stories that show your skills, experience, growth, and areas for improvement, and some questions that show your initiative and priorities.

I hope this was helpful for you! My next non-current events post will cover how to get relevant, non-internship publishing experiences outside of publishing hub cities like New York and Boston that you can use for those pesky anecdotal/situational questions.

Thanks for reading!

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Publisher Discussion Series #1: Orbit Books

When you enter into an interview for an internship—or more importantly a job—with a publisher, it’s important to not only know and enjoy the types of books and authors on a list, but also know the ways that the publisher has attained success and established itself as a reputable service provider for clients (authors) and consumers (readers). In this series, I will be profiling the types of publishers or specialized imprints that I would love to work for at some point in my impending career; in describing the technical reasons for their success and the qualities that make them attractive for prospective employers, you should hopefully be able to see the patterns to look for in your own ideal job locations, and describe these patterns when outlining your reasons for applying in a cover letter or interview.

Orbit Books:

Description (from Hachette Books Group’s website): “Orbit is the new Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint at Hachette Book Group. Orbit publishes across the spectrum of Science Fiction and Fantasy—from action-packed urban fantasy to widescreen space opera; from sweeping epic adventures to near-future thrillers. We publish approximately 40 titles each year from both established and debut authors. Visit us online at Orbitbooks.net.”

Accolades: Several of Orbit’s authors have won or been nominated for the most prestigious sci-fi/fantasy awards in recent years. Ann Leckie and Kim Stanley Robinson won the 2013 and 2012 Nebula Awards, respectively. Mira Grant has been nominated for four consecutive Hugo Awards, and Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, James S.A. Corey, and N.K. Jemisen have also been nominated for Hugos, all within the last decade.

Business model: During a February excursion to New York with my graduate program, I met Orbit Senior Editor Devi Pillai at the Hachette offices, and she briefly described their formula of success: with a staff of only a few editors, they publish the majority of their titles from first-time or self-published authors, focusing on building up the lists and reputations of new authors rather than acquiring a lot of big-name authors. This model succeeds, I would argue, because they do not have to rely on authors like George R. R. Martin, who will bring in huge revenue sporadically but require a long investment and huge author advance; rather, they invest in enough new talent at discounted rates that, if they succeed, will offset the small costs of any authors who do not live up to their potential.

My impressions: Here are some observations of more technical reasons for their success:

  1. Foregoing hardcover for eye-catching paperbacks: When you peruse the Sci-fi/Fantasy section at B&N—excluding the new arrivals section—you may find your eye drawn by plus-sized paperbacks with huge, eye-catching covers on their massive spines: Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, James S. A. Corey’s aptly-named Leviathan Wakes (which was recently optioned for a SyFy series), and the recent Nebula winner Ancillary Justice, to name a few. Orbit’s strategy of relying on no-name authors for its revenue means that it has wisely avoided expensive hardcovers, instead selling new titles at $15-17 that appear massive enough to offer good value for the reduced price.
  2. An amazing cover design team: As much as I love the narratives themselves, I have to give credit to whoever designed Orbit’s book covers for many of my purchases. When I researched Orbit’s titles after visiting their office, I was shocked how many I had already bought simply by spotting them in bookstores. Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, N.K. Jemisen’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Gail Carriger’s Soulless had all caught my eye with their reliance on bold color schemes, stark contrast of said colors, and other elements that an artist would describe better than I could. (Note: Ms. Pillai was the first editor to tell me how much they love being flattered about their books; the lesson here is that I really wish I had done my homework so I could have gushed about all of this in person).
  3. Keeping their authors and editors active in the blogosphere: This one speaks for itself, but Orbit has an excellent website where you can find author interviews and posts about their favorite characters, writing strategies, and so forth. If you’re going to rely on new authors for your business plan, your goal is to get them on social media interacting with readers to establish a brand and a friendly, accessible identity. Just as importantly, you make the author feel part of a community; authors will always fear that their peers’ books are somehow getting more attention or better treatment from editors, so keeping them active is vital for morale. One useful case study would be to compare Orbit’s website, which focuses mainly on their authors and products, and a site like Tor’s, which instead has a lot more pop culture sci-fi/fantasy to draw in a more casual audience.

Orbit in the news: Though this hasn’t come up for me as of yet in an interview, it might still be helpful to know of the achievements and problems that a publisher is facing when you interview. In this case, Orbit has come under fire recently for failing to give out free copies of the books of their Hugo-nominated authors, claiming it protects the authors’ revenue by limiting access to free and DRM-free copies of the books. The nominated authors have publicly disagreed with this stance, placing Orbit and its parent Hachette under further scrutiny. While this particular topic seems unlikely to come up in an internship interview, prospective editors should be aware of these types of issues, and where they stand on them, before being confronted with a question about how you would handle the problem or respond to any backlash.

 

I hope this was informative, not only for avid sci-fi lovers, but also for anyone preparing for an interview. It’s good to be able to name-drop a couple of authors you enjoy from their list, but anyone can do a Google search and it’s difficult to know how an individual editor will respond to an easy claim. Instead, try doing the research that shows you are thinking like an editor, not a reader, and see if it comes up. Even if it doesn’t initially, your preparedness will make the first days of your job that much easier to adjust to. I’ll switch away from sci-fi to a different type of publisher altogether for my next one in the series.

Thanks for reading!