Pub Rants

When What We Are Looking For Is Not On A Resume

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STATUS: Calling it a day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HEARTBREAK WARFARE by John Mayer

This past week we hired a new assistant. I cannot tell you how excited Sara and I were for this person to start. At the very least, the last 2 months without an assistant aptly demonstrated how much we need one!

During the process, I was talking about it with a friend who is an HR manager. She was absolutely appalled to learn that we planned to interview about 14 candidates (from the over 50 applications we received). After all, we obviously must not have specified the job requirements accurately enough. In her mind, we should only be interviewing about 5 candidates total.

On one hand, she’s probably right. But on the other, the one main criterion we were looking for cannot really be specified on a resume. Lots of our candidates had terrific qualifications. What we were looking for, however, was a demonstrated passion for reading—and not just for one type or genre of fiction. That’s not really going to show up on a resume. It’s only going to be apparent when we ask one specific question.

In our interviews, that one question was this: Tell me about the last three novels you read. Why did you choose those books? Did you enjoy them? Why or why not?

For candidates interested in working at a literary agency, you’d assume this would be a slam dunk kind of question to answer. A “no brainer” if you will.

Surprisingly, a lot of candidates struggled to answer this question.

We were not expecting that. We, of course, had other questions about how detail-oriented was the candidate and how they handled processes etc. but it was really the above question that was the most important to us. So keep that in mind if you ever decide to pursue this type of job path.

Luckily, in the end, we had several terrific final candidates and it was rather sad that we only had the resources to hire one person.

33 Responses

  1. Mel Odom said:

    Sadly, there’s a frightening number of editors AND young writers that don’t read much, or don’t read beyond the scope of their interest these days.

  2. Shelley Watters said:

    That’s a great question for an interviewee for a literary agent’s assistant position!

    I would think that any person applying for a position at a literary agency would expect a question like that!

  3. Kristi said:

    Congrats on your new hire! When I worked in management, I considered the credentials of potential applicants but hired based on intangible feelings I got during the interviews. Although my job involved managing a unit of incarcerated adolescent girls, my best hire ever was a former bank teller — go figure!

  4. Sarah Allen said:

    Hmmm, very interesting and thought-provoking. Now I’m trying to answer that question 🙂 It’s a good thing to know and understand about yourself, because in order to write you have to read, and knowing yourself through your reading will help you know yourself through your writing. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    my creative writing blog)

  5. wondering04 said:

    I cannot imagine an agent who doesn’t read a variety of materials. I am not an agent, but am usually in the midst of at least three books simultaneously. Right now, mostly nonfiction, but other times I do read fiction.

    Kristin the reason I came over here was from your Nelson Literary Agency newsletter. I am so sorry for your loss, you are right, there is no time that is good. I am glad you got to spend time helping out, and I pray a peace that passes all understanding for you.

  6. veela-valoom said:

    It’s good that you saved that till the interview. If you would have done any kind of “include this with your resume” people would have thought about it and said the books to make them look good. I know what the past 3 books I read were but also realize they exist in 2 genres and wouldn’t get me a job like that.

    Just for fun
    1. The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin
    2. Paper Towns by John Green
    3. An Acceptable Time by Madeline L’Engle

    Yep YA & fantasy. I’m trying to branch out some unsuccessfully at the moment.

  7. Samantha said:

    What a coincidence! I finally work up the courage to ask you about internships and here you are talking about hiring an assistant. (In retrospect, the two may not at all be related.)

    Anyway, my question: Is it possible to intern at a literary agency without actually being at the location?

    I had found one small publishing press that considered remote interns. But, I would love to apply for an internship at a literary agency because that’s where I want to work at after college.

    I’ve been searching through sites (like, and I’ve seen some great places I can apply for. However, as much as I’d love to get the hands-on feel and immerse myself in the literary world, I may not be able to re-locate for an internship due to personal reasons.

    But, to prepare myself for all options, I just wanted to know about the possibility and practicality of telecommuting to an internship for a literary agency.



  8. John M. Baron said:

    Ahhh… the good ol’ HR mindset: a resume is the complete and sufficient truth. Bosh.

    Congratulations to you and Sara as well as to your new assistant.

  9. Lehcarjt said:

    Ha! After reading this post I asked myself about the last three books I’ve read. I think it would have been a VERY long interview if I’d been your interviewee. ~Grin.

    (I’m happily employed in a far away state and not trying to ‘put myself out there’ by saying this.)

    Glad you found someone though. I look forward to hearing all about them.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Great post. Because when you are a reader by nature you are sort of appalled when you find out other writers aren’t. In my opinion you can’t be one without the other.

    Any time I get a request for a full or get a chance to go to a writer’s conference or something “fun” in the business, I get a slew of accquaintences who “decide” that they’re going to write a novel, too, when they get the “time” (like a few spare hours is all it takes). They have notepads filled with titles and ideas they want to explore. But when I ask them what book they’re reading now or what the last book they read was, they can’t answer.

    To write you have to read, why should it be any different to work in publishing?

  11. Anonymous said:

    That’s an interesting question. The thing is, I think a lot of go through phases. I’ll read nothing but MG novels for a couple months, and then read adult novels for a couple months, and then maybe non-fiction for awhile. Currently, I’m in a YA phase. So, asking what the last three books I read wouldn’t give someone an idea of the overall breadth of my reading. Anyway, it is an interesting question, and to answer it, the last three books I read:

    Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli
    Don’t Judge a Girl by her Cover, by Ally Carter
    13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.

  12. Mike Delosreyes said:

    I like to think I read more than the average person, but if you were to ask me the last three novels I read, without hesitation I could name 2 and then I’d struggle with the 3rd. I could easily drop a short story, but that seems like a lazy answer; I can say I’ve been reading particular chapters from various textbooks. I could name the books I’ve started but stopped in the past couple of weeks, but when somebody asks me what books I’ve “read”, for me this implies “finished reading.”

    Good lord I still can’t name you the 3rd nove…Blindsight! I reread Blindsight, by Peter Watts. Blindsight, that’s it.

    whew. Man, it’s really hot in here.

  13. GK said:

    When I saw the job advert for an internship at the agency I now work at, one of the things they asked to be included in the cover letter was a list of the last 10 books the applicant had read. And thank god/goddess/nuggan for that. While a fairly normal person in real life, in interviews I become this bundle of nerves and I shut up like a clam. Going into this interview, though, I automatically had a way to talk about that I loved to talk about what I most love to talk about: books. After I was hired, I was told they ask for the list basically so they could make sure they didn’t interview anyone who hadn’t read a book that had been published in the last 10 years. But the list helped in other ways; a number of the books were ones the agents read or were reading, and one was one of the agency’s authors (I’d loved his work for years and still fangirl over the fact that I work at the agency which represents him). For me, I think, the list made all the difference between getting the internship and not. This was completely fantastic for me, and since the agency went on to hire me as an assistant, I don’t think it was a bad choice for them either.

    So essentially, yay that you asked that question and put such import behind it! None of the other many (many) publishing jobs I’d interviewed for asked that question, and I can’t fathom why. It seems key, to me.

    On another note, I can’t thank you enough for all your blogging about the business of agenting. I can’t tell you the number of times my boss has brought up an aspect of the job that should be utterly new and perplexing to me, but which I was totally familiar with thanks to you, Kristin. You certainly do a great service to writers, but you also help those of us who want to follow your lead. It’s just one of the many ways your great kindness is such an inspiration.

  14. Anita said:

    I have the opposite problem of some of your interviewees…I cannot stop talking about the books I’ve read!

  15. Jeff Baird said:

    I agree with your effort to interview personally more people. I have been hiring and firing for 20 years and there is NOTHING like a face to face. Some people actually just look at the resume and simply decide if they like the look. After all–if the resume isn’t flowery enough–how good could that person be? In my opnion the face to face gets you a lot more information to make the best long term decision which I think is a match!!!! Congrads on the effort to really check them out!

  16. Anonymous said:

    Agree with Mike. I’d struggle to answer this question even though I can name the last two; they were the two volumes of Edward Rutherfurd’s Dublin Saga.

    I thought they read like a rough draft.

    The third– oh darn. The third… at this point you’d see me struggling, even though I read widely and constantly. Oh, it was one of Joan Aiken’s Jane Austen novels. Can’t remember the title, but it had the same problem: poor editing.

    Not a very impressive answer from a person who reads at least 150 books a year, eh? I think you must’ve hired someone who is a way faster thinker than average.

  17. kellion said:

    I’m with the HR professional. In publishing, you’re used to weeding through hundreds and thousands of proposals to get to one new client, so your perspective is skewed.

    For job interviews, this wide net isn’t necessary. It’s a waste of your time, and the time of the people you’ve interviewed, who many have used up good will and time off at their current employer, or racked up needless costs for child care. I say needless because the process could have been narrowed down to five candidates with a phone interview.

  18. Sue said:

    Last three books I’ve read and why I should be ashamed:

    1. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer (yes I am a sheep, drawn in by popular culture! Baaa!)
    2. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie (formulaic moustache twirling does it for me I guess.)
    3. Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay (part of the Giller Prize Project- reason I grabbed it, but has tons of merit with or without any prize).

  19. karen wester newton said:

    When my son was a baby, I went looking for a home day care provider with him still in his baby carrier. References, experience, whatever aside, I never ever considered hiring anyone who did not ask to hold him.

  20. Anonymous said:

    I suspect a few of those people who couldn’t answer your “last three novels read” question were probably suffering from brain freeze.

    Brought back memories of my own job search years ago when I was looking for a copywriter position. I still remember drawing a blank when the creative director asked, “What recent ad campaigns do you like and why?” Believe me, after that botched interview, I had a ready answer for the next person who asked that question.

  21. Buffra said:

    Made me want to think about it….

    I’ve read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, When You Reach Me (YA — forget the author!), and The Comeback Kiss by Lani Diane Rich.

    I’ve also got a stack of “in progress” books by the bed that includes The Forgotten Garden, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, and The Turn of the Screw.

    That doesn’t count nonfiction, as you specified novels.

    I read a lot.

  22. Eridani said:

    @kellion – For a job with no subjectivity, I think that’s a true statement. If you’re doing assembly-line work or something that requires a set of strict procedural stuff, that’s fine. The resume tells the story.

    For a job like an assistant of any kind, a resume means almost nothing. It’s a guideline at best. I think the most important thing in an assistant is that you click with the boss. Are you on the same page? Do you have similar tastes? Can you anticipate your boss’s likes and dislikes enough to know whether something is worth sending on – and enough to take care of the little stuff so she never has to see it? Those are things you will never learn from a resume.

    @Sue – Hold your head up high! I, too, read the Twilight series but mostly because I needed to see what all the fuss was about. (Confession: I still have no idea what the fuss was about…)

  23. Sue said:

    I’ve asked the same question when interviewing English teachers. It shocked me how many had no answer.

    Last three: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Push by Sapphire, and To Dance with the Devil by Lorraine Heath.

  24. Allison Williams said:

    There’s also a difference between hiring an early-career position (like assistant or intern) and hiring a mid-career or established pro. I’m about to interview 16 interns for 2 positions. I already know which ones I’m most likely to hire – but I’m doing in-persons with the ones in town and phoners with the out-of-states. Why “waste” their time? Because learning to interview well is part of their learning and growing experience. And I’m always open to a surprise, too.

  25. Kimberly Kincaid said:

    When I was fresh out of college (more years ago than I’d like to admit), I interviewed for a job completely unrelated to the writing and publishing industry. The interviewer asked me what the last book I read was, and whether or not I liked it. I was stunned (and thrilled).

    When he asked me if I had any questions for him, I asked him what the last book *he* had read was and whether or not he liked it. Totally unrelated to the position, as it was, but it was really fun to turn the tables.

    I didn’t end up working there (it was a mutual no-fit), but that always stuck with me.

    And I’m swooning over the John Mayer song a little bit. That’s my favorite from that album!

  26. Jimmy Ng said:

    I totally agree with you about the resume not revealing everything. I’ve conducted a lot of interviews. The first thing I feel is if I connect with this person before saying a word.

    Because it sounds like you really connected with your new hire. And that person’s ability to answer your questions must have been the cherry on top.

    So I can understand why you would have so many candidates. Not so different from having to go through so many queries.

    Awesome stuff.


  27. Kilian said:

    @eridani – read Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic Monthly Dec 2008 issue called What Girls Want. It is a thorough analysis of exactly why these books appeal to adolescent girls. Why they appeal to adult women is still a mystery. When Smart Bitches, Trashy Books ran a contest to rename Twilight, the winner was something along the lines of The 95-year-old Vampire Stalker and HIs Teenage Virgin Doormat Lab Partner.

    Here’s a link to the Atlantic article:

    or go here:

  28. Laura said:

    Can’t say I’m surprised that a passion for reading didn’t come across in all the application. I meet people all the time who want to be writers who don’t read. I think Hollywood (or sheer fantasy–which is the same thing) gets people to envision a lifestyle of expense-account lunches and weekends in the Hamptons when they say they want a career in publishing, rather than a lifestyle of, oh, reading or writing books.

  29. Anonymous said:

    I’d probably have struggled with this question, haha. I am definitely a huge reader, but my reading habits tend to be very chaotic. I can be reading anywhere up to twenty books at a time. This is how a typical reading session might go: I’ll read a chapter of one book, and then I’ll read a paragraph of a second book, and then I’ll read a few pages of a third book, and then… you get the idea. If someone were to ask me what the last three books [that I read] were, I’d be stymied – which books to mention?