Why You Should Consider a Publishing Internship
by Daniel Parsons
Publishing as a profession is often romanticized in stories. You know the well-trodden scenario: a naive graduate travels to the “big city” to make it in the glamorous world of print runs and book tours. This is a world that lures its recruits young, getting them to dream about working at Penguin Random House, Hachette or Bloomsbury before they’ve even left the classroom. It seems like every school has a bookish kid who wants to work with books and authors in some way. Maybe that bookish kid was you.
Of course, traditional publishing loses some of its polish if you become an author yourself and look into self-publishing as an alternative. The new route’s high profit margins and abundance of creative control draws attention in a way that leaves traditional publishing struggling to compete. However, that doesn’t mean traditional publishing lacks all merit. There are lots of things a new writer can learn from those classic institutions. You don’t need to get a traditional contract to take advantage of their experience, either.
In this blog post we will look into what you could gain from working for a traditional publisher as an intern. As someone who has done this, working initially as a General Publishing Assistant, then getting full-time positions as an Editor, Formatter, and finally as an Advertising Executive, I can vouch for the value of such a scheme, especially if you’re a total newbie.
SO, WHAT IS AN INTERNSHIP?
The official dictionary definition is: “The position of a student or trainee who works in an organisation, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification.” In publishing, this usually takes one of three forms.
1. Official full-time work, usually in a corporate publishing house
2. A more casual position with fewer set hours, usually in a smaller company
3. Or a remote position, done over the internet
All can lead to qualifications and valuable experiences. However, as an author, your focus probably won’t be a qualification or a pay day (though that would be an added bonus). You will want to learn how to produce and sell high-quality books so you can replicate that strategy for your own work. Doing that requires knowledge and experience, both of which you can gain from an internship.
Now, if you already have a good day job, I don’t recommend giving it up to become an unpaid or low-pay intern. But if you have free time, as a recent graduate or someone with the means and financial support to try it, this might be a useful path for you.
HOW TO GET AN INTERNSHIP
There are lots of ways to get an internship. If you are a university graduate, you can apply for graduate schemes with some of the biggest publishing houses. This will likely require a full-time commitment and for you to work in a department where you will learn a lot in a specific area of publishing, be it sales, editing, production, or something else.
Alternatively, if you want to work more flexible hours, you can email companies and offer to work for them remotely. People new to the industry sometimes do this if they already have the skills they need but lack experience or contacts on their resume. It’s a useful strategy to that end but lacks face-to-face contact, so it doesn’t teach the intern a lot. As a result, I would avoid this method if your only goal is to learn the skills needed to self-publish to a professional standard.
A third pathway, and the best if you want to improve your all-round publishing ability, is to contact small publishers and volunteer your time. Overlooked in favour of more glamourous, big-name companies, the staff at smaller outfits are often starved of help yet have lots of knowledge and experience to offer.
Many will gladly accept your labour in exchange for on-the-job training, and will allow you to work your own hours. Being a part of a smaller company also means you get to work in multiple parts of the business, from slush pile sifting, to editing and proofreading, to cover design, printing, marketing and sales. When a company only has a few employees, each person has to cover more roles, meaning you get to experience more of the production line and talk to experts in a wider range of areas than if you worked in a single department.
Here are just some of the benefits such a relationship can give you.
Self-publishing is a misnomer. That because successful self-published authors don’t do everything themselves. They don’t write their work, then self-edit, Photoshop their covers and push their titles into the world without anyone else checking their quality. Yes, most run their own paid ads, but that task is an exception because outsourcing it often leads to a less profitable result.
Most experienced authors act as the CEO of their own small publishing company, feeding their manuscripts and instructions to a team of freelance editors, proofreaders and cover designers. This is because they know their limitations. They realise that they won’t spot every plot hole or typo in their work. Nor can their amateur Photoshop skills compete with a cover designed by a genre-specific expert.
If you’re a new writer, you probably won’t know people who fill all of these roles. However, as an intern, you will find yourself sharing an office with them and making friends whose skills you can harness in the future. Using this method, there is no need to waste money on several editors before you find one that works for you. You can use your internship as a filtering process, looking for someone to hire who you know is professional and reliable. Most of my publishing team are former colleagues who I’ve hired on a freelance basis.
If you refuse to learn anything, then write a manuscript and hope to have all your mistakes corrected by experts, you’ll end up paying out a lot more money than is necessary. That’s why you should focus on learning from all your colleagues as a publishing intern.
Even if your work at the business centres primarily around editing, getting to know how your distributors work, or how the person who handles audiobooks picks which books are suitable for adaptations, for example, can mean making more informed decisions with your own books. It’s not enough to know what everyone does; you should know how they do it, too. And working in a small company gives you the perfect opportunity to talk to everyone. Approaching the office with a far-reaching curiosity that extends to multiple disciplines will serve you well.
It’s difficult to identify a good job from a bad one when you don’t have a benchmark against which to compare quality. However, working at a publishing company shows you exactly what is required to produce professional-standard books.
Don’t know how many revisions it takes to rid bestselling novels of their errors? You will see first-hand. What about how much time and money is required to get a book to hit a particular bestseller list? Someone will know the answer if you ask. An internship will give you the standards you need to ensure you produce professional-standard work and will equip you to achieve your goals.
On average, most authors only release one book. Book two never happens. That’s because, while many only ever plan to write one as a bucket list item, others become disenchanted and give up on their dream when they encounter disappointing initial results. However, working for a publishing company can offer you the perspective you need to keep going and build on early successes.
For example, many readers imagine selling millions of copies of their debut novel because, in their daily lives, they only ever encounter bestsellers. They see the top 0.01% of books on shop bestseller walls or websites and interpret that as the norm. To them, anything less is failure. So, when they sell only 400 copies of their first book in six months, and spot a typo on Chapter 10 after the release date, they abandon their dream, thinking they aren’t good enough.
By comparison, had they worked at a publishing imprint, they would know that many titles sell even fewer copies. Plus, they get distributed with far more glaring errors. Knowing this, they would realise just how well they had done with a limited production budget and no existing readership, and that knowledge would push them to keep going.
A publishing internship won’t be worth it for all authors. If you have been writing commercially for a few years then your time is better spent writing more and building your own business. However, if you are just starting out, getting some contracts, knowledge, standards and perspective from veterans in the industry is a good way to prepare yourself and kickstart your author career.
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