Are internships the way to get into publishing?

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Danuta Kean is deputy director of the Creative Enterprise Centre at Brunel University, where she teaches feature writing and publishing. She is also books editor at Mslexia. Follow her on Twitter at @Danoosha.

Publishing’s reliance on unpaid internships is bad for business, argues Danuta Kean.

Temps. Remember them? They used to be the people who came in to cover the donkey work jobs no one wanted or no one had time to do. They also used to be the route into publishing for the vast majority – especially women.

Not any more. Now budding publishers are expected to work free in long unpaid internships.

It is the norm across the media. It is also illegal and a practice that means the creative industries are sourcing new recruits from an increasingly small pool of talent, which is not just bad for interns, but dangerous for an industry desperate to appeal to the widest possible demographic.

It is why I spoke up against them on the How to Get into Publishing panel organised by the Society of Young Publishers at the London Book Fair last week. I felt depressed that other panelists took it as read that unpaid work experience is an acceptable method of recruiting new talent – and running a 21st century industry.

It is not.

On the subject of legality, under the UK’s National Minimum Wage Act 1998 unpaid internships are only acceptable if they are part of an accredited course organised through a university or college – such as the three week stints my students undertake at the end of the Creative Writing MA at Brunel University.

There are two other exceptions: voluntary work for a registered charity and shadowing. I know times are tough, but few publishers count as charities. And shadowing is just that: following someone and watching them do the work. As soon as you are told you have to be in by certain hours and undertake specific tasks you are deemed to have a contract. If you have that, you should, by law be paid. It is why employment websites will not advertise work experience.

This is an issue for employers to deal with, not internees. It is also an issue about which the SYP should speak out.

Employers should be concerned, because the government has promised a crack down on the practice – already the PR industry is reeling after a shocking exposé on the practice by Panorama.

The blind eye turned to unpaid internships exists in Westminster – it is now a standard route for entry into politics too. It reflects a system remarkably efficient at keeping youth unemployment – already shockingly high – down. If the government wants to crack down on unpaid internships it also needs to offer incentives to profit squeezed companies to pay ‘workies’.

The incentives should come in two forms: a reduction in red tape surrounding internships offered by educational institutions; and sharing the cost of longer internships in recognition of the fact that employers subsidise the state by keeping internees off benefits.

But the most important reason for challenging the practice of is its impact on the publishing gene pool. The people who can afford to work for months on end for free are those with parents who can afford to subsidise them. It automatically discriminates in favour of those from a professional middle class background – the majority of which are white. It is hardly reflective of the population as a whole.

Eight years ago I wrote a report for the Arts Council’s decibel project called In Full Colour. It was published by The Bookseller and very well received, despite shocking revelations about the appalling represention of black and minority ethnic people within the industry and the casual racism experienced by some BME people working in the industry. Unpaid internships were pinpointed as a chief barrier to entry for those outside the middle class loop.

At the time, it was widely recognised that publishing needed to recruit more widely not to please some kind of altruistic liberal ideology, but because publishing needs to grow the book market. That means recruiting people who understand unexploited markets from the inside, who recognise niches because they grew up aware of them.

If you don’t think that is a problem, I would point you to the many SYP members who contacted me after the seminar. Several said the reason they left the industry was that after two unpaid internships with no job at the end they could no longer afford stay in it. They had been snapped up elsewhere. That is not their loss. It is ours.

About Author

Danuta Kean is Books Editor of Mslexia and a respected publishing expert and journalist. Her work appears regularly in national newspapers, including the Financial Times and Independent on Sunday. She is a regular speaker at festivals, interviewing authors and revealing the inner workings of a trade that seems opaque to many writers. When not writing she is invariably found at the back of gigs in small venues or looking guilty as she walks past her gym. Follow her on Twitter at @Danoosha.

18 Comments

  1. When working at a literary agency a few years ago, we took on ‘work experience’ regularly, to help do all the filing, etc. no one else had time to do. When I tried to spend some time showing these poor mugs something more about the business, I was told, ‘They get it on their CV. That should be enough.’ I know everyone works long hours and money’s tight, but that’s no excuse for exploitation.

  2. I was paid in both internships at the same major publishing company and landed a solid full-time position two months after graduation. I even got freelance work in between the second internship and the full-time position.

  3. Your sub-head does the writer no justice in that it implies that internships are illegal, whereas the article makes it clear that most unpaid internships are illegal (with specific exceptions). My company has always offered internships, and always paid for them, even if at a basic level. And yes they do lead to jobs: In a company of 12 staff, I presently employ 4 people who started with us as interns. One is a full agent, 3 are assistants to agents. They all happened to be doing good work for us at a time when a vacancy came up. I would always employ a good intern over having to advertise, interview, and then trust to luck. Weeks or months of working with us is the best possible route to a full time job.

    • I undertook a month’s paid internship at my publishing house. 5 years later and I am now a commissioning editor. The internship was not about doing the monkey work – but rather a specific project on an area of the business that needed some love and attention. Several internships were offered at the same time (with different departments submitting projects). In my year, nearly all interns ended up with some form of further employment with the company. The internships were open to any ages. After the recession, the scheme was scrapped (in favour of unpaid work experience), but I think it was a really good way to get hands-on project experience at a publishing house.

  4. My first foray into the publishing world was a two week work experience stint back in October. Having been asked back for another week, and quite unaware that the practice was against work laws, I returned for another week at the beginning of November. What followed was months on end of painstaking CV rewrites and covering letter edits, tweaks on style and tone, not to mention hours of form-filling and job-trawling.

    Eventually, in February, I landed my first job as an Editorial Assistant with the company I was ‘exploited’ by. And, ironically enough, I have been asked to join a discussion with our HR department next month, on calling a referendum on our work experience/internship policy. My feeling is that although current systems (in their varying lengths and remuneration strategies) are legally deemed inappropriate, the majority of ‘intern-friendly’ schemes are not long enough to facilitate proper experience. Similarly, any scheme providing a long-term placement excludes participation from ‘lower class’ individuals, who may not have the financial circumstances to support such an undertaking.

  5. I think it should be noted how difficult it is to not only find a paid internship but to be able to land one, paid or unpaid. As a recent college graduate, I completed my last semester working for a publishing company while receiving college credit, so that marks me with too much “experience” for an internship, but not enough to land an entry level editorial job.
    I think what’s really discouraging is how unlikely it is to ever set foot in a publishing office no matter how qualified you might be. I don’t know exactly how it all works, but I find myself looking for other areas to use my English degree.

  6. Going off of what Carole said, I thought this article would be about how to get into the publishing industry. I’m a journalist and a Print & Convergent Journalism major with a Creative Writing minor, soon to graduate next year. This article, however, was about how internships are illegal. As someone who wants to get into the publishing industry someday, what can I do if internships are “illegal”?

  7. As a current, financially struggling, publishing student trying to get into the industry there is a perception amongst those trying to get their first step into the industry that you can’t expect, and most likely won’t be, paid during your work experience.

    This adds not only a financial strain to anyone wishing to enter the industry but obviously will also prevent those unable to afford to take two months off paid work from sharing their talent. The only way this will change is if the law is enforced, as it is a legal issue and I agree this is something the SYP should be doing for its members.

  8. Check publisher and agency websites: ours gives guidelines on how to apply. And the illegality of many is because of government over-protectiveness. It’s working against the book business that’s for sure. Sparked by a few discontented individuals who sued companies who had given them internships.

  9. In support of internships I did a few which weren’t part of my MA at City in that year – at Aurum, Marshall Cav and Octopus, each was very useful as I was largely spared the menial tasks of yore. The last one at Octopus was where I got my first job with the excellent rights team there. So I’d defend their use for people wanting to get in.
    However, they are a barrier to entry and will do nothing to help the industry reflect and get as close as possible to its customers. This is exacerbated by lower pay which follows at entry level, especially when you consider salaries of similarly capable young professionals in gaming etc., who we are likely to find ourselves in competition with as we move to digital.

  10. Elina Pissioti on

    I have to say that the internships I have done and am still doing are very valuable to me, not only in terms of the experience I gain, but also because I get to see how various publishers operate and I meet wonderful people who share my interests. I certainly do not feel ‘exploited’ in any way, but I am fortunate in that my parents are able to support me while I’m doing unpaid work. It’s very sad to hear that people less fortunate than me are forced to give up their efforts of getting a job in publishing, because they can’t support themselves as unpaid interns. There really should be an alternative channel of recruitment, perhaps some form of organised paid graduate training scheme, such as those offered by some larger publishers.

  11. You need a two weeks work experience in publishing at most, if that, to be employable. You’ll probably be spending most of that time filing, photocopying and making tea before you create some grand narrative in your CV about how you gained ‘a valuable insight into’ something-or-other and ‘read from the slushpile’.

    You’re far more attractive to an employer if you’ve worked (paid) in an office environment using skills that are transferable (PR, Marketing, Sales, Copywriting).

    In truth, the reason there are so many unemployed wold-be-publishers is twofold: there are very, very few jobs in publishing; everyone who wants to get into the industry only wants to work in Editorial.

  12. I have done two unpaid publishing internships that amounted to three months all together, the first 6 week were technically legal as they were a requirement of my degree.

    Now I found the second internship very helpful as it was for a small company and I learnt a lot, but the first which was two weeks in a larger publishing house that mainly consisted of admin duties.

    I survived these internships on a student overdraft as my family couldn’t afford to fund me-and why should they when I’m 20 years old? So thats more debt on top of my loan, to get into an industry that is notoriously underpaid-at least at entry level-compared to other professions!

    Some of these internships do not even offer expenses which is disgusting if you ask me.

    I do wonder why I am even bothering with it at times…

    • While I agree that it’s unfair that it’s become necessary for people to do internships in order to get a job in publishing, I’d just like to chip in and and stick up for the very positive experience I had as an intern. I did two long internships (each for two months) and at both companies I was given interesting projects and treated like a member of staff. I didn’t feel like I was being exploited; I felt like I was there to learn. And I did learn. A lot. As well as learning about how publishing works, I gained a great deal of skills and experience that I was then able to talk about in job interviews. I gained confidence, too, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the interview I had just after finishing the second internsip was the one where I finally got the job.

      If it wasn’t for the first internship, I would never have realised that publishing was what I really wanted to do. A week or two of work experience isn’t enough to show you what a job is really like (especially if you only get to do photocopying). I actually think internships are a great way of trying a job out for a while with no commitment to staying there. Though, of course, it would be nice if one internship was enough to get a job…

      I was lucky that my parents live close enough to London that I could live at home while I wasn’t earning. I know that not everyone has that opportunity, and I do agree that this gives some people an unfair advantage when it comes to getting into publishing.

      It ISN’T fair that so many people have to work for free for so long, but internships aren’t all bad. I’m very grateful to the companies I interned with (and all the people I worked with) for giving me such positive learning experiences. By the time I finally got that gold-dust Editorial Assistant job, I actually felt somewhat able to do it.

  13. Mary Virginia Cooley on

    As an intern at a small publishing house right now, I have my fingers crossed that the skills I’m learning will be able to lead me to a full-time job. Still, my internship is one of those exceptions to the rule, since, while I am an unpaid member of the staff, I’m receiving academic credit for my work at my university. There is certainly a great danger for exploitation in agreeing to work without pay, but so far my experience has been very educational and, especially since I’m getting credited for my perfectly legal internship on my transcript, a really valuable tool to help me break into such a competitive industry.

  14. I’d love to do an internship since 13 years of applications to get into the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do has offered 2 interviews – only one of which got back to me – and six rejection emails.

    The only issue have is the debt factor. Internships’ll be fine for those with people who can lend them the cash for however long, live very close, or have no debts. I guess my disadvantage is I have none of those three things, so I’m thinking 13 years of applications’ll soon turn into 14! Thing is though, if it’s what you really want, it’ll all end up being worth it.

  15. As a publishing student I am facing the very real possibility that I will not be employed without a work placement. Despite the experience I have in office environments as well as sales. Trouble is there is just as much competition for work placements as there are paid jobs at entry level.
    I see their worth providing the intern is given the oppertunity to learn the industry and not just make the tea!
    It will never change. Employers want employees with experience.
    Please excuse any errors, I am typing on my phone!

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