Monday, 5 October 2015

On interns in publishing

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.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Charles

I never thought that I'd see social mobility seriously decline in my lifetime but it definitely has. Even budding pop stars are now coming mainly from public schools.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Tom said...

What a fascinating post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Charles. I've done a few publishing internships myself (including one at Profile Books, who also pay their interns the London Living Wage) and I'm always curious to learn what employers/potential employers of interns think about the arrangement.

I recently temped at a publishing company in the middle of moving their offices. The new intern policy hadn't been established, so there wasn't anyone available to type up manuscripts or work their way through contact databases on request. I heard someone bemoan the extra work they had to do as a result two times a day, at least.

With respect to your answer to the (presumably never asked?) question, 'what do you *really* want?', may I ask what sort of advice or help you imagine the person person whose portrait you paint in the last paragraph might give you?

Cécile Menon said...

On reflection: although gone are the days when interns made tea (presumably?), do interns working in large indie or corporate publishers really get to be put in charge of so valuable, highly-sought after responsibilities such as copy-editing, proofreading, writing up copy for funding applications, back cover blurbs, press releases and so on? I hope they don't. Also, I am yet to meet a young person (under 30 years of age) who, even after a few internships, doesn't still have a lot to learn. Talented and smart as they may be. Perhaps in being admirative of how smart the wannabe interns are, you tend to forget how much you yourself have learnt over the years?

charles said...

I think they do do those things (the blurbs, the copy-writing, etc). Overseen, supervised, but yes. Otherwise why are they there: just to sit on a chair and watch? And make tea (I think they still do that too.) I'm not sure that age in itself is a virtue, or even experience. I think some interns are smarter than those doing the paid jobs.

And here, by the way, from a Guardian blog piece of five years ago: 'There is an attitude within book publishing that, because so many people want to get into the industry, it is perfectly acceptable to take them on as unpaid interns and abuse their enthusiasm and commitment in any form. That it is fine to exploit all of those who want a job because that is the way it is.'

Cécile Menon said...

Well that's great, then, that they do do these good things, as long as they're supervised. There are a lot of other things (apart from making tea) to do in a publishing business, outside editorial stuff and accounts. Smart isn't everything by the way: there's attitude, personality, reliability, I think these aspects count just as much. I'm not employed by one of the big guys by the way, and I never was an intern. It's understood interns come from a certain background, and that's not necessarily a socio-economic one whether they've graduated from Oxford or Cambridge... No?