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Do you really need unpaid publishing work experience?

salary surveyI keep meeting people who have been given poor advice from others. This is the most common piece of advice I hear given to entry level candidates:

‘You must have three months work experience in publishing to get a job; if you can’t get a paid job, then work unpaid’.

I’ve also heard this advice given to those that wish to transfer to other areas of publishing, e.g. academic to trade or from sales to editorial or from other industries such as journalism into publishing.

This advice is wrong.

When I talk to employers – the managers, directors, owners, human resource managers of publishing, they tell me the skills they like to see in entry level candidates are as follows:

An interest in their area of publishing; the books or journals they are working on
Enthusiasm for what they are doing and what is going on around them
A willingness to accept instruction and learn
The knowledge of office etiquette; how people in an office behave, when to interrupt someone in a meeting and when to wait
Excellent spelling and grammar
The alphabet! Filing seems to be common in most roles
Familiarity with software packages, (e.g. Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Indesign)
The ability to switch on a computer, open software and start typing a document
Knowing how to save computer files in a logical way
How to layout a business letter or email, and the kind of vocabulary one expects in such documents
Knowing how to answer the telephone in a professional manner and take messages
The ability to read and understand instructions

Nearly all of these skills can be taught in any environment; they are not specific to publishing. The majority of employers tell me that they value paid office experience higher than unpaid publishing experience. They much prefer to see that you have a strong work ethic, the skills to do a good job, and the ability to succeed.

As regards what goes on in a publishing house, two weeks work experience will give you a basic understanding of what goes on.

So, instead of doing unpaid publishing work experience, go and get paid experience in any industry or role which can give you transferable skills. For example, marketing for a law firm may give you marketing experience that is valuable for a legal publishers; working in an art gallery may give you transferable experience for an art publishers; teaching or teaching English as a foreign language is always a good entry for educational publishing; working in a bookshop is a good base for any area of publishing; some might choose to study for an MA in Publishing (which is still no guarantee of employment). Plus almost every company outside of traditional book publishing now has some sort of publishing or media division; the digital age has made it easier for non-publishers to produce content and any such company can give you ‘publishing exeperience’.

Whilst you are doing this, keep in touch with the book industry by reading all the industry news and going to events such as those run by
The Society of Young Publishers, Women in Publishing, The Galley Club, Equality in Publishing, Book Machine or Byte the Book. All give you lots of opportunities to keep in touch with industry developments and to make valuable contacts.

Approximately 15% of our client base came to us when they were working outside of the book industry. They are now working in the industry. Here is a testimonial from one such client:

Interestingly, the day after being offered the position, I received feedback …. with advice which was completely the opposite to yours. (I was concerned that I would have to do some work experience before looking for a full-time position. You advised that I had enough related experience on my CV and not to waste more time doing work experience and to try to dive into the job market.) They indicated that they didn’t think I would be successful without having work experience – I wanted to let you know that for me, your advice was more accurate than theirs.

So, please don’t think that long term unpaid work experience is a pre-requisite for working in book publishing. It isn’t.

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5 Responses to Do you really need unpaid publishing work experience?

  1. Anna 04/03/2013 at 11:58 #

    Thanks so much for addressing the unpaid internship issue! It’s comforting to know that those already in the business care about those trying to get into it (or back into it, in my case).

    I have a number of friends – some more qualified than me – who have worked for free for up to a year, and often at well-known places, that could afford to pay at least minimum wage – in the hope of getting a foot on the ladder.

    Enough is enough!

  2. Kate 04/03/2013 at 12:49 #

    This is really interesting. I was told you need at least 3 internships (paid or not paid) so since I finished my MA in English Literature in September I have been concentrating my efforts on getting internships ever since. I have 5years worth of office experience, so maybe it’s time I focus on the jobs!

  3. Maria 04/03/2013 at 14:09 #

    I did two unpaid work experience placements before I got a job in publishing; I saw the work experience as a chance to explore the different departments in publishing (I always knew I wanted to work in editorial but wanted to experience other departments just in case I loved them just as much) and an opportunity to network, learn essential skills, and most importantly, show an interest. As bad as it may sound, having work experience in publishing on your CV looks good as it shows you have a dedication and interest in the field, and this was a big factor in me completing the placements. I wouldn’t say work experience is a ‘pre-requisite’ for getting a job in publishing, but I think it’s sensible to do one or two anyway just to work out if it’s really the career you want. I’d do this for any profession that is hard to get into – not just publishing. I was worried that without work experience I would work myself to death trying to find a job and once I got one, I might not have even liked it after all….

  4. Emilce Rees 04/03/2013 at 15:49 #

    Did unpaid work experience at De Gruyter in Berlin as part of my MA in Electronic Communication and Publishing at UCL (roughly 3 weeks, late 90s). Friendly people and v. nice female boss – plus the cache of Berlin and academic publisher experience. Did it translate into respect and a job here in London – of course not. Fight the class structure, people, not the experience (unpaid or not).

  5. Carrie 12/05/2013 at 14:36 #

    Thank you for some common sense advice, finally! Between being told by different people that as a student, if you don’t 1) earn money while you study, 2) complete as many of the long-term unpaid internships as possible and 3) make the most of this part of your life, ie live while you’re young and travel etc, all at the same time of course, you will never get a job; and filling out application after application trying to prove that you’ve got enough work experience to gain some work experience, this is very reassuring. I will focus on getting a couple of placements and then work on those transferable skills.

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