Ending Unpaid Work in Publishing

It’s never been a secret that publishing is notorious for hiring unpaid workers–typically interns brought on to do menial tasks for no pay. In 2020 we saw publishers and agencies make public commitments to creating more diverse workspaces. What we need them to do now, is make commitments to end unpaid work in publishing. To pay interns and assistants.

If we want a more inclusive publishing, we need to pay.

Eye-Opening Revelations

I recently connected with former interns or assistants and frankly, I was shocked to learn the names of agencies that don’t pay. Big, respected agencies with big-name authors. I mean, WTF. Is this for real? And it’s not just interns. There are people using unpaid labor as their assistants. A regular job that should be getting all the benefits of a paid worker.

My Own History

If I’m going to go after unpaid work in publishing, I also need to be honest about my own history. Years ago, BookEnds brought on unpaid interns.

We did make a very conscious effort that the internship was a learning experience. Many of our interns earned college credit and we gave assignments and taught everything from contracts to readers reports to resumes. Yes, there was filing, but we treated it as a class as well. You’d be surprised how many needed to learn how to file and address envelopes.

That changed a few years ago. We still teach all of those things, but we now also pay. There’s no excuse not to pay.

The Argument for Paying

The truth is, you are bringing on an intern to do tasks you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. By bringing on someone else you are opening up your own schedule to focus on the things that make you money.

If you’re an agency that thinks you can’t afford to pay someone you’re not thinking about it in the right way. The time the intern opens up for you is time in which you’ll be earning, at the bare minimum, the money that will cover the cost of the intern. Time is money, right? A paid intern gives you more time to make more money.

I also shouldn’t have to point out the obvious, but I will. Paying someone encourages commitment. A paid intern is more likely to want to stay and grow with a company, to maybe, just maybe, become a paid agent. An unpaid intern will see this as a short-term prospect, no matter how much they might love the job.

What Authors Can Do

Believe it or not, there is something authors can do to help force change. It’s as simple as asking. When receiving an offer of representation ask if the agency pays its assistants and interns. Ask what they’re doing to create a more inclusive publishing. How a company treats people says a lot about how they’ll treat you. It’s an absolutely fair question to ask. You might not make your final decision on their answer, but simply asking forces people to think. Thinking is the first step to change.

There’s still a lot to do to make publishing more inclusive, but paying the people who do work for you is a huge step in the right direction. Today I call for all publishers and agencies to take this step.

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6 comments

  1. I love this! I had no idea that was still the case and will help spread the word to ‘just ask’ that important question. How a company treats people says so much about their culture and commitment to others.

  2. Yes! I’ll definitely ask this question! Paid internships make such a difference. I recall the same situation of “privilege” to work at a TV station when I moved to a new city. Like publishing, broadcasting expected interns to do it all for nothing but experience while aspiring journalists barely could afford lunch. When I was a college student, desperate for “clips” to demonstrate I was a writer, I volunteered to write for the employee newsletter while being paid as a low wage secretary at one of the big accounting firms. When my boss left the firm, the Managing editor of the newsletter took advantage of my initiative and desperate need for experience, assigning article topics to me, without bylines. Her name was on the masthead alone, and all I had was her word she’d be a reference, but I didn’t trust her. When a new Director came in, he rectified this and allowed a byline again. She was reassigned. I was able to get a job a year later as a journalist. Twenty years later, I hired a mature intern to write for my trade publication, giving her full credit and $ for each article. She was desperate for $ since her spouse couldn’t work. The next year she secured full employment in her preferred industry with a portfolio of clips to show and my reference. References are not enough. Fair pay paves the way for communications talent that benefits the greater good.

  3. Jessica, I fully commend this attitude. I was amazed when I learnt interns weren’t always paid (that doesn’t happen in Australia), but I have to confess, when I do receive an offer of representation, I would be too worried of appearing as a “problem child” if I asked the question. I realise that seems silly, but it is so hard to query and find an agent wanting to work with you, it is a very real fear that it will be snatched away.

  4. I was appalled, too, to learn (via an AuthorTube video) that even agents often go unpaid and are only doing the work in hopes of making enough connections to “break into publishing someday.” I had no idea so many of the people I was querying weren’t even getting paid, were only looking at my queries and material in their “spare time” after a regular full-time day job. If I had known, I never would have queried those agencies in the first place! It speaks volumes about the kind of “agency” I might unwittingly have signed with, and it certainly doesn’t speak “quality” to me. If that’s how they treat their agents, they probably would not have treated me or my work any better! I hope someday there’s an easy way to track which agencies do and do not pay their workers (perhaps Query Manager might add this data) so we’ll know which ones to avoid.

    1. Literary agenting is similar to real estate agenting–most work on commission. The difficult part of that is it’s hard to get started. The pro is you are the owner of your own business in a way (with support behind you) and your earning is only limited by you. That being said, there are and should be paid entry-level positions not just in publishing companies, but in agencies as well.

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