Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to Get an Internship in Publishing: Know What You Want

Now that you know a little bit about finding and applying to internships, let’s talk about the types of internships you might want. While it might seem counter-intuitive to narrow your options at all when they're in such short supply, I do believe very strongly that you should define what you are looking for before you begin your internship search.

When I was first searching for internships and jobs, I thought that my chances of success would improve based on the sheer volume of applications I submitted, so I applied for literally everything that was available. I would research each company before applying and I put time and care into each of my cover letters, but none of that was an adequate substitute for the in-depth knowledge one gains by watching a company or seriously exploring a specific role through books, blogs and informational interviews. I rarely got a response to any of those early applications—even for roles I was drooling over. But once I limited myself to applying only for those jobs which I really, really wanted (in companies that I had known, admired, and even dreamt of working for) it was like night and day. Suddenly I was getting responses to almost every application I sent in.

Professionals know that, the more invested someone is in their job, the better they are at it. Thus, they’re eager to hear from candidates who they can tell are excited about the company as much as the role. So some solid advice for internship searching (and for life!) is know what you want.

First, you should of course think about what types of books interest you; what do you like to read, and why? What books do you often recommend to others? Will you publish for children or adults? Do you like a specific genre enough to want to specialize in that? Beyond that, you might want to consider the type of company you want to intern for. There are benefits and drawbacks to each:

Positions in trade publishing (the industry that produces books read for pleasure, whether fiction or nonfiction) are extremely attractive to most starry-eyed interns-to-be. The plus side is that they offer the chance to work with books you’d pick up in your own free time, so they can be a lot of fun. And, if this is the sort of thing that interests you, they are the most glamorous positions in publishing, since they offer access to well-known writers and maybe even the chance to work on The Next Big Thing. The down side is that, because the perks are so great, these positions are in high demand, extremely competitive, and often unpaid.

Internships in academic (textbook or academic journal) publishing can often be easier to come by and, especially if you have a great deal of knowledge in a particular subject area, are often very rewarding. Because the textbook industry is suffering the effects of the recession to a slightly lesser degree than the rest of the industry, these internships may be more likely to lead to full-time employment. On top of that, I’ve found that the people who work in textbooks are almost invariably down-to-earth, relaxed, and incredibly fun to be around. Because there’s less fame and glory to be had in academic publishing than in trade, you’re not likely to have many run-ins with prima donnas. The down side? Well, if you don’t like reading your college textbooks for school, you might not like it now either. And, because the textbook industry relies heavily on subject matter experts to write and edit books, you’re less likely to get hands-on experience actually molding the text.

Again, the big companies—whether the Big Four (Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) or one of the other large and established houses out there (Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Disney Publishing, Chronicle Books, Little Brown, etc.)—often offer the most glamorous internships. The benefits of working for one of these companies can be great; many have established summer internship programs which, whether they pay or not, may offer seminars and talks in order to teach you about the industry, and will allow you to be surrounded by peers. Chances are that a lot of your favorite authors publish with the big houses, so you’re more likely to have a squee-worthy moment of author connection. And there’s no denying that having a big name on your resume can open doors for you later on. However, the drawback to an established internship program and a large company is that the type of work available to interns can often be administrative, with the really hands-on tasks falling to their own departments.

Small or mid-sized
On the other hand, a small or mid-sized, independent publishing company like W.W. Norton, Candlewick, or Bancroft Press (where I got my start) often allows and even encourages its interns to wear a number of hats. Because there is always a ton of work to get done and few people to do it, they are typically happy to get interns involved in many of the types of tasks they’d be expected to perform as industry professionals. Though they may not have large, established programs, small presses offer close mentorship and the chance to truly help shape a manuscript. The down side is that, while the actual experience may even be more meaningful than what some large houses offer, it could be more difficult to convey that to potential employers; without the name recognition, you will have to put extra care into your resume and cover letter in order to convey the value of your experience. And, unfortunately, a lot of small presses aren’t in a position to hire their interns full-time, and may not offer the connections that larger presses do.

Specialized or indie presses
Companies specializing in a certain type of books—like Lee & Low, which publishes multicultural children’s books, or Seal Press, which focuses on progressive books written by women—love to take on interns who share their interests. If you have a particularly strong set of values or a very focused interest in one genre, it might be worth your while to look for a press that shares those tastes. Often these companies are small and independently operated, so the benefits are largely those listed above, plus the added value of working for a cause in which you believe. However, specializing too much, too early can sometimes be a drawback; be careful not to limit your options for moving up in your career. Your internship at All-Robot-Space-Ponies-All-the-Time BooksTM may not offer you too many transferable skills unless you plan to spend the rest of your life working with books about animatronic animals. Which there may not be such a big market for. Just saying.

Of course, there are countless other types of internships available. Working for a literary agency can offer close access to authors and connections at a variety of publishing houses; however, it may only lead to part-time employment and it's not a field for the under-confident or faint of heart. Assisting an author can be great if you connect well with your mentor—and it may even be particularly good for an aspiring writer if you can learn from each other’s processes—but it offers relatively few connections or chances for advancement. Some cities outside the hub of the publishing world are home to a myriad of companies providing developmental editorial and marketing services; these can be great companies to work for and may prepare you for a variety of jobs, but are likely to force you to specialize early.

Whatever you choose to look for—or even if you pursue some combination of these options—it’s helpful to seriously consider your skills and preferences before really digging into your job search. Once you have an idea of what type of internship would be a good fit for you, get moving on that internet research, compile a list of target companies, and start reaching out to them. Good luck!

What have your internship experiences been? What types of companies have you most (or least) enjoyed working for? If you're looking for your first internship now, what do you think you'll prefer? Let me know in comments!

1 comment:

  1. I am currently doing an internship as Managing Editor of a satirical magazine based out of Washington D.C., The Washington Fancy. It's hilarious and all complete lies; you should check it out! http://thewashingtonfancy.com/

    I'm looking at all types of companies right now, of course my dream has always been set on a big-name house, Penguin. But I've also been looking at some smaller houses such a Melville, The Experiment, and a few in D.C... but I'm really trying to get on in NY since that is basically the Mecca of publishing. I've also had a lot of experiences with editing while at school, which have been great, but I think my current internship has taught me the most as far as technical skills and meeting deadlines.

    How did you like your internship at Bancroft Press? How did you secure that internship? Was it just through cold applications or did you network your way in?