Jess Harris is Marketing Analyst at Penguin Random House and also has a blog called Travels and Books. Huge thank yous to Jess for giving us permission to use the following post, which first appeared on her blog.
Writing a good CV and cover letter isn’t a skill taught in schools, but it has a real, concrete effect on your life: it shapes how you’ll spend eight hours of your day five days a week, and how much money you take home. And so much of it comes down to recognising the hoops a potential employer is holding up for you and jumping through them. Which can feel unfair!
I have always seen applying for jobs as a game: you play by the rules, you hit all the targets they put up for you, you have a bit of luck, and you pass the level. I also know that I have benefited from lots of privilege that’s made me pretty good at this game.
So, here are five of my top tips for applying for jobs.
1. Know your audience
It’s tempting to see your cover letter as a place to wax lyrical about how passionate you are about the industry, how fascinating you find the process of how books get made, and how you’ve always been a voracious reader. This won’t get you anywhere, because it is exactly what everyone else is doing. In the rest of this post, I’ll explain what to write instead.
If there’s one thing to take away from this post, it’s that the person you’re thinking about shouldn’t be yourself, but the recruiter. Picture them. They’ve got dozens of applications to read, and they’re doing them on a computer monitor or laptop, one after another, probably on a lunch break because they have their normal job to do as well.
Instead of talking at length about your love of words, try keeping your sentences short, your margins normal, and your language plain. Make it as easy as possible for the recruiter to read your application. Keep them in the forefront of your mind while you’re writing.
2. Be positive
This is more about the CV than cover letter, but it does apply to both. When you describe your previous roles and experience, I used to think that I should basically copy out my job’s official job description – the things I did day-to-day. If you’ve done a job that’s very similar to the role you’re applying for, then that’s a fair strategy. But your CV is the place to really sell yourself to the recruiter – and remember, they have lots more CVs to read after yours.
Instead, really sell what you did in your previous roles by listing your biggest achievements. Instead of writing that you processed orders, mention that you came up with a better filing system. Instead of mentioning that you served customers, say you served X number of customers over this busy period to an impeccable standard. Write about your trophy moments, not just the day-to-day.
3. Tick their boxes
Every time I write a cover letter, I follow these exact steps. I was taught this by my manager in my first paid internship.
Take the job description and find the bullet-pointed list where it says what the successful applicant’s duties will be, and what qualities the successful applicant should have
Go through each bullet point and find a story from your working life or experience where you have done that thing. This will be easier for the Qualities section than the Duties section. For example, if the job description says you need to be a team player, I might write about when I did a project where multiple people each had to contribute something, and also write about what I did and what the result was
If you have something you really want them to know, like a project you’re really proud of or some other relevant experience, work out how you can match that up with a Duty or Quality, and put that near the top, even if it’s not in that order in the bullet points
In my cover letter, I literally write, “In your job description, you list the duties that a successful candidate would be expected to perform…” and then I go through the list of duties — sometimes literally copying and pasting exactly what the job description says — and explaining how I can do them. I then do exactly the same with qualities.
When writing your story, by the way, use the STAR method: situation, task, action, result. You don’t need to explain all four fully in every story (remember, keep it concise!), but this is a good framework that will keep you from getting side-tracked. If you can’t think of a story that matches one of the Qualities or Duties, skip it - but try to hit as many as you can. In this way you are making it as easy as humanly possible for the recruiter to see that you are the candidate for them
4. Everyone knows you love books
The overwhelming majority of people who work in publishing love books. The majority of people in publishing are in it because they love books. But mentioning that you love books in your cover letter will not help you, because everyone else will say it too. Everyone else loves books as well.
One of the golden rules of writing fiction is to show, not tell, and that works here, too. Rather than explicitly saying you love books, assume the recruiter knows that and show how your love of books will help. Be specific.
Publishers often ask why you want to work for them, rather than another company, and the best way to do that is to look up the publisher’s list and find some of their authors. If you’ve read them, that’s great; if you haven’t, think about what it would be like to work with that sort of book/level of fame/etc, and talk about that. Show that you’ve engaged with them as a company rather than picked the job out by job title.
5. Publishing is a business
Before I got into publishing, when I was looking longingly from the side-lines, I thought that the only job I’d like was editorial, and that editorial is about reading novels and offering advice on how to improve them. This is not the case. Publishing is the industry where books are prepared and sold. It’s not a romantic idyll where people just read novels. It’s a place where you get your product and sell it.
The reason I’m saying this is that people tend not to realise that there are jobs other than editorial on offer, and skillsets that you can develop other than reading books. Editorial Assistant roles get more applications than any other job in the industry, because people simply don’t know that there are other jobs. If you can, look at as many job descriptions as possible – even if you don’t think the job would be for you. If you don’t, you might miss out on a job that is everything you could want.
A great way to keep on top of what is actually going on in the industry is to get the Bookseller Daily Briefing – it’s a free daily newsletter that tells you a lot of what’s happening in publishing. Be curious – take in what’s happening, read up on what things mean, and come up with your own opinions on them. This isn’t so much for the application, but when it comes to the interview, this will help you nail that as well.
Jess Harris is a 28-year-old white woman living in London. She's worked in publishing for six years in areas from metadata to eBooks to publicity, and she's now a marketing analyst for Penguin Random House. She loves sewing, reading, travelling, cycling and social justice, and you can find her at www.travelsandbooks.com or on Twitter. If you are BIPOC, she is happy to give you advice on getting into the industry, so slide into her DMs.