Preface: I believe everyone can bring something unique to the publishing industry. I believe everyone has a viewpoint worth listening to and you should fight to be heard. Please don’t give up on your applications.
For most people trying to get a job in the publishing industry, this is arguably their favourite discussion topic. Of course, I don’t mean it’s what is wanted to be discussed with others over a coffee/tea/hot chocolate/bottle of vodka (delete as appropriate); I mean it is just naturally an oft-discussed topic when people get together – it will always find itself popping up no matter what the scenario.
Let’s face it. This industry is one of the trickiest to break into. I’ve not done my research (how professional do you think I am?), but if you think it through logically it must be up there. I’m excluding the obvious career choices here such as astronaut or actor, and instead focusing on standard professional ones. Going by my own very incidental and very anecdotal evidence, the basis of my view can be seen.
I present you with the evidence, your Honour
Exhibit A: Following my redundancy from a publishing company I’d been with for three years, I had a ~10% success rate at getting interviews over a nine month period (from 500+ applications). I had three years’ worth of experience and struggled! In the couple of months of unemployment I faced at the start of 2018, after leaving a company I’d been with for seven months, I pretty much had the same average.
Exhibit B: Before I left that publishing company at the start of 2018, we received sixty-odd applications to fill the slot I was vacating. You may say that’s not too many, but we barely advertised it and the company isn’t a major publisher everyone keeps their eye on. I tweeted about it twice while the company’s own Twitter account steered clear. If we pushed it more, maybe we’d have received over 100 applications… or more. Then there are the major players. You hear of the Penguin Random Houses of this world receiving some ~400 applications per role, and I have heard 600 bandied about before for certain ones. That’s crazy. That means, in such extreme cases, maybe only 1% of applicants even get interviewed.
Exhibit C: Very incidental, anecdotal evidence of this industry compared to others is how my ex-flatmate would say she didn’t understand the effort I put into my applications and interviews. She said for the last two roles she’s had – both of which are in the legal systems’ sector and pay more than any job I will ever likely have – she didn’t bother with a covering letter. She just stuck her CV in an email and said ‘I’m interested in this job’; then, in the interviews, told them she didn’t really know that much about their companies. (Can you imagine having an interview with a publisher and during it saying you didn’t know what they published?)
Exhibit D: Full-time teaching never seemed that tricky to break into. I applied for three jobs back in the day with relatively straightforward applications and got two interviews. I only went to one as I quickly realised it wasn’t for me, yet that’s a 66% success rate of getting interviews. You compare that success rate versus what I’ve experienced in publishing and it is chalk and cheese.
(Just to be clear, it’s never ideal to compare progress against other industries, I just used these as extreme examples to make a point. Plus my ex-flatmate is very nice and super supportive and it’s a shame we don’t still live together.)
With the statistical likelihood of even getting an interview I mentioned above, what all this essentially means is that rejection is just something ingrained in this industry. When fighting such odds it makes it clear just how exhausting job hunting in this industry can be when things aren’t going your way. Therefore, in this post I want to tackle two questions:
- How, in the face of such competition and odds, do you keep going and striving for what you want if things aren’t going your way?
- How do you improve your applications if you are consistently being rejected?
How do you keep going?
Personally, it comes down to being willing to talk and put yourself out there (yes, largely the dreaded networking).
As I’ve said a few times on here, I didn’t handle my original redundancy and attempts to get back into the industry very well. The reason why is because I had no one else around me in the same boat. In fact, more bluntly than that, I had no one else around me. I was alone and that ate away at me. It was a stressful time, naturally.
As this bit covers an important subject, I did decide to do some research for it. From that quick search I found the risk of suicide in the culture, media and sports industry is incredibly high: 20% for men and 69% for women above the national average, with artistic and literary careers the highest of all. This is scary. While thankfully I’ve never been at risk of suicide myself, and have never been around anyone driven to that end, those stats scare me because it shows how much depression is prevalent around this industry. For such a loving community – and it really is just that – those stats just highlight how much pressure those around this industry face: it’s stressful to get into the industry then it’s stressful once you’re in. (The pressures once in a role I’ll ignore for now and discuss in the future. But please don’t be put off by my saying any of this. I love this industry, and the people within it, and can’t see myself ever working within another one.)
A large part of why such stats scare me is because I have seen them to be true for myself first-hand. Unfortunately I’ve suffered from depression both in a role and out of one – to the point I suffered mental breakdowns. Unfortunately I’ve seen depression strike so many people in and around the industry – those job hunting and those within a role. Because of that, I know how much self-care is important to those trying to enter the industry. Yet despite my own struggles, I eventually bounced back because I found people who could empathise with me.
I said I was alone, yet I didn’t need to be. It was when I, by chance, realised that fact that things began to improve for me. I found people looking for jobs and those within them who’d gone through similar experiences to me. I found them because I was suddenly prepared to put myself out there and speak to people. I got myself on Twitter and found it to be a great and supportive community (hello! if we’ve spoken on there). I also found them because I decided I actually needed to leave the house. Granted I was never entirely open about how bad things had been for me and what I went through, and I still struggle with such things, but I was open enough to discuss the situation I was in. That helped. That helped immensely.
Finding others to talk to and support you around the industry is how I recommend finding the motivation to keep going. Be open to work placements, as long as they aren’t exploitative that is. Just keep putting yourself out there and talk to people. You may find someone willing and able to guide you, while others could take notice of you. That basically was my self-care routine. I kept myself busy in the industry because it served two purposes: it kept me sane; it kept me active in the community in case anything came up and those I’d met may have thought of me. (Doing this was how I found that role after my redundancy that I had for seven months – I undertook a work placement and they remembered me when they needed someone.)
Find book clubs, blogger communities, writing groups, socials or any other community where there are others involved in the industry – not just a community of those trying to break into the industry, but anyone actively engaged in it from other perspectives. If there aren’t any book clubs around you, start one and approach companies to ask if they have resources for reading groups. Having people to speak to about the application process, bounce ideas off and hear stories of how you are not alone can go so far. When I left that job after Christmas I was surprisingly happy and quickly found something new. I put that down to having built up a support network that kept me motivated and allowed me to see others were in my shoes. Knowing such people, and how talented they were, also pushed me to make my own applications even better.
Which brings us onto what is the most important question in this post…
How to improve your applications after multiple rejections?
On how to move on from multiple rejections, in my view, that tweet is pretty much spot on. In particular, the ‘accept and use feedback’ line. You might not consider hearing nothing at all back from an application you sent to be useful, but it can be seen as such. There’s the old clichéd definition of insanity being constantly doing the same thing yet expecting different results and, despite my hating to deal in such clichés, I believe that is the case with job applications. If you are approaching all of your applications in the same way yet hearing nothing back, then that is feedback. Basically, don’t keep throwing the exact same covering letter at the job wall and expecting/hoping it sticks.
It can feel as if you’re expected to be all things to all companies, but each letter must be tailored. When I say ‘tailored’, I don’t mean just adapting a paragraph where you say why you are approaching that company, I mean it all. When reading applications it is very easy to spot something is entirely generic and hasn’t been rewritten for that specific role. Those 60-odd applications I mentioned my old company received when I was leaving, I did see them in passing. I wasn’t responsible for who was chosen for interview, but I saw them and some were clearly cut and pasted from previous applications and some weren’t adapted for that company – they’re a non-fiction publisher yet some applicants discussed wanting to work with fiction. I can understand why that approach is often taken, however doing it will diminish your chances of getting an interview.
I said how little effort my previous flatmate would put into her job hunts, while in contrast I would put hours into creating a good covering letter and adapting my CV, and that, for me, is essentially why I feel jobs in publishing are harder to get than most. To be successful they simply require more effort to apply for. That can then lead to you sometimes feeling like you’re not good enough when you receive rejection after rejection, which then can lead to your ‘phoning in’ applications. I felt like that. Maybe you feel like that. All I know is, you shouldn’t feel like that and take that approach.
Of course, there are only so many ways you can say you understand SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) or have sweet InDesign skills, but don’t just copy and paste it from another application. I would say that is true when applying for roles that are exactly the same but for different companies. Why? Because every time you write, you improve. You improve your style, voice, grammar, understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and also you may just spot errors. By rewriting what you’ve said countless times before, you may find a more efficient or interesting way to say it. Efficiency is, for me, vitally important in applications; saying things in a way others may not, is likewise. Therefore, again, for me, constantly evolving what you write in covering letters is the key to achieving that.
Find your unique selling points (USPs)
The above set of tweets were in response to someone saying they had sent out a number of applications in a day, and my saying not to give up despite any rejection they receive. Personally, I think the suggestion is a great one. I would say create an Excel spreadsheet like the one I mocked up here:
I have outlined what I think makes a good covering letter before, and it’s just about being open to adapting how you say it that is important. I know that’s not entirely revolutionary to say, but I do think it is one thing saying it and another doing it. When you keep spending hours on applications only to get rejected without any notifications, it is tricky to keep motivated. Doing something like an Excel spreadsheet above will allow you to see what interests you about a specific role and why you are perfect for it. Then, you can focus your application on those couple of salient points. Doing something like this will ensure you constantly rewrite applications that are tailored to the specific role and your USPs for it. I think it could make a huge difference to applications.
Something like this would also help provide feedback even when you get none from the company: for example, was my USP really unique? If you apply for an editorial role with a crime fiction imprint and say you like reading from that market, it’s probably not going to get you far as 200 other people may say the same thing. But if you’ve read books from one of their authors and therefore know how they fit into that larger market, or maybe even know an author who might fit into their imprint’s stable, that’s much more specific. Write about that. It’s bringing your knowledge of them, the wider market and where they stand within it to the fore – possibly in just two sentences. Efficiency!
As I said, I do hate trotting out clichés such as ‘just keep trying’, ‘don’t give up’ and ‘you’ll eventually find something’ because I never want to give false hope. It isn’t that I don’t believe such lines, it’s just I can never know the true circumstances of those I speak to about these things. Saying that, I also truly believe everyone can bring something unique to the industry and that makes them good enough. If you believe in your ability and that you have something unique to give, someone will see it. What it takes is finding out how to express that uniqueness in the right way to blow the minds of those reading your application to offer you an interview. And personally, I think adapting what you say is important to achieving that.
Adaptation is vital. Find your unique selling points for the role you’re applying for and adapt your covering letter around them. You all have your own USPs, so find out what they are and tell the world about them in your application.
So good luck with the job search,