Ask Alex: Internships
Thanks for all of your great questions last month! I'm so excited to kick off the first Ask Alex with something that seems to be on a lot of people's minds now that spring is here and summer is on the horizon: internships.
Let me start off by speaking about internships generally. The first and most important thing I have to stress is: they are by NO means required to work in publishing. How many publishing internships did I have before I started? Zip. Zero. Nada. Some of my friends in the industry had two, even three internships, but an even larger number never had the opportunity to sit in a barren intern cube, filling out excel spreadsheets and reading submissions.
The reason for this is that publishing is still by and large considered an "apprenticeship" industry, meaning that your supervisors will (hopefully!) teach you everything that you need to know. I work in marketing now, but everything I learned about marketing I've learned from my bosses--not school, not from an internship. That's good news, since I think most of you have realized how flippin' competitive it is to get an internship at one of the big publishing houses--especially a summer internship.
(Anyone who attends university in NYC or Boston is obviously at an advantage because they can apply for spring and fall semester-long internships. Lucky!)
To be completely honest with you, a good number of internships are the result of knowing someone in the business. Sometimes it's straight-up nepotism, which is an ugly thing to admit, but a fact of life. If you're thinking to yourself right now, "But I don't know anyone in publishing..." well, you might actually be wrong. The biggest leg up you can give to yourself is finding someone employed by that company and having them pass your resume on to HR themselves. HR departments receive hundreds and thousands of applications through their website forms, so this is a huge way to stand out.
I'm not suggesting that you guys randomly look someone up on LinkedIn, though. That's a no-no. What I would suggest, though, is checking out your university's alumni network and looking for a connection there. Chances are, if they've let themselves be listed in a database, those people will be happy to help someone from their alma mater. Contact them and ask them about an informational interview by phone, or, if you're local or planning a trip to the city, in person. Always be respectful of their time and never imply they somehow owe you the favor.
(Important side note: you can also contact the publishers' HR departments directly and ask THEM if they'd be willing to have an informational interview. That way you get your face and resume directly in front of them.)
Another out-of-the-box way in is keeping an eye on editors/publishing people on twitter. More and more frequently, editors are tweeting about open internship vacancies and asking for recommendations or anyone interested to send them resumes to look at.
One of the biggest mistakes I think an applicant can make is assuming that other internship experience outside of publishing is significantly less valuable than an internship in the city. If you have a general sense of what you want to do (by that I mean, if you know you'd like to pursue marketing, editorial, publicity, etc.) and you've struck out applying to publishers, you'll still be picking up skills if you're interning in that field in another industry. I interned for a year in my college's University Relations department, which basically served as their press/publicity office, because I knew I was interested in doing marketing or publicity. Most of the time what it really boils down to is employers wanting to see that you have experience working in some kind of office/professional environment. As a future assistant, you'll be doing a lot of administrative work, and that's experience you can get in almost any industry. There are so many ways to show that you're still knowledgeable and passionate about publishing.
Now, a couple specific questions...
Is it possible for someone who had mostly editorial internships to work in a different department, such as marketing? Also, how many internships do you have to complete before publishing companies consider your resume?
Yes, yes, yes! Totally possible. This happens A LOT, actually. Internships tend to give you a good idea about whether or not a specific job is for you. In fact, if I'd interned in an editorial department before taking my first job, I wouldn't have applied for any editorial positions. You're still getting an idea of how a house is run, seeing how the departments work together, and building connections. All very valuable stuff.
Like I mentioned above, it's probably smart to have at least one internship or work experience listed, if only to show that you can, you know, pull your weight and that you have some kind of idea what it's like to work in a corporate environment.
I’d be interested in the famous unpaid internship. Can they be internet-only, or must one be on site?
I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum- in my fifties. I do online proofreading and editing via Elance, and I love books and writing. My wish list would include doing an unpaid internship, perhaps doing a first-read of submitted manuscripts, etc.
Does anything like this exist? I’d love to know….
I'm sorry to say that most internships in publishing houses are limited to college students. I think they're required by law to reimburse interns in some way, and that way is college credit. It sounds like you have some really incredible skills and experience, and so I wonder... would you ever consider applying for an internship at a literary agency?
There are six big publishing houses, but dozens of lit agencies, all receiving thousands of submissions each year. They might have more flexibility in their applicant requirements, and I don't know that they would require you to come into their offices. You can read and write reader reports from home just as easily as you could in the office. It might be worth it to try to contact a few of the smaller agencies to start with and ask if they'd be interested.
More internship questions? Questions for next month? Leave me a note in the comments!