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…

G asked:

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.

Sondra asked:

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!


16 Responses to Ask Alex: Internships

  1. Elizabeth Briggs Mar 4 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Great post! I actually just blogged about this topic too, and I’ve added a link to this post in it. 🙂

    How To Get A Publishing Internship

    • Alex Mar 10 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      Great post! Very, very helpful!

  2. Alexa Y. Mar 4 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    I really like this post! Though it might not necessarily be applicable to me, as I’m no longer a college student, I’m pretty sure that it will help a lot of other people I know 🙂

  3. JoSVolpe Mar 4 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Great post, Alex! Agreed, agreed, agreed.

    And yes, lit agencies are always looking for interns! For New Leaf specifically, we only work with interns on-site. But there are plenty of agencies that will take on a remote intern. When you intern at an agency, the possibilities are really endless of where you can go afterward. Between Suzie Townsend and I (we both ran our intern programs in the past) we’ve placed over 30 interns into jobs, from agency-tracks to editorial, subrights, sales, production, marketing, publicity, and even ad-promo, on both the children’s and adult side. It’s a great feeling!

  4. Kristina Mar 4 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    Great post Alex!

    I do have a question (for an answer in the comments or a post, whatever works!), and this post kind of leads into it. Do you think you could talk about the process of finding a job in publishing, once you’ve graduated and are ready to work? I’ve heard that it can take a long time to find a job, that nothing is guaranteed, etc….would you suggest getting a second job to pay the bills? Keeping internships as an option? Camping out outside of HR offices with a stack of resumes to periodically stick under the door? Anything along those lines! (I’m basing this on the assumption that the person is living in the city where major publishing companies are located, though I guess it could apply to people living elsewhere!)

    Thank you so much! 🙂

    • Alex Mar 10 2013 at 8:37 pm #

      Sure, Kristina! I think “The Next Step” post-grad will probably be my next topic. 🙂

  5. Kim Trotter Mar 4 2013 at 11:29 pm #

    Great post! It true that knowing someone really helps to get internships. I lucked into an internship under an author because we live near each other and I went to see her talk at two different book signings.

    • Alex Mar 10 2013 at 8:38 pm #

      Oh, I completely forgot about Author internships! Another great way to learn about the business. 🙂

  6. Shelver506 Mar 10 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    I loved this post!

    I do wonder, though, about jobs. You said it isn’t necessary to get an internship before finding a job in the publishing industry. However, literally every single job posting I’ve looked at requires the applicant to have previous work experience within the publishing industry. Is this just a “times, they are a-changin'” type of thing, or is there an in-between step that I’m missing?

  7. Erica Mar 17 2013 at 2:39 am #

    This is such a fabulous post! I’ve already applied for quite a few internships for this summer, but I did recently start looking at others outside of just publishing as a back up – happy to know that works as well.

  8. G Mar 31 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Thank you so much for answering my question! Currently I’m in the middle of my second internship and I’m planning on applying for a summer internships. I’ve heard that they are really competitive, but I’m hoping I have a better chance than I did last year when I had zero publishing internships. As I’ve already graduated this past January, I’m torn between building up my resume with internships or to start applying for jobs. Any advice? Thanks!

  9. G Mar 31 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Oh, I forgot to add that both my internships were at literary agencies, so I haven’t had a chance to work at a publishing company yet. I’m hoping that a summer internship at a company would help me get a feel as to what it’s like working for one.

  10. Leigh Aug 11 2013 at 1:19 am #

    Love this post! I’m currently looking for internships for next year. I love books, reading, and book blogging so getting an internship in the publishing world would be great.

    Little Book Star

  11. Allison Singer Feb 5 2014 at 6:36 pm #

    Great post, Alex! I really like that you’ve delved into some of the lesser-known ways to find publishing internships, rather than only searching online. Most blog posts about finding publishing internships are just a list of links. I’ve just started a series of posts on the subject, if you or your readers are interested: Anyway, love Pub Crawl, keep up the good work!

  12. Jamie Feb 13 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Is there anything for high schoolers?

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