Interns: opportunity or exploitation? Guest post by Lynn Michell, Director of Linen Press Books

This recession is taking a heavy toll on students as graduates search in vain for jobs. In September 2011, BBC News reported that 28% of UK graduates who left university in 2007 were still not in full-time work three and a half years later.

Worse, I sense a growing climate of blame and diminishing sympathy, as if young people are not doing enough to help themselves. Claire Rogers, writing recently in The Independent, strikes me as naive and out of touch: ‘There are several different ways a graduate can fight off the depression of being unemployed while simultaneously improving their chances of landing the right job. One thing that all disenchanted graduates should certainly do is get work experience, even if unpaid.’ So off you all go - take what’s going, don’t expect any pay, don’t complain and don’t get depressed.

So, by taking on interns, am I buying into this growing acceptance of unpaid work? I run Linen Press, a small publishing house for women writers. It is a one woman band with no publicity department and no funding. I live on my passion for beautiful prose, optimism and determination. And fresh air. I have four interns. The question is: am I exploiting them in an economic recession or am I offering them useful experience which may help them if they find the right career job?

Instead of telling students to get on their bikes, I want to acknowledge how tough life is for them. One of my interns, Lauren, describes her current passage through university:
‘Undergraduates and graduates are under enormous stress. My case may not be the norm but I have spent the past three years studying at university while working 5 nights a week, as well as keeping a house and looking after a child. At the moment, I am in my final year, juggling family life while working on my dissertation and taking an additional module. We are encouraged to find a job related to our degree so I also work in a library. Experience is essential for pursuing your career choice so I chose to work with Linen Press. I am also a member of the Children's Panel, gaining further skills and experience. There is an extremely intense pressure on graduates to have something extra, to show initiative, to demonstrate their work ethic but even with the number of things I do just now, there is no guarantee of a job.’

Even rubbish holiday jobs are hard to come by. When I was their age, and paying my own way through university, I walked into a temporary job at the end of every term. I was a fruit picker, a factory welder, a film company’s Girl Friday, an Avon lady and a model advertising bath plugs. Every summer holiday I pushed an ice-cream trolley round Bognor’s Butlins for twelve hour shifts that ended in the theatre with a tray of tubs and choc-ices round my neck. A Whiter Shade Of Pale is forever etched into my memory.

If I were making a handsome profit, of course I would pay my interns, but I have invested all my own royalties into this small business and have not paid myself a bean for three years. I made a couple of expensive mistakes but now each book published by Linen Press outsells the previous one. It’s been a steep learning curve for a mere writer but Linen Press now feels a good place to be.

In my defense, I encourage my interns to take ownership of a project which interests them so that they see it through from start to finish.
• Rhona is the Linen Press Bodyguard. Where I am computer-chaotic, she is organised. Where I am impulsive, she is considered and protects us from my wilder ideas. She does a lot of the back-stage work, maintaining and changing the web-site and running facebook. I consult her on major and minor decisions, moan at her on bad days and joke with her on good ones. She takes it all in her stride. If I had the funds, I would employ her tomorrow.
• Bea joined us a few months ago after a chance meeting in The Feminist Library. She is a voracious, intelligent, intuitive reader with experience in scientific publishing and a true understanding of the ethos of our company. Already a contributor to several literary blogs, she volunteered to help vet the submissions that pour in at the rate of 10-20 a week. She also runs the Linen Press Twitter account with a professional yet quirky assurance. Thank you, Bea!
• Lauren arrived a few months ago and is building a library of resources so we don’t re-invent the wheel every time we publish a new book. She has researched prizes and awards, made lists of media contacts, and hunted down events that would be good matches for my authors. She has taken on tedious tasks and done them with competence and cheerfulness.
• Jac is our newest intern but has settled right in. I’ve been sending her submissions too, and back they come with coherent comments. This saves me a huge amount of often unproductive time. She is helping with the editing of a novel we have just signed up and with her background in art, I’ll be turning to her about design and presentation.

My interns are not standing in a queue at the PO with parcels of books. They are not making coffee or phoning every editor in the land to beg for a review of a book. They are dipping into real, varied jobs within a publishing company and finding out where their skills and interests lie. They know that their contributions are valuable - even necessary - and they are contributing to the growing success of a young company. And I will say that in their references.

Lest I should forget it, Rhona reminds me now and again that she is working for nothing. No doubt the others will too. But she also acknowledges the usefulness of the experience and the satisfaction she gets working for a small, committed publisher. My aim is to make Linen Press feel like a small literary family with authors and interns and my dog all part of the team. Or is that a cop out?

So why can’t I pay these willing, gifted young people? I’ve blogged before about the arithmetic of buying and selling books but I’ll briefly recap here. My books are expensive to produce. I pay an excellent designer and copy-editor because I want beautiful covers and no typos. I am restricted to shortish print runs of about 400 copies which takes the cost per book way up. Our next publication - a 90,000 word novel - comes to £8 per copy plus author’s royalties. Amazon would take 60% of my RRP and I would have to pay the postage to replace the book. On a book selling for £8.99, Amazon would take £5.40 plus £3 p & p. You do the sums. I don’t sell Linen Press books on Amazon.

One day I may stumble on that best-seller and do a run of 500,000 and have Hollywood directors on the phone. Then I pay my interns. Until then, I offer them hands-on experience, heartfelt gratitude, an excellent reference and the occasional meal in a Glasgow veggie cafe.

Thank you, my interns! You are invaluable.

Lynn Michell is Director of Linen Press Books, Edinburgh.


Gillian McDade said...

This gives us a really good insight into your world, Lynn! I don't think there's anything wrong with doing unpaid work in your favourite profession (I did a year of it!) The strong, and those who persevere will survive and it makes sense when a business is in its infancy. It's a win-win situation!

I'm also keen to know more about the veggie cafe!

JO said...

It seems to me that whatever you do will be wrong.

Unpaid work reduces unemployment figures; so makes politicians feel better, but there are tales of interns in some industries (clearly not yours, Lynn) feeling like slaves.

On the other hand, if offers experience, and a launch pad for students when nothing else is available.

Lynn - your interns mean that you can keep your wonderful business going, and you clearly appreciate every minute they give you. You understand the contradictions in having them work with you. In the current climate - that seems to me to be the very best you can do. But let's hope that things improve soon - for all of us - and you can give them real money as well as experience and veggie meals.

Sandra Davies said...

Fascinating post. I suspect the success or failure of internship (and how it is perceived by the internees) comes down to honesty and trust and being up front about it. In your case, if you have done the sums for them, and they understand and trust you, and agree to what you offer then there is no exploitation.
You also make out an excellent case for supporting independent publishers wherever possible.

DT said...

Hi Lynn, I applaud your honesty and I think the area of internships is greyer than a British sky in August. The key has to be managed expectations, as well as giving interns the opportunity to develop skills and experience.

General opinion (I searched for a definitive, UK legal answer and failed) is that an intern cannot be engaged in any activity that directly profits the company. e.g. Manufacturing goods for sale.

I work with A Word with You Press, who are based in San Diego. In the US, internships are seen as the norm for people to pick up skills and experience, and to network and make a positive impression. AWwYP also works on an almost entirely voluntary basis and I have raised the question of when an enterprise stops being an enterprise if it can only function with unpaid volunteers.

I wear two hats on this one, as I don't believe everything of value has to be financially profitable - there are other ways of adding value and meaning.

I suspect the real issue is around equality. The reality is that only those with access to savings or a separate income can generally afford to be interns for any period of time. That's just a matter of economics and the same consideration is now playing out in our universities.

It has always been this way, but we've been fed the notion of equal access to opportunity. However, that has never been the case - just ask any writer!

Lynn Michell said...

First, thank you so much Gillian, Jo and Sandra for your very positive comments and your encouragement to keep going. While I hate to play any part in the dishonest manipulation of unemployment figures, I have to accept that the current government is going to continue to make life very hard for the younger generation. I hope that my interns' experience with Linen Press and an excellent reference from me will give them a step up when a real job becomes available.

Derek, I quibble with this:
"The reality is that only those with access to savings or a separate income can generally afford to be interns for any period of time."

The reality is that my interns do not have an income or independent financial support. They all work to support themselves. Rhona has been with me for over a year and is currently looking for a second part-time job to make ends meet.

As for equal access to opportunity - and funding- I'm the one shouting about how unfair it is. Catch 22. As a publisher or writer, you may get funding once you are recognised. It takes funding and support to achieve recognition. Ring a ring of roses.

DT said...

Hi Lynn,

I was principally referring to a full-time internship - my apologies, I ought to have clarified that. I agree about equality of access to opportunity and certainly wasn't pointing the finger in your direction. As I say, I've been on both sides of the argument. Whatever the situation, there will always be haves and have nots or winners and losers.

It is indeed Catch 22 and larger publishers often only appear on the horizon when they're confident there's a buck to be made. All we can do is our best!

Fionnuala said...

Hi Lynn
What a brilliant post and insight into your world. I have two daughters who both interned in various places throughout the terms of their uni degrees. One had really positive experiences giving her valuable help in gaining employment. The other, I have to confess, found herself on the end of people who had no intention of helping her in any way and were just into the slave labour she could provide (fashion industry - no surprise there!)
Really interesting too to read the facts on the costs of publishing a quality book... Food for thought.

Beulah said...

Wow, thank you Lynn! I had no idea you were writing this (so much for "intuitive") but really appreciate your kind words. If anyone wants to check out the Linen Press twitter account it's @LP_Books and we are also on goodreads:

Anonymous said...

See what I mean! Beulah jumps straight in to tell you about Linen Press twitter (132 followers) and goodreads (221 followers).