“Dispatches from an Editorial Intern” Is Fascinating, Depressing

Recently, the Editors’ Association of Canada blog has been running a series called “Dispatches from an Editorial Intern,” which for some reason I am completely obsessed with. On one level, it reminds me of my own halcyon days as a publishing intern – the terror, the eagerness, the awkwardness.

And on another level – and I say this with no disrespect intended toward Kate Icely, the series’s author – I think it shows exactly what is so terribly, terribly wrong with the publishing industry today.

I was particularly interested in Icely’s most recent entry, “What’s an Intern Worth?,” where she interviews her former colleagues in the editorial department at Knopf Canada about how valuable interns are. One of her contacts, she reports, “told me that without interns the editorial department would be completely overworked, since interns do a lot of essential tasks that save the department and managing editors a lot of time.” Another contact says that, without interns, “No one would go home at night!”

It’s nice to feel needed, but if Icely was making less than minimum wage at the time of her internship (as I am almost 100 percent sure she was), this means that Knopf Canada was in direct violation of the Ontario Employment Standards Act, which states, among other things, that a person providing training to an unpaid intern must derive “little, if any, benefit from the activity of the individual while [they are] being trained.” (See the Canadian Interns’ Association for more.)

Indeed, most publishing internships are illegal, and as far as I can tell, most people in the industry are not aware of it. I only recently found out myself. Publishing is fuelled by internships; it’s pretty much accepted that you’re highly unlikely to get a job in the business without completing at least one, and often two or more, internships. Almost everyone I know who currently works in the industry, myself included, worked for very low wages (typically $1,200 to $1,500 for three months of full-time work, or roughly one-quarter of Ontario’s minimum wage) for at least three months before finding paid work. According to her bio, Icely worked as an intern for two years before landing an administrative assistant position at McClelland & Stewart.

And even with multiple internships, getting a job is far from guaranteed. In an earlier post, “An Intern’s Survival Guide,” Icely advises against mentioning the “J” word, or “job.” “You’re an intern – everyone knows you want a job,” she says. “Constantly mentioning it can make the people around you feel uncomfortable.”

Yes, because when you’re working eight-hour days with very little pay and no benefits to help other people complete their work and get home to see their families, you definitely don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.

Again, none of this is Icely’s fault. Her advice is sound; if you can get a job in publishing at all, this is how you’ll do it. It’s how I did it. But isn’t this a problem? Shouldn’t we feel deeply, deeply uncomfortable that the only people who can find work in publishing are people who can afford to work for hardly any pay for months, even years?

I do. So I hope that another piece of Icely’s advice to interns – “Don’t ever complain” – starts getting ignored, and soon.

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