where did I go wrong in this interviewing process?

A reader writes:

I credit your advice on resumes for helping me get a recent interview with a company for my dream job: a small publisher (~12 employees), in a city I want to live in, as an assistant editor (I am trying to get into publishing,) working on book topics I am interested in.

I had the interview last Thursday, and it seemed to go well. I spent about an hour each with the CEO/publisher and his senior editor talking about the position, my interest in it, larger questions about publishing, etc. After a few minutes of initial nervousness, I felt things went great and left feeling buoyant and looking forward to the next two things they wanted me to do: write a acquisitions topic proposal and take an editing skills test. I thanked them that night via email and everyone seemed happy.

Well, the next day over email, when I was discussing the topic proposal (it was made clear that I should feel free to consult them, as part of the exercise was seeing what it would be like to work with me), the CEO rearranged things; instead of doing the editing skills test on Monday, they wanted to see the topic proposal first. Well, one of the things I had been clear about during the interview was that I had no experience and little interest in acquisitions, but since everyone was expected to contribute there (because it’s a small shop) I was willing to step up and work at it. So I was a little worried about this new plan, but went ahead and spent the weekend researching and writing up a brief topic proposal, about a page and a quarter. I sent it in Sunday night and then waited.

Monday, and Tuesday I heard nothing back. So after business hours Tuesday I sent a brief email saying I was nervous and asking for an update. About an hour later I received a reply that they “didn’t feel they had a good fit.” I thanked him for getting back to me, and asked for any feedback. I have not received any.

I am wondering how I could have handled things differently. I knew that whatever topic proposal I came up with would be weak; I have no experience doing acquisitions work, and I am trying to move into publishing after only graduating in 2010. (I have had two different jobs in the meantime, which have given me reasonably applicable skills. Especially for assistantships.) Is there anything in this narrative that catches your eye? Do you think it’d be wise to more vigorously pursue feedback? Should I have tried to do the editing skills test first, and had the test I’d be weaker at come second?

I think you’re looking for things to read into in all of this, but what’s most likely is that they just didn’t think you were the right fit. It’s often no more complicated than that.

But no, you should not have tried to do the editing test first, when they specifically told you they wanted you to do the topic proposal first. And if the topic proposal was a deal-breaker for them, it was likely to be a deal-breaker even if they’d seen a flawless editing test first. (It’s also possible that they rearranged the order of the tests specifically because the topic proposal was what they had the most doubts about, and they figured they might as well have you do that first and save everyone time if that showed it wasn’t the right fit.)

I also think you shouldn’t be crushed that the topic proposal might be what took you out of the running, because you yourself say that you “have no experience and little interest in” acquisitions, and that you told them that in the interview. It’s a small shop where they expect everyone to play a role in that, so it’s not terribly surprising that having no interest or experience in it could end up being a deal-breaker — it’s likely that they figured they’d see how that lack of interest/experience played out on a simulated work assignment, and ultimately decided that, indeed, that just wasn’t the right profile for them. Which means that it’s not the right fit for you either, because you don’t want to end up a job that you struggle to do well in or to stay engaged with.

One more thing: While I doubt this was a deciding factor on its own, I wouldn’t have sent that email on Tuesday saying that you were nervous and asking for an update. First, pushing for an update only two days after sending in your exercise is a little too much — most employers are busy and have lots of things going on other than hiring, and this is especially true in publishing, where people tend to be really overworked; two days is just too soon. And second, saying that you’re nervous in an email like that comes across … well, not especially professionally. It’s not that employers expect you to be some sort of superhuman with no nerves, but mentioning it your email comes across a little like asking for hand-holding, or asking them to modify their time table to accommodate your nerves, and most busy employers aren’t enthused about signing up for that.

In any case:  Don’t continue to ask for feedback — you asked once, they declined to respond, and that’s the end of that. You can’t force feedback; it’s optional for an employer. At this point, I’d just move on. Not every job will be the right fit, and that’s okay.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. ChristineH*

    it’s likely that they figured they’d see how that lack of interest/experience played out on a simulated work assignment,

    What might be a rationale for doing that? To me, it just seems like a waste of time to give a simulated work assignment if the applicant clearly says he/she is not interested in that particular aspect of a job? (I’m probably missing something obvious, so apologies in advance)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, he said he was “willing to step up and work at it,” so they might have figured that they’d give him a chance to show what he’d do with it, despite it not being an interest.

    2. fposte*

      And even if the applicant wasn’t interested in that area, the employer might still have been. Maybe somebody else in the running was able to take on some acquisitions work and they liked the OP enough to want to see if he could at least be competitive in that area.

  2. portraitofarobyn*

    I used to work in editorial for one of the big publishing houses and acquiring manuscripts was a major part of the job duties for all editors there. I can’t imagine a publishing company (big or small) hiring an editor who says they have no interest in acquisitions — this is how all publishing companies make their money! Maybe a copyediting position would be a better fit.

    1. fposte*

      And on general principle, with a small organization I think it’s unwise to state your lack of interest in any key area of what the process entails.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed. I mean, it’s good to be honest if you want to make sure you end up in a job that’s the right fit for you (per this recent post: https://www.askamanager.org/2013/01/how-honest-and-open-should-you-be-in-interviews.html), but as a recent grad, you probably really just want/need a job and aren’t in a position to be super picky yet, so generally stating disinterest in any key area is going to be a bad idea, in that it’s likely to get you eliminated.

        1. Good_Intentions*


          I must respectfully disagree with your comment.

          Young job seekers who may be desperate for a paid position should continue to a realistic evaluation of their skills, interest and ability/desire to learn aspects of a job. Being in dire need of a paying position and being willing to take anything remotely in one’s respective field rarely ends well. Many people haphazardly quit said ill-fitting positions or end up feeling forever trapped and resentful of colleagues and supervisors. The resentment and frustration can compound other issues of dissatisfaction and lead people to see themselves as lacking in mobility away from the tedious and uninteresting position they have accepted.

          Although the OP made some minor mistakes in terms of directness and follow-up with the small publishing company, s/he ultimately dodged the proverbial bullet by not earning or accepting the offer for a position that clearly put a high emphasis on tasks that the applicant “has no experience and little experience” in performing.

          OP, please consider this a time-consuming lesson learned but representing your interests to prospective employers and working at keeping your nerves in check, or at least avoid the awkwardness of confessing nervousness to your interviewers. You are young, ambitious and facing an intense uphill battle against a tight economy and many qualified candidates, but I feel confident that if you keep reading and applying Alison’s advice that you’ll soon secure a position that’s a great fit for your skills and interests.

          At least this is one regular reader’s opinion on this given situation. Please feel free to feel differently.

          1. fposte*

            I’m basically addressing the fact that the OP seems unaware of the impact of his statement and the fact that he wants to know what went wrong. It’s fine to acknowledge limited *experience* in an area, but if you say you don’t have much interest in a key thing that we do, even if it’s not the main part of the job you’re applying for, it’s going to hurt your candidacy. It’s an especially unfortunate thing to say when you’re a recent grad getting a toehold in a field and should want to learn about as many aspects of it as possible.

            I don’t know what the OP said exactly–maybe it wasn’t as clear in the interview as he made it sound in his query, and I think ultimately you’re right that this was a poor fit. But “I’m really not interested in that aspect of the work” isn’t something to drop in an interview without understanding the implications of what you’re saying, and I don’t think the OP did.

          2. Rana*

            It seems to me, that if one is wary of choosing a job that’s a poor fit for one’s interests and experience, the time to be selective is before one applies, not during the final stage of the interview. The interview is where you figure out if this particular position and workplace is for you, not whether you want to do that kind of work in the first place.

            Back to the OP – I think this should be viewed as a useful exercise in refining what it is that the OP wants to do. It seems the choice is either to suck it up and become good at acquisitions as well as their other skills, or to pursue different positions in which acquisitions is clearly not one of the job duties.

            1. Lindsay*

              It may not have been clear in the job posting that acquisitions work was expected, or that it was a large part of the position. In that case, I could see deciding after the interview that it wasn’t a fit and that being perfectly fine.

              (Though it seems from other posts in this thread that acquisitions work is a large part of the duties of most editors. In that case your advice does apply.)

              Either way, I can’t understand being told that acquisitions is part of the job (a large enough part that a test on it is part of the interview process), stating that that is not an area you are enthusiastic about, and then being upset or confused about not getting the job.

    2. B*

      This exactly! Having worked in publishing you must be able to acquire as an editor. It is pretty much the fundamental base of the job. Without acquisitions there is nothing to edit which means there is no book which means no money or publishing house.

      As suggested take a look at copy editing positions because it does not sound like editing is for you.

  3. The IT Manager*

    I had no experience and little interest in acquisitions, but since everyone was expected to contribute there (because it’s a small shop) I was willing to step up and work at it.

    LW, I think you need readjust your expectations and realize that this wasn’t your dream job because it sounds like a significant part of the job was in an area you had little interest in. That may help take some of the sting out of it too.

  4. PEBCAK*

    I just want to add that publishing, AFAIK, is an EXTREMELY competitive industry. It’s not at all easy to get jobs in that area right now, at all, so they probably had other candidates that do have this experience. Plus, it sounds like the OP is out of town, which can be another strike against him, even if it’s out of his control.

    1. LMW*

      Seriously! After 5 years with acquisitions experience and a great track record, I still found it almost impossible to get a publishing job with another company. It’s insanely competitive (a big part of the reason the pay is so low), and even back in 2002/2003, when I was applying for jobs outside my city, when I did get a phone interview (which I only managed through networking), they told me they had 200 qualified applicants there and couldn’t take a risk on me.
      So please don’t look at it as what you did wrong. You’ll probably face a lot of rejection while pursuing this career path. You may also want to start with editorial assistant/editorial associate roles, since that might give you more exposure to all areas of the field.

      1. Michael*

        Hey, I’m the OP/LW.

        Your comment made me go back and double check, I wrote “assistant editor” in my email to Alison, but it was an “editorial assistant” position. Totally overlooked that, and I think it explains a bit of the confusion. I wasn’t looking to skip over years of introductory experience, just the opposite!

        1. KarenT*

          Check out editorial assistant positions at larger companies. You’ll only be marginally involved in acquisitions (I realize the titles are almost the same but editorial assistant is much more junior than assistant editor). Editorial assistant is an amazing learning opportunity. It sounds like you’ve hit sons friends in publishing so work that network :)

          1. KarenT*

            Uh, that was supposed to say you’ve got some friends, not you’ve hit sons friends. Weirdest auto correct ever!

  5. Anonymous*

    I’m pretty cerain it was his stated and ustated lack of confidence that torpedoed his chances. he mentioned he was ‘nervous’ in his email No one wants to hire someone who is ‘nervous’. Did you also state in the written submission that you were unsure about acquisitions and your prposal or did you just submit it confidently without a preface and commentary? Fake it till you make it is moral here, or so it appears to me. I would never tell a prospective employer that I was nervous or unsure. It’s just too competitive ou there.

  6. KarenT*

    Publishing can be a very hard industry to beak into, especially right now. I can promise you the competition for any editing job is extremely fierce.

    If you work in trade publishing, you will have to play a role in acquisitions. Even if you are not signing your own projects, you will be heavily involved in market research and assessing manuscript and book proposals. If you are not interested/experienced in this area, you probably would be unhappy at a publisher that small. A bigger publishing house might be a better fit for you. You would still participate in acquisitions but the larger houses sr much more hierarchical.

    Also, I don’t know what the parameters were for your assignment but one and a quarter page is very short for an acquisitions topicproposal. As long as this isn’t contrary to the instructions you are given, a proposal should cover your topic, why there is a market for that topic, who your market is, list any competition in that market (other successful titles), how you would position in that market (differentiate from competition), how big the market is, plus authoring ideas and timelines. Of course I haven’t read your assignment, but often where publishing applicants go wrong is in explaining why a manuscript or book idea is great (i.e., chocolate teapots are fascinating and interesting) but the CEO wants to know your business plan (i.e., chocolate teapots area growing trend. 12 million Americans make chocolate teapots every year. X company has a manual, but it lacks step-by-step instructions. Our reasearch shows there is a huge market demand for a complete teapot manual…)

    Keep in mind, also, that your proposal may have been fine and someone else’s blew them away. And as Alison said, doing your editing test first wouldn’t change that. A good editing score would not have impressed the– it would be a minimum requirement for a job as an assistant editor.

    1. Jen in RO*

      Great insight! I worked as a copy editor in small publishing houses (not in the US), so it’s pretty fascinating to see what goes on in “the real world”. I think that, where I worked, the acquisitions mainly consisted of the collection coordinator saying “I think this author/book will sell, let’s try to get it”.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit*

      Given this comment, I’m curious what Alison thinks of this as an interview assignment. This sounds like a 15-hour project, not a 2-hour project.

      1. Jamie*

        I agree – if Karen is correct in that this is what they are looking for that is a LOT of time spent on research.

        Although, I know nothing about this field so maybe this is typical?

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Eh, having had to write something just like this for my own book, I’d think a few hours. And not unreasonable for a very competitive industry, where the OP doesn’t have much experience.

      3. KarenT*

        I’m not sure about fair, but it would very, very common. Most editing jobs will have you do either what I’ve described above as the OP experienced or they will give you some manuscript and ask you to assess it.

  7. Nyxalinth*

    Just out of curiosity, was acquisitions listed as a requirement for the job, ie “We require this for the job” in the listing? If not, this is pretty annoying, and it could have saved the OP and them some time to have it stated. then again, I realize sometimes no one knows what all they really want until it comes up later on.

  8. Michael*

    Hey everyone, I’m the OP in this post.

    There are quite a few points made here, but I’ll try to answer/address what I can.

    @Alison: Thanks for the reply. It’s just very troubling to be left hanging at a point like that. I didn’t get any sort of email letting me know it was received, there was just… silence. Though I didn’t mention this in my email to you, in the original timeline we had on Thursday I was supposed to take the editing skills test on Monday, so I was sort of expecting to hear *something* even though things were changed up.

    @portraitofarobyn: I was under the impression that there was a distinct divide between acquisitions editors and other editors, especially at the large houses. Every source of info I have reinforces this; salary agregators list it separately; industry publications talk about acquisitions as a specialized editorial endeavor; and friends of mine already in editorial positions confirm this general divide. Am I very wrong? It seems that an editor who was not already familiar with developing manuscripts would be very poor at acquisitions.

    As a clarification, when I was talking to them about it I did not come to it with a blasé attitude. I realize my email made this unclear (but it was already so long!) I understand the importance of acquisitions work. I am interested in learning it. I am not interested in doing it right now because I am quite certain I would be very bad at it! I did not take the path my friends who are in publishing took because I only recently concluded it was something I wanted to do. One of the reasons I want to be at a small house is because, by necessity, I will be exposed to every aspect. I have a lot of learning/catching up to do relative to my peers (I’m 25 this month. Whee.)

    I was clear about the fact that I had no experience and wanted to learn. To answer Nyxalinth’s question, no the job description did not explicitly state that acquisitions would be necessary. What it did say was, and I’m paraphrasing slightly: “you will assess manuscripts after your skills develop.” (Which isn’t quite a ringer for acquisitions, more like slush pile filtering.) The entire post placed a lot of emphasis on the assistant, and entry-level nature of the position.

    @Karen: Indeed, those are the things I touched upon. In fact the shortest part of my summary was on the topic itself. Most of it was on the market, the competition, the risks, and potential authors. I hardly have access to any inside research as an applicant; what more can I do beyond mine the Internet and people I know for such an assignment? One thing that frustrates me about this is that I feel stuck; I don’t have experience as a book editor, but there’s no viable path for me to get that experience. Internships, by and large, demand that I currently be a student.

    I almost feel like I’m stuck continuing to do secretarial work for the rest of my life, because that was the first steady job I managed to get after graduating. I’m cursed for having a change in interests 30 months out of school.

    I think the two biggest places I went wrong on this were not checking my nerves, as Alison said, and not asking enough questions when I was working on it over the weekend. A large point of the exercise was to see what it would be like to work with me (their words.)

    Thanks for the comments and advice, everyone. This blog is really a helpful place for me.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      Hey OP, you keep thinking that you did something wrong. But in today’s job market there is a very high possibility that others had experience where you didn’t.
      This isn’t a position where some small part is a stretch assignment. By your own admission, there is a major part of the job that you didn’t know how to perform. And it looks like the employer wasn’t willing to train you. In short, you really weren’t qualified for the position, and nothing you could have done during the interview would have helped you get an offer. It is a painfully harsh realization, but better to never get the job than be fired from it a month or two later, with a bad reputation.

      For the future you may want to get some informational interviews to see what the job really entails. This will give a better perspective on what skills are and are not part of the job. Then you can tweak training and job assignments to go in that direction.

      Dream jobs sometimes take a long time coming. You have to build up the appropriate skill sets for them so you are ready for them when they do show up.

      1. EngineerGirl*

        Also, a comment on targeting smaller firms. You say you chose a smaller house so you could be exposed to all parts of the publishing. But look at it from the employers side – because they are a small house they need someone that can perform many tasks well. It would become trial by fire for a very inexperienced employee.
        It may be better to get into a larger publisher with some sort of rotation program where new hires work in different departments every 6 months, allowing them to see many aspects of the job. In fact, you can do this yourself – just work with your employer and see if you can “help out” other groups to learn what they do (while doing your own job, of course).
        25 is still young. I’m not sure why the intense need to catch up.

    2. Lore*

      Having worked at two large publishers and an academic one, I will say that although there is a divide between acquisitions editors and production editors, everywhere I’ve worked, the assistant/development/review function fell squarely into the acquisitions side. Assistants don’t start acquiring right away of course, but one of the main components of one’s time as an assistant is developing relationships with agents and authors so you can ultimately start acquiring. My guess is that expressing what may have come across as lack of interest in or anxiety about working in acquisitions was more of an obstacle than lack of experience. However, if you’re genuinely not interested then looking into positions that are more geared toward copy editing, production editing, or managing editorial might be a better fit. And if you’re interested ultimately in working with authors and not acquiring, definitely look on the agent side, where a lot of development work is done these days (and where starting as an assistant and working your way up is very common).

      1. portraitofarobyn*

        I agree with all this! There are other publishing tracks like copyeditor or managing editor, but the track that involves working directly with authors and manuscript content starts at editorial assistant and works up to an editor position that involves a lot of acquisitions. I think it’s totally fine to not go into an editorial assistant position with experience already in acquisitions, but if it’s not something that sounds interesting to you or that you think you’d be good at after some training, then this might not be the right career path for you.

        Any way, don’t get too discouraged! This is a really competitive field and it will probably take a lot of persistence to get your foot in the door (it did for me!), but you won’t be stuck in the same admin job forever.

  9. AG*

    As a job seeker, I empathize that time seems to move *extremely* slowly when you are applying and interviewing!

  10. Nyxalinth*

    To answer Nyxalinth’s question, no the job description did not explicitly state that acquisitions would be necessary. What it did say was, and I’m paraphrasing slightly: “you will assess manuscripts after your skills develop.” (Which isn’t quite a ringer for acquisitions, more like slush pile filtering.) The entire post placed a lot of emphasis on the assistant, and entry-level nature of the position.

    Thanks for answering, OP! Based on this, I would have assumed the same as you did. Sounds to me like either the acquisitions thing was either a last minute addition, or they didn’t have a clear picture in mind of how to express what they wanted. Either way, not your fault.

  11. moss*

    First, editing: I have a friend who started as a contract editor for a big pharma company. She had to take an extremely complicated editing test and did well and worked for them for a year. She used that job to leverage over into a smaller publisher in the pharmaceutical industry and is very successful. So possibly that may be a route for you to try.

    Secondly, I avoid (and I am ready for the pile on that is sure to follow this) small companies. Small companies often rely on “charisma” and “leadership” instead of policies and procedures. They are often managed ineptly and have a huge sink-or-swim attitude. A big company will have a more established training process and be able to absorb your lack of experience better.

    I know it hurts not getting a job you thought you had a shot at but you may have dodged a bullet here. Chin up, and carry on.

    1. Jamie*

      I don’t know if you were referring to small companies in general or in publishing – because I know nothing about publishing so if it was specific to that please disregard.

      There is absolutely a difference between small and large companies when it comes to culture. And there are pros and cons to each.

      Yes, a badly run small company (and by small I’m talking SMB between 50-200 employees) will affect every employee because there are fewer layers between entry level and upper management. And stuff is more personal and politics can be hard to navigate especially in a family business. Because there can be dynamics at play beyond your control.

      However, you often have more freedom to wear different hats and exposure to different parts of the business in a small company. You can learn so much about so many aspects of the business since there aren’t so many levels and things tend to be less compartmentalized.

      It depends on what you’re looking for. I like the variety of duties that come with working for an SMB. I think the scope of my career would have been narrower in a larger company as IT would have been kept in the IT box and not invited out for other career growing projects. That said – for people who prefer a more contained and less fluid job description this would be a nightmare.

      And I suspect the money is often better in a larger company although I’m not basing that on real research.

      This is just IME – but I am the ultimate policy and procedure wonk – I’ve written thousands of pages of procedures in my career and I believe they should be followed. Does it matter if you’re liked or have leadership qualities in an SMB? Yes – but I think that matters regardless of the size of the organization.

    2. LMW*

      I worked for a small publisher for 6 years and they were actually the opposite of what you’re describing. They had to have policies and procedures in place because they are a small business with low margins. If you wanted new pens you had to go through a procedure! That’s why they were surviving.

    3. K*

      I think small companies often do rely on personality and culture rather than bureaucracy. And I think this can be a great thing as well as a terrible one; it just depends on the company, its particular culture, and your preferences. (I think of it as like renting a room from an individual landlord instead of a huge apartment complex run by a management company – the set of things that can go wrong are larger, but on the other hand, if it works well, it can be a much better relationship than the management company apartment will ever be.)

    4. moss*

      I’ve had good and bad experiences at both. I’ve worked for a start-up and a dinosaur. I lasted much longer at the dinosaur. My current company has the … how to describe this… energeticness? of a private company but it has the accountability of a larger company. As opposed to the stick-in-the-mudness of a state institution and the petty politics of the charismatic-leader-startup.

      My field, just for reference, is mostly programming with a foray into systems administration.

  12. literateliz*

    OP, after reading your followup post I completely understand where you’re coming from on the acquisitions issue. I recently came from two internships at small publishers (where acquisitions was a mysterious process performed by one powerful person in the publishing house, and I didn’t see any of it going on because most daily activities for everyone else were about marketing/publicity), and had been telling everyone that I wasn’t interested in that part of the process because frankly, it was a bit scary to think of being solely responsible for the success or failure of a book like that! (I was okay saying this because I was looking for marketing and publicity jobs, although I eventually ended up in managing editorial.) Now I’m at a much larger publisher (~200 employees), and am seeing that acquisitions isn’t a mysterious sixth sense–the editors here send around links about trends in the topics we publish about, go on quarterly retreats to talk and brainstorm about those topics, give each other feedback on proposals at meetings, and generally give each other support, so you’re existing in an environment of knowledge about your chosen topic. Not to mention that most people get their foot in the door as an editorial assistant, so you’re attending these meetings and learning from what everyone else does for a good long while before you’re expected to do it yourself. It doesn’t sound like you were as naive as I was about the acquisitions process, but nevertheless, maybe a large publisher environment where you could work your way up like this would be a better one for you?

    And speaking of internships, I don’t know where you’re located, but where I am–in the San Francisco Bay Area–there are a LOT of publishing companies that take non-students as interns. And don’t get hung up on the age thing… I started my internships at 25, and I wasn’t even the oldest intern I knew!

    1. Michael*

      I liked your blog so I’m following you on Twitter now. I am in the Bay area, actually. I think the next publisher I’ve got my eye on is your employer!

      1. literateliz*

        Ooh, good luck! :) I followed you back, so feel free to get in touch if you ever want to chat about publishing! (Also, upon revisiting this, I am 99% sure I also applied for the job in question in this post, and now I’m sitting here completely freaked out by the small-world nature of publishing in SF. Haha.)

        1. Michael*

          I know at least two other qualified people (better qualified than I! Probably over-qualified, actually) who also applied for this job, and neither of them heard anything back.

          The galling thing is that it’s been open since mid-November, and I suspect it’s going to be open in mid-March. Just a hunch though. :/

  13. Elizabeth West*

    Not every job will be the right fit, and that’s okay.

    Yes, this is very important. Many times we forget this, because when we’re job hunting, we either need or want it to be, and rejections hurt. We take them personally when we really shouldn’t.

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