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Tips on applying for an editorial job at Usborne

An Usborne editor checking spreads on a graphic novel
An Usborne editor checking pages of a graphic novel

Managing Editor Mairi Mackinnon offers an inside view of Usborne’s recruitment process for new writers and editors, with some helpful tips for candidates.

Usborne is, famously, a company where people tend to stay. Average length of service is over nine years, and thirty or even forty years is not unknown. I’ve been with the company for over twenty years myself, but I spent a few years before that trying to find my career feet in English teaching, translating and tour management. I’ve experienced plenty of interviews as a candidate, ranging from the affable to the excruciating to the why-are-we-even-here? All of which makes me well aware of the responsibilities of interviewing new writers and editors myself, rather than being interviewed.

Now that I’m on the other side of the table, it’s wonderful that Usborne receives ever higher numbers of job applications – but pretty daunting, too. Recently we had over two hundred credible applications for just two potential editorial places at entry level. We’re bound to disappoint a huge number of people each time we advertise, and I have every sympathy for applicants who feel it’s easier to break into a Hatton Garden vault than a publishing career. 

Mairi Mackinnon
Mairi Mackinnon

We recognise the frustration of applicants who have to take time off existing jobs and travel to interview from a distance. We don’t ask you to do this lightly, but at the same time, our priority is to find the best possible person for the job, and we just can’t determine that from CVs, covering letters, writing samples or even video calls. Publishing depends so much on collaboration and on personal relationships – qualities that can best be judged in a face-to-face interview.

How do we narrow down an interview shortlist from such numbers? There’s no easy answer; if only there were. To dispel a few myths: we don’t only take on people with ‘connections’, or double-barrelled surnames, or Oxbridge degrees; in fact, we regularly reject Oxbridge candidates who list whole constellations of A levels and GCSEs but whose letters show no obvious interest in publishing and particularly children’s publishing. 

On the other hand, we have near-zero tolerance of mistakes in either covering letters or CVs. For what is essentially a creative job, that may sound soulless, but as children’s publishers we will be pilloried if readers find mistakes in our books. Can we really trust candidates who don’t take the trouble to check their CVs and read through their covering letters before sending?

Testing for an Usborne Origami book
An editor testing the models for an Usborne Origami book

After that, the process inevitably becomes more subjective. An Usborne writer-editor’s job is all about clear communication, so we’ll always be drawn to applicants who write good and straightforward letters, without rambling, excessive detail or unnecessary length: generally, one page will say all that you really need. There’s a temptation, especially for recent graduates without much experience, to talk up any and every holiday job. We can understand that, but three paragraphs on laminating and issuing ID cards is a little too much: better to leave the second page of the CV unfilled than over-padded. 

As for personal statements, we know that many careers departments encourage them, but they are full of pitfalls and it’s hard to strike the right balance between confidence and sincerity or cockiness and hype. Finally, we see plenty of applications that begin, “This would be the perfect job for me” – which is appealing when it comes from someone with a clear and genuine love of children’s publishing, but rather less so when it’s all about how we would be the ideal first step on the candidate’s glittering career path (implying that we’d be lucky to have them). Telling us what the job will do for you is a little self-regarding; we’d much rather hear what you can bring to the company. Relevant experience can be helpful, but it’s not as important as creative flair, initiative and enthusiasm.

As a quick summary:

  • Don’t assume publishing is closed and clubby, but
  • Do only apply if you genuinely want the job (if not, it will show).
  • Do include relevant experience on your CV and briefly explain its value, but
  • Don’t make too much of minor roles.
  • Do make your covering letter clear and focused and
  • Don’t sound as though you think you’re doing us a favour by applying.
  • Above all, do check your letter and CV very thoroughly for mistakes before sending. Spell-check alone is not enough.

If you’re interested in a job at Usborne, do keep an eye on the Current vacancies area of our website. We also advertise entry-level positions through the Society of Young Publishers. If you’d like to find out about work experience, especially if you come from a background that’s not widely represented in the publishing industry, you may be interested in the Usborne Academy scheme for summer 2019.

Lastly, whether you apply to Usborne or anywhere else –

Good luck!

Mairi Mackinnon, Usborne Managing Editor

Tags: inside usborne jobs


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