Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Interning for a Startup: Can it Offer Everything You Need?

Can a digital start-up offer everything you need?

Last week, we got an interesting query from a reader about evaluating an internship offer. In part, he wrote:

Elisabeth, you mentioned that you did an internship with a “really small publisher.” I recently have been looking into a few different opportunities and found a digital publisher, who asked me to come in for a meeting immediately after I asked about possible internships. Evidently, this publisher does not have a physical office, but runs out of the homes of the various 10-15 staff members.

…does this sound like a good option? Or should I look for other opportunities?

Now, just so we’re all clear, Trendsetter doesn’t advise on any specific course of career action–those choices are all yours, folks. But this reader’s question does open a very important can of worms, and from an angle I hadn’t considered before. It’s not just a unprecedented internship landscape Generation Y is dealing with; it’s also, in some cases, a different kind of industry structure, one that’s digital and diffuse.

OK, here are some unalterable factors you and everyone else are dealing with:

  1. Internships are an almost non-negotiable step between you and a job in publishing.
  2. The digital publishing revolution has allowed for an explosion of new start-up companies, many doing new, creative things you wouldn’t get a chance to see elsewhere.
  3. This ease of set-up has allowed a lot more inexperienced people through the gate, many of whom are desperate to utilize interns (for understandable reasons), but who have very little to offer in return.

What’s a person to do? This is not the space for me to argue whether the internship-industrial-complex is good or bad, but I think we can all agree it’s ugly. This makes it all the more important to negotiate with what’s available to you. Here are some of factors you can work with:

Not every internship can offer everything. Since most people these days do more than one, you probably want to articulate something different you need from each one. I did my internship at a “very small publisher”, yes, but the publisher to whom I reported had both a big-name past and decades of experience. His name has helped me through a few doors, and the meticulous hours of instruction and mentorship he lavished on me have helped me stay inside. Just to harp on a familiar theme, some benefits of interning with a small press can be:

  • A lot of facetime with a seasoned professional
  • Exposure to a wide range of departments
  • A more personalized experience
  • Exposure to something new and exciting that no one else is doing

Some benefits from an internship at a larger house (full disclosure: I never had such an internship)

  • Name recognition on your resume
  • Exposure to a wider range of mentors and approaches to to book business
  • A deeper immersion in one specialty
  • More room for possibly entering the company as an employee later on

So when faced with a particular offer from a new digital publisher with no office, consider what blanks you want most to fill on your resume. Name-recognition? Cultivating a long-term mentorship? Learning a new niche skill?

My own feeling is that the specific shortcomings of an internship should always balance out specific benefits. If this is a “remote internship” offer, that holds the drawback of lacking exposure to the unplanned educational experiences and moments of mentorship that can only happen in person. But, depending what kind of digital publisher it is, they may offer you exposure to something exciting that no one else can.

In his book Adapt, which I reviewed for Publishing Trends last month, Tim Harford shares the interesting statistic that the most vibrant and growing sectors of an industry are also the places where rates of failure are highest (be sure to check out the fascinating story of the printing and book industry in 15th c. Venice in the review). This is a time of brilliant new growth in the book industry, and therefore,  it is also a time of many duds. When going into any start-up, you don’t get to evaluate the place on anything it’s proven, but you can trace all the more carefully what it does offer: staff experience, innovativeness of approach, etc. And honestly, if you think a start-up does offer enough of what you need, you could see an internship as the perfect low-risk exposure to a high-risk environment.

I’d love to hear what you think a person should not only look for, but look out for, when seeking an internship. For those who now work full-time, what are your thoughts on the kind of company environment that digital start-ups provide within the publishing industry? What makes them great places for those just starting out? What are the benefits of staying more traditional and established? And is any job seeker in this day and age too much of a beggar to really be choosing?



  1. Marnise says:

    Hey All,

    I’m on my second remote internship with a digital publisher, although technically a start up. this company is doing big things!

    In both of my remote internships there has been opportunities to move up into paid positions.

    Although I haven’t had a traditional internship, as of yet. I have found that remote internships and internships with digital publishers are very awesome. Especially if you live out of reach of a major city, like NYC. Working as a remote internship while I’m at school has helped me gain experience while living so far from the publishing industry.

    I felt the mentor relationships strongly even though I wasn’t in the office everyday. Emails, skype and web hosted meetings online bridge the gap and made me really feel a connection with my internship mentors.

    My advice would be to check out the internship outlines and make sure you have a good connection with the supervisor for the internship because it will go a long way with helping the connection and mentor-ship.

    Also really research the company and it’s goals especially if it is a new company.

    And ask about other opportunities if the internship progress.

    • Thank you so much for your expert input, Marnise–it’s so valuable as a way of continuing the conversation and giving some real perspective. Your point about the chance to move directly on to paid positions with a startup/digital internship makes so much sense. After all, even though a larger company may have more established positions to fill, a more set hiring structure, etc., if you’re lucky enough to get in with a start-up that’s doing well, chances are they’ll be growing much FASTER, and offer more opportunities to take on more responsibility early.

      Equally valuable is your point about gauging the commitment and connection with one’s supervisor. You could be sitting in the same room with a supervisor all day long, and if he or she isn’t committed to making the very best of the relationship, that will do a heck of a lot less for you than will the remotest of internships with someone who takes mentorship seriously.

      And as for it being the best way to fit in internships while still in school–well, I don’t even think I need to elaborate on why that’s becoming increasingly important…

      Thanks again!

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