What's It Like to Intern in Publishing?

TIA HERE and interning at a literary agency and publishing company this summer (which, if you've read even a portion of DD, you already know). Before my internships began, I googled wildly for advice from publishing interns to prepare for what was coming, and I was totally disappointed by the lack of things I could find. Maybe I'm just bad at googling, or maybe it would help others to share my experience so far.

So, that's what I'm doing.

In case you don't already know, right now I'm currently working at a literary agency that specializes in literary fiction and a lot of different types of commercial fiction (YA and otherwise). Anything with a strong voice. Basically: Fiction. This may seem obvious, but on the other hand, the other internship I have is at a publishing company that publishes mostly memoir. Because that company is associated with a film company, they also pick up books that they think could work as films, or that were written by their screenwriters, but because of the film connection, they are restricted mostly to celebrity memoirs. My point is, the internships I have this summer are really diverse, as they're offering me two different views of the industry in more than one sense (agency vs. publishing house and fiction vs. nonfiction focus).

But what is my day-to-day like? At the literary agency, my work is mostly comprised of running the main email, monitoring it for permissions and contracts, and spending a lot of time reading.

I read everything from books written by people the agent has met at a conference or talk, or people who have been picked up because of #pitmad on Twitter, or people who have just randomly sent in their manuscripts via email. Editorial interns read and read and read.

Here's a little advice for people interested in having their books published: If you're looking for a literary agent, it's better to have established some kind of personal connection to them, whether it be through Twitter and the pitch contests that are often held there, or through attending a talk and maybe meeting the agent afterward. Obviously, this isn't easy to do, especially if you live in the middle of nowhere and are terrible at Twitter. But not to worry, that's what the unsolicited slush pile is for. Follow the instructions on the agency's website and send in your work accordingly.

Anyway: Being an intern in publishing is amazing. It means you're on the front lines of the publishing industry and you're seeing every part of it work. You're mailing out royalty checks, and writing up contracts, and directing authors to agents and reviewing their work. It is by far the most fun job I've ever had.

So what happens after an intern reads a manuscript? This could going several different directions. First of all, no matter what happens, or how you feel about the manuscript, you write a reader's report (if it is not unsolicited slush that is). Unsolicited slush means a default rejection, unless you like it, in which case you're back to writing a reader's report. If the intern likes the manuscript then they will structure their reader's report to reflect that.

A reader's report is essentially a short book report. Although this is done differently at every company, the general premise remains the same. A reader report should include information on the author (if they have any past work that's been published, awards, or credentials that are relevant to their manuscript—and all of this should be in the author's query), a short summary of what the book is about, and commentary on why it should or should not be acquired and, in either case, what is good and bad about it. If the intern does not like the piece, they can expect to also write a draft rejection, but if they do like it, then obviously they will be hoping the agent will decide to acquire it.

With my publishing internship, I also write reader's reports, but it's a little bit different because most of those manuscripts are already being represented by agents. This means their manuscript comes with a proposal, written by their agent, rather than a query written by the author. Proposals tend to really hype up the piece and offer comparable titles that are ridiculously momentous comparisons, but that's something you learn to absorb and not take too seriously as you read on.

Although this varies at all companies, the most important thing with reading and writing reader's reports at these internships is understanding where the line is drawn between a "yes," "no," and "may I see the full manuscript" (a question only for agencies with rules on submissions—most publishers get the full from the agent)? At both of my internships, the rule is thus: If you have any doubt that it's not good enough, then it isn't. You have to be crazy about the manuscript to recommend it. You have to be obsessed. In terms of requesting more pages, you just have to be curious about reading more and hopeful it will continue to be good. Don't be the intern who recommends 50% of what you read to your boss. You need to be picky, and you need to have a good idea of what your boss is looking for. Unless a YA book sounds like the next Harry Potter, I don't recommend it to my boss who mostly does memoir. If I read something insanely commercial, I don't fully recommend it to the agent who prefers things literary. It's a balancing act.

Besides reviewing manuscripts and judging them, what else do interns in publishing do? Well, I've been doing a lot of mailings (fan mail, royalty checks, and things to publishers/agencies), contract writing (for acquiring books, not so much, but for permissions, yes), permission negotiating (when a textbook company or professor wants to include a passage from one of our books, I play the money game), comparable titles researching (to see how similar books sell; this is mostly done through BookScan), tip sheet drafting (these are for sales reps and include reasons why a book will be a financial success), and learning how to run a book tour (it's a lot of work). I've also done administrative things like book rooms for meetings and answer phone calls, so I feel like I've hit the full spectrum of work to do.

At the end of the day, I love it. I love this work more than anything else I've ever done. If you think you'll feel the same, and are a potential future publishing (editorial) intern, I wish you the best of luck and hope you have a better idea of what the job could entail from this post. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

For more, check out Tia's new blog!

Much love and, oh, happy July 4th!