The publishing industry is notoriously hard to get into, but Serena Arthur has done it and is now Editorial Assistant at Wildfire Books. Here's her advice on how to prepare for an interview in publishing.
Serena, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions! First off, what was your route to getting your job as an Editorial Assistant at Wildfire Books?
I did the typical thing of studying English Language and Literature at university because I loved books, but I didn’t have a solid career in mind. Then, in my first year, one of the other students in my year came up with the idea for a new magazine and I joined her in the mission to create it. I was the Deputy Editor and co-creator of Onyx from then, supporting the founder in planning and then helping choose a wider editorial and business team. Onyx platforms the work and voices of students of African and Caribbean descent and working on it was my first taste of publishing on a small scale.
In my final year at university, I attended Oxford SYP events and gained a place on their ‘Into’ mentoring scheme, where I got to chat to an editor from Oxford University Press. I also began to apply for publishing work experience and internships. I graduated in July 2019 and started as a Publishing Trainee at Hachette UK that September, after some very short work experience at Walker Books and Usborne Books. I ensured that I made the most of these opportunities by going to as many meetings as possible, asking loads of questions and always being willing to help out any in any of the departments.
I applied for multiple editorial assistant positions this year, but I think that I ended up successfully gaining the position at Wildfire Books because it was a job that I was genuinely enthusiastic and excited about, one where my style of working would fit in with that of the team and where I felt confident that I could do the job well. I guess this came across in my application!
I love that you’ve identified that, and I feel very similarly – we’re more likely to be successful in interviews when the job is one that we’re truly interested in, and where our style of working will likely suit the team we hope to join. The publishing industry is a real community, and, in an ideal world, team members will end up being friends as well as colleagues, so creating a good mix of personalities, tastes and experiences is vital.
And having now gone through the interview process, is there one piece of advice you would give to anyone looking to do the same thing?
Try to apply for work experience if you can, even if it isn’t directly in the area you think you want to go into. Experience anywhere will help, and you might even discover that you really like an area of the business that you didn’t know about before. There are so many more departments than Editorial, some examples that might be less well-known being Rights, Sales, Export, Audio and Contracts. Creative Access is also really great if you are looking for internships or roles in any of the creative industries.
How did you find the interview process?
It was strange to do the entire application process online with interviews over Teams or Zoom, though not having to stress about hectic and unreliable London travel was a huge positive. I’m at home in Birmingham at the moment, so I just sat at the familiar spot at my kitchen table that has been my desk for the past few months.
I really enjoyed the Wildfire interviews, both the initial longer interview with my now-boss and another would-be colleague (the people I would spend the most time with in the role), and the second shorter interview with another member of the editorial team. The tone was quite chatty and informal, to match the usual day-to-day vibe of the team and, because the interviewers offered a lot of information, it felt less one-sided than some of the other interviews that I’ve done.
Is there specific prep that you would recommend for anyone currently interviewing – or hoping to interview – for a publishing job?
I would say always read over the documents that you send in as part of your pre-interview application and know the job specification for the role practically by heart, as these will likely form the basis of your interview. If there is anything that you would have liked to mention in them, but didn’t have the space, make a note for yourself to bring these up. If you have been told who your interviewers are then it is okay to look them up to find out more about their area of expertise and what they have worked on recently, but this isn’t essential so don’t worry if you don’t know. Research the company and imprint, building on the research you would have done for the application and, if you aren’t used to interviewing, get someone you know to listen to you talk about your relevant experience or practice talking it over to yourself.
I totally agree – doing that company and imprint research is essential, and interviewers will be impressed by candidates who take the time to do it. And rehearsing with someone you know is really good advice, because the words inevitably come out differently or not as we intended them otherwise, and it’s easy to get flustered in that situation. I also tell people to Google “Top ten interview questions” or similar, and use that as a basis to rehearse, just so you can feel a bit of confidence going into the interview.
Moving on to your actual job, what do you love most about it?
I love that every single day is different from the day before and that so much of it is working with other people. The Editorial department is something of a project managing team that makes sure everyone else is up to date and connected, so I would say as an editorial assistant you feel pretty central to the progress of a book from initial submission to publication. Meeting authors and reading submissions are also really fun, but these are aspects that come alongside a lot of the administrative work that you do as an assistant, rather than a central part of the job.
I’m really glad that you flagged the administrative side of the job, because a lot of people won’t realise how admin-heavy it is to be an editor – and an editorial assistant in particular. So, now that you’re in the industry, what positive change would you like to bring?
I would love to help make the publishing industry more accessible, both for people interested in working in publishing and for writers looking to get their work published. I would also really love to see more books by under-represented voices published and really hope that all of the current discussions about diversity in publishing don’t suddenly stop after a month or two.