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Unpaid Publishing Internships: A Possible Solution

Erinne Sevigny

Erinne Sevigny

During The Great Canadian Publishing Tour, Erinne Sevigny traveled from Canada’s west coast to east coast and visited publishers of varying sizes and mandates–and blogged all about it. Self-publishing presses, small literary houses, houses experimenting with new models, and corporate multinationals all invited Erinne into their offices (and sometimes homes). While investigating the Canadian publishing landscape to prove that publishing was not dying, she also explored how the people (their histories and passions) and the spaces (their physical surroundings in both structure and geography) affected their books and business. This piece originally appeared on The Great Canadian Publishing Tour on July 3, 2013.

by Erinne Sevigny 

I’m currently enrolled in the Humber Creative Book Publishing Program. An internship is NOT considered part of the program (as it is with other publishing programs in the country), but it is definitely the expectation—not of the college, but of the industry. At least in Toronto, it seems that to break into publishing, students are told a couple internships, maybe more, are protocol.

The debate on unpaid internships is a hot topic right now, and I’m not going to rehash the same points from both sides; there’s enough out there and you can Google it. Overall, though, I feel that if you have to triple-check the legislation and analyze the wording to decide whether or not your internship program is okay, what you’re attempting to do is—while perhaps not illegal—probably unethical.

I am not attacking publishers for their current practices. Up until now it’s been standard and what everyone has just known, but this current spotlight is an opportunity for change, and there’s a solution.

In one word: volunteer.

The concept was glossed over in a recent Quill & Quire article. By “volunteer” I do not mean simply changing the vernacular within the industry (and I speak to the publishing industry, but I feel this would work well across many industries).

While I do think that the start of the solution is a change in vocabulary (the word “intern” is tainted), calling it “volunteering” is not enough. I am proposing a change in parameters across all sizes of companies and organizations. Here’s the scope.

1. Volunteer work is NOT full-time.

This is key and seems simple enough. It allows those from all levels of financial health to garner experience and pay the bills at the same time. If the volunteer position for the company requires full time, in-office work, then guess what? You have a position that ethically you should be paying someone to do. Make it an entry-level position and attach a salary to it.

2. Valuable work traded for valuable experience.

The idea is genuine win-win.

Forget about the gopher. Instead, what if volunteer programs were offered by project, whether it was decided by the company or pitched to the company? What if newcomers to the industry offered to volunteer help with an event or to develop a marketing campaign or to develop an ebook? What if “interns” in all capacities and in all companies had the authority to contribute with mind, body, and heart in ways they decided would contribute to where they wanted to take their careers?

The idea here is that volunteer project work provides the newcomer with desired, valuable experience and space to handle the financial logistics of living. Meanwhile, the volunteer provides the company with valuable work and the opportunity to mentor. In all, it becomes a more holistic environment where both sides are contributing to a healthier, stronger, and more ethical industry and community.

I have turned down internships in the past for the same reasons many do, mainly because of “adult expenses” on top of very heavy student debt. While turning those internships down, I was still volunteering within the community I wanted to be (and am now solidly) a part of. Recognizing the value my volunteer work had for me and for the literary community, I will continue volunteering (which now includes a lot of mentorship) alongside my fulltime work within the industry. For life. Because that’s how stronger communities are built.

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Erinne Sevigny is an editor and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada who has been working and volunteering in the literary community since 2004. She recently completed the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario–the heart of the Canadian Publishing scene.

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