If I had a dollar for every article on the internet about the tyranny of unpaid internships I could probably afford to fund quite a few paid internships.
Criticising well-compensated industries like banking and IT for taking on unpaid interns as virtual slave labour is all well and good, but what about industries like book publishing that expect their full time employees to work for little more than bragging rights?
I recently left the book industry. I started in 2007 as an office assistant for a trade publisher. During this time I saw immense changes in the Australian book industry, including the effects of rise of Amazon; the introduction of the Kindle in 2009 and the subsequent spread of digital books, and the decline and fall of Angus & Robertson, Borders and many smaller independent bookstores. I also witnessed the industry adopt many trends from the US, including lowering prices on paperbacks and offering more internships to students.
One constant in the book industry globally, however, is the salary offered to employees. Regardless of whether the publisher is one of the global big five – Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Hachette and Simon & Schuster – or a local independent, you can guarantee that they are offering their employees part-payment in prestige rather than respectable remuneration.
And this is fine, an accepted part of the industry. No one goes into the book industry for the money, is the constant refrain. But what about internships?
The discussion around internships and payment needs more nuance than it is currently being afforded. Industries like book publishing mainly offer internships to students looking for hands-on experience of the industry that they hope to work in, rather than to graduates hoping to get a foot in the door or a line for their CV. These opportunities would simply not exist if they were required to be compensated.
Interns are initially costly to a business. It takes a significant investment of time by permanent employees to show an intern how things work, and this potentially means lost productivity. Legally, an unpaid intern cannot do any work that leads directly to profit for the company – they are there to gain experience, not produce capital.
Some may claim that it’s not an opportunity unless you’re paid, which certainly applies to graduate positions in companies that require interns to do the menial tasks that keep a business running, like manning a switchboard or filing (although, what antiquated business requires paper filing these days anyway?)
I started working in publishing at a time when internships weren’t widely available. When I applied along with a hundred other young aspirants to be an office assistant I was basically applying for a paid internship. I did things like photocopying and stationery orders, but I was working in an office where people were doing the work of a publishing business, and I initially learned from observing rather than being instructed.
Interns that I supervised while working for a book publisher were largely given interesting and varied tasks, like wading through the slush pile of unpublished manuscripts and looking for erotic romance blogs to solicit for review coverage. We frequently got them coffee, rather than the other way around, and were constantly concerned that they were learning and weren’t bored with the tasks we assigned.
The most valuable advantage that an unpaid book publishing internship will provide an aspiring employee is the opportunity to confront how the industry will treat them if they are lucky enough to secure a job as a result of their unpaid labours – which several do get, I will add. You’ll get paid in books and bragging rights, mostly, and an internship should prepare you magnificently for that.
Anne Treasure works in communications, is a recent survivor of the book industry, and exists mainly on the Internet.