Reading is an immersive experience, so why shouldn’t the career information and opportunities that surround it be so too? As our society values the Arts less than the Sciences, teens who find themselves more interested in Gatsby than genetics can face a daunting task figuring out how to nurture their passions for the creative industries. Publishers need to open their doors to a wider demographic, and they need to do it now. The real question is how?
The problem begins in school: children are repeatedly told that ‘reading is important’ and they need to do more, but they’re not told why. By secondary school, reading becomes a chore and uncool, while careers services are more concerned with investment banking and clerical work. When primary and secondary education fails to encourage young people to embrace the Arts, university seems the obvious way forward, but this presents its own problems in terms of accessibility.
These issues carry over into many creative industries, including publishing, which remains notoriously white, middle-class, and London-centric. Degree requirements for entry-level positions are inherently problematic in a climate where fees are high, and still increasing, especially when compounded by the need-a-job-to-get-experience-but-need-experience-to-get-a-job paradox. Penguin Random House is steering the way, having recently removed a degree requirement from its application criteria, in order to increase diversity. For further progress, publishers need to create more, and more innovative, internships that allow all interested young people to gain knowledge and basic training.
It’s important to get the message about such opportunities out to everyone if change is to happen: one of the easiest ways is through social media, using existing hashtags like #askanauthor, #askaneditor and #askanagent. But it’s not just internship positions that need promoting – it’s the range of careers in publishing. It was only at 16, when I undertook a placement at a literary agency, that I even became aware that such a career existed. Outsiders think of publishing as editors and writers, but there are so many different roles, from publicity to production. Publishers need to take a more educational approach in their outreach work to explain the broad nature of the industry. Penguin Random House’s Facebook page is a great example of best practice: it lists all the company's placements, with a full description of each.
However, many internships are unpaid or expenses-only, leaving those who can’t work for free with no choice but to miss out. Many are also limited by the need to live in the capital to get to the relevant offices, not to mention that many are graduate-only schemes. Small organisations like YA Shot often do a great job of showing how internships should work and how innovation makes opportunities more accessible to a larger range of young people. YA Shot’s Internship Programme brings zealous students together for a remote internship, allowing those who aren’t financially independent to gain experience by undertaking tasks such as article-writing, pitch-drafting, and social media management from their own homes. The programme runs from February to October, taking the form of a series of one-to-one mentor-intern tasks and then a venue manager role for all interns on the day of the festival.
Having undertaken three internships, I know there will always be a certain amount of menial work to do. This is to be expected – everyone must start somewhere – and it can even be beneficial: you might have to run to the post-office to send out some bound uncorrected proofs, but doing so educates you about the process of publication. But internships should also be about trust and respect, both in and for interns: they must be given opportunities and reward for their work. For example, during a placement at Aitken Alexander, my boss took time to sit down with me each day to discuss what I’d learnt and answer my questions. As a YA Shot intern, I am given tasks of significant responsibility and the opportunity to work alongside industry professionals as I carry these out. The main benefit, though, is detailed, constructive feedback: it is this that allows interns to improve and develop their critical thinking, analytical and general understanding of professionalism.
If the information gap was closed between the industry and young people, we could bolster the reputation of the Arts and the many career opportunities this sector offers. Neil Morrison, Penguin Random House’s human resources director, recently said, "if you’re talented and have potential, we want to hear from you", but young people can only answer such a call to action if the industry answers this one first.
Ella Whiddett is a undergraduate English student at Cambridge University and an intern for the YA Shot festival.