'Let them read books': why publishing needs to pay its interns

It’s been a year since Spread The Word’s 'Writing the Future' report found that unpaid internships were hampering diversity in publishing, and six years since Suzanne Collier called for publishing internships to be structured and monitored. A panel on diversity at this year’s London Book Fair heard that unpaid internships were a "very real barrier" to entry, and only recently Sam Missingham pointed out on Twitter that "the literary world is almost entirely inaccessible to the working class". Yet despite the widespread recognition of the problems with unpaid internships, we still see them everywhere we look.

Perhaps it's up to my generation to change this. Many of us who've done internships feel we'll damage our careers by speaking up, but if we don't, or don't do it firmly, nothing will ever change. So here are three reasons why you should pay your interns, along with an action plan for both junior and senior staff.

It's legally safer

Some people argue that interns shouldn't be paid because they're learning valuable skills. Putting aside the educational value of some internships - you can only learn so much about publishing from stuffing envelopes and making tea - the argument is flawed in that it assumes learning and earning are somehow mutually exclusive. They’re not. As Owen Jones and many others have said, "if you 'work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation' you are a worker and are entitled to a minimum wage".

Both here and in the US, several of the big five no longer have any unpaid interns, or if they do, their tenure is limited to a few weeks. This isn't just a moral stance: they know that taking on unpaid interns for long periods is legally risky. In the US a number of prominent media companies have faced lawsuits related to their internship programmes, including Condé Nast, Hearst Corporation, and Gawker Media.

If you're scared, that's good - you should be. If book publishers don't shape up, it's only a matter of time before they too get embroiled in lawsuits - and lawyers cost a lot more per hour than interns! (Government guidance on employment rights and pay for interns can be found here.)

It's good for recruitment and morale

When publishers treat interns with disrespect, we can feel it. As Rare Recruitment's Raphael Mokades told Danuta Kean in 'Writing the Future', this is bad idea if you want the best people:

You can bash the City all you want, but they pay their interns and they could get away without paying them, people are queuing to work for them, but they don’t because they want the best, not just those who can afford to work for them… If your business is so low margin that you can’t afford to pay your interns, it is a shit business, close it down. The truth is, publishing is not, because they are all happy to pay their directors huge amounts. And besides, even when times were not tough, they still didn’t pay interns.

Mokades is angry – and I am too. Refusing to pay your interns shows a fundamental lack of respect for their contribution to the company, and will lead to morale and retention issues that no number of free books and slices of cake can amend. If you really care about the long-term health of your business, you should understand that paying people at every level of the company well is a good investment.

It's good for diversity

The final and most important point is that paying your interns is essential to improving ethnic and class diversity.

Many otherwise intelligent and empathetic people in this business have little understanding of the financial difficulties commonly faced by people from working class and/or BAME backgrounds. Consequently, many people in the industry struggle to imagine themselves being unable to afford an unpaid internship. It's almost never malicious: just a kind of class-induced blindness from which most of us (myself included) can suffer, without realising it.

Publishers like to talk a big game about diversity, but often they leave the heavy lifting to external organisations like Equip and Creative Access - which do a brilliant job, but can only influence standard business practices so far. It should be obvious, however, that the single easiest way to increase diversity in your business is to pay your interns.

Good examples

There are plenty of publishers here and around the world which have committed to treating their interns fairly. Profile Books is perhaps the poster child, but they aren't the only ones: Scribe UK pays the London Living Wage, And Other Stories turned its internship programme into a thoughtfully-designed paid traineeship, HarperCollins has an excellent trainee programme, PRH has The Scheme, and – of course! – Verso looks after its interns well. I'm sure there are many others, and if your organisation is one of them, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Job sites are taking up the challenge, too: The Bookseller's own jobs board has taken a stand against sharing listings for unpaid internships, as has Suzanne Collier's bookcareers.com. This doesn't mean unpaid internships have disappeared, though: many have just gone underground, into private email chains, making them even more exclusive.

A plan for action

If you've read this far, I hope you'll consider taking action. I want to see publishers across the industry:

  • Commit to paying all interns the relevant Living Wage (in most cases, this will be the London Living Wage, which is currently £9.15/hour)
  • Have gaps between interns. Apart from the fact that needing an intern all the time indicates you should really hire an entry-level employee, you can't reflect on and improve your internship programme when you're constantly bringing in new people
  • Show your commitment by publicly endorsing Intern Aware and following its guidelines, which include:
    • Advertising internships openly and recruiting based on merit, not connections.
    • Thinking about the tasks that an intern-level candidate can do and creating a job description for the role.
    • Thinking about how you can support your intern through their time in your business and assigning them a supervisor or line manager who can review their progress.

If you're not yet in a position where you can influence decisions like these, here's what you can do:

  • Endorse Intern Aware. Make a commitment to work towards changing the culture of publishing throughout your career
  • Report particularly egregious internships to Intern Aware
  • Don't pass on those emails we all get from time to time, asking your help to find interns urgently
  • Work with and defend interns within your organisation: make sure they're actually learning something, and not just stuffing envelopes.

If my generation is going to succeed in getting every intern paid, we need to face the discomfort of challenging publishing's hierarchy. Make no mistake: this industry will remain a privileged monoculture unless we do something about it.

It's time to end unpaid internships once and for all, and I hope you’ll help.

Simon Collinson (@Simon_Collinson) is digital editor at Canelo. An Australian expat, he also works for Tilted Axis Press and The Lifted Brow. All opinions expressed here are his own.