Salaries and the use of interns are long-standing debate topics within the media sector. We know salaries - particularly at entry level - are low in publishing; and we know the sector uses interns, and sometimes does so instead of paying for staff. However, easy though it is to criticise the industry for this, we should also keep in mind that there is a bigger picture.
Sales of books are in decline and publishing is going through a huge cultural and digital shift. More students than ever are doing MAs in publishing, meaning competition to get into the sector remains fierce. Publishers know that there is huge demand, but most actually don’t take advantage of a labour force often willing to work for nothing. Instead, most of the larger houses operate internship schemes with very clearly set-out and thought-out criteria. There are good processes for work experience and they are oversubscribed. Work experience, paid or unpaid, does give you the chance to meet people and experience what it’s like to work in the sector. Sometimes, the benefits are not immediate. It's not a guarantee, but it may just work out like it did for me.
The route most people take into the book business is circuitous. It's not easy out there, and it isn’t any easier once you come in from that cold. Publishing is sought-after, but it’s not as glamorous as the outside perception. Maybe that's the problem. In the old days, the industry was invisible - a mere set of processes that got books to the masses. It was the author and the bookseller that were in the limelight. Now, with the advent of social media, publishing has some cool, visible people talking about books, and it looks really appealing. Behind the scenes however the same old processes happen: selling-in to shops, production meetings, working out print quantities and spreadsheets and web meta-data.
If you are looking for a job in publishing, there is no easy way to do it. My biggest tip is to look around: broaden your focus to take in those companies that are not always in the headlines: the professional, STM, and specialist publishers, or those small houses that make up the Independent Publishers Guild. You may not get paid more, but at least you’ll know that they really need you - the work will be real and the experience invaluable.
But be tough. If someone asks you to work for free for a block of time then feel free to say no. Work in a bookshop if you can, even if just over Christmas. Remember that you want to work with books, no matter where that may be. De-glamorise your view - there are going to be boring bits too, and sometimes that salary will pinch. Think of each bit of experience as shaping your career. Above all, ask questions.
In general, no-one in the books business make a lot of money, and while there is a debate to be had about this, that conversation should never drown out the massive upside from working in books. This is a creative, vibrant sector that offers the opportunity of working with hugely talented authors, and shaping the wider cultural agenda.
The best thing of all is that those of us who made it over the fence can now work to improve the lot of those still trying. I will try to offer general careers help where I can, so get in touch on Twitter at @Jobsinbooks, or email Maria.Vassilopoulos@thebookseller.com.
Maria Vassilopoulos is business development manager at The Bookseller, and runs the @Jobsinbooks Twitter account