What do interns actually do?
Maintain databases, I guess. Read submissions and write assessments. Attend meetings, write minutes. Proofread. Tweet. Serve wine at book launches. ‘Admin’. Check things, research things. Take stuff to the post office. Photocopy. Look busy. Have bright ideas. Do what people generally do in offices, which are strange places. Make tea.
I assume that if you’re aiming to get a job in publishing, applying for an internship is now the conventional first step. And often, now, the second and the third step too, because the waiting to be in the right place at the right time – when an actual job vacancy occurs – can be long. (Take a book with you.)
A lot of internships are unpaid – which means, obviously, that they’re an option only for people who can afford not to be paid, and which doesn’t do much to change the traditional profile of people-who-work-in-publishing. A few publishers do pay: Verso, for example, pays the London Living Wage, currently £9.15 per hour. Should the ones who don’t pay be named and shamed? Should authors refuse to place their books with them, and readers stop buying the books they publish, until they do pay? I think yes.
Unpaid labour has become normalised. Internships at the big publishers are over-subscribed, and the application process is as competitive and bureaucratic as it is for any actual job. This situation – hey, we can get people to do stuff without paying them! – has come about partly because of the de-unionisation of publishing. In most jobs I had in publishing from the late 1970s, the companies recognised the right of their staff to be members of a union, usually the Book Branch of the NUJ, and the annual pay review and many other things were negotiated, not imposed. The current website of the NUJ Book Branch is bleak; the last item on its ‘news’ page is dated 2009.
I get emails every week from people who want to intern (or that thing called ‘work experience’). Many are seriously well qualified – they know the publishing scene (some have already interned for other publishers), they speak two or three languages, they have read widely, they do other things too and they do them well (photography, music, film, graphic design). They want to engage. They are completely sincere and they are completely competent.
I’m hamstrung on this. I generally write replies along the lines of thank you, really, but no space, no money, and anyway I’m useless at delegating. Which is all true but is not a sufficient response to the genuine desire of many to be of help, in any way.
I don’t actually need anyone to attend meetings, make tea, take stuff to the post office. I do need help, everyone needs help. I need – with 40+ plus books in print and it’s still just me at a desk in the living room – less an intern than a deus ex machina: someone who sees both what’s being done and how it could be done better, or more efficiently, or differently at least, and runs with that, for the London Living Wage.