Deciding How Many Internships You Should Apply For (aka The Story of Goldilocks the Editor)

Once upon a time, there was a young editor named Goldilocks. She lived at the edge of the City with her family. One morning, while she was on her way back from school, Goldilocks wandered into Manhattan and found herself surrounded by huge skyscrapers leased by publishing houses. She was very frightened until she saw a friendly job board in the distance with a dozen internships up for grabs…

I’d continue, but you probably see where I’m going with this. Depending on where you live, you can find an incredible number of opportunities to get your foot in the door, provided you do your research. So how much effort does Goldilocks need to put in to ensure she gets her perfect job, without burning bridges with too many applications or leaving her days cold and empty for a semester? See what I did…sorry, I’ll stop now.

I’m here to help people formulate their strategy, if only by relying on the stories of my mistakes to give some important advice.

  1. Don’t ever assume that most of your applications will lead to a response,
  2. so plan ahead by estimating which publishers will take longest to respond (if at all),
  3. and then make a hierarchy of which internships you want the most, which you would turn others down for, and which you don’t really want to do.

To figure out your plan of attack, the first step is recognizing that not all publishers are created equal when it comes to responding to applicants. Publishers have two basic styles of attracting interns to apply for internships: post three hard deadlines for Spring, Summer, and Fall positions on a dedicated career page and wait for the applications to come pouring in, or use college career sites, job fairs, and specific website postings to announce an opening with a specific application window. I would argue that the likelihood of a publisher bringing you in for an interview is directly proportional to how much effort they took in getting you to apply.

If you respond to a recent listing, that usually means a staff member has dedicated herself to the task of intern wrangling and will respond within a week. I think that publishers feel obligated to give responses and interviews to those who were watchful and enthusiastic enough to respond quickly to a listing. If you have confidence in your interview skills, this is the only window of opportunity you’ll need, though keep in mind that not all interviews are created equal: I had one interview where it became immediately apparent by the interviewer’s indifferent attitude and the 15-minute duration of the meeting, including the questions I’d prepared, that someone had already won the position de facto. Overall, once you respond to a listing, you typically have three to four weeks until you’ll have a potential decision: one-to-seven days for an email acknowledging the application, about 1-2 weeks until the scheduled interview, and anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks for their decision.

Job listings are straightforward; hard thrice-a-year deadlines are a total crapshoot. More people apply to positions that one can find easily on a dedicated internship page, and the editor or HR rep in charge here is more likely to see applicants as a mass of annoying, unproven applicants than hard-working professionals. Moreover, take that attitude with Boston publishers and multiply it by a ten for paid positions, and by a hundred for New York publishers for their summer programs. Unless you apply well before the actual hard deadline with a cover letter that jumps out somehow among the hundreds of other applicants, you won’t even get a response—except perhaps a rejection email two months later, or an announcement on a Facebook careers page stating all positions have been filled.

The hard math: I’ve gotten interviews from 80% of job listings I’ve responded to with an above-average success rate, while <40% of the other category even responded, with half of those responses promising interviews.

Herein lies the dilemma. You have no way of knowing when or where internship listings will pop up, nor any idea when certain publishers will respond if at all. For my summer internship search one year, I applied for 10 internships in early March and got 2 responses in March, 2 in April, and 2 in May. My best example of the awful choices you’ll have to make: I literally received an email notification for my dream internship in the middle of my second interview for another position at X publisher, which would offer me the job two days later. I ended up losing both and going with a third from a later job listing. Another more pedestrian problem: coming off a fall internship with a great publisher, I applied to only 2 or 3 positions that spring with confidence that my updated resume guaranteed my success. That spring semester was incredibly boring.

Prepare yourself for this anguish in advance, because it’s part of the job description for interns-seeking-work. But you also have to be prepared to make hard choices before reaching the interview phase. If you’re offered an interview when you’re still waiting on the position you really want, consider turning down the interview. You will receive no strong assurances from your dream position in the time it takes to hear back from your safety pick, and publishers are much more understanding toward turning down an interview opportunity than turning down a position you convinced them you wanted a few days ago. So if you go into an interview, you have ostensibly decided that you are abandoning any other future offers you might receive.


Your plan of action:

Find the websites for the best publishing houses in your city and their corresponding internship pages, and write down the deadlines for the next internship period. Choose five that you’d want to work for, and of those five try to include at least two or three that allow you to apply for more than one department to avoid the cluster of editorial applicants. By my math, you’ll hopefully hear back from two, and that’s all you want to handle. You can certainly try applying to as many as you can find, but it may not be worth the effort. Consider making iCal or Reminder messages for a couple of weeks prior to the deadline so you have time to construct personalized cover letters for each.

Then start trolling every specialized job board you can find. Try Bookjobs for a huge listing of internships, half of which are up to date. For Bostonians, try Bookbuilders of Boston for a great list of jobs and internships that is regularly updated. Register yourself on publisher websites that send weekly updates on jobs with specific keywords like “intern” and “editorial,” such as Pearson or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And if you’re truly serious about publishing as a career, consider enrolling at a school with a specialized publishing program. Emerson College has regular job fairs that publishers frequently attend looking for interns, and other publishers often send listings to our media coordinator to distribute to students. These perks make your job of researching opportunities that much easier. I’m sure Columbia, NYU, Pace, Portland State, and other publishing programs offer similar opportunities.

As I stated above, apply to listed jobs with the knowledge that you’ll have an answer quickly, and that you have to accept the loss of other potential opportunities without any regrets. You’ll regret it much more if you turn something down only to find nothing else waiting for you.

There are ways of improving your odds, from better cover letters to better interview strategies, and I’ll be covering those in depth in upcoming posts. But a lot of it comes down to luck and hard numbers, and my estimates only go so far.

So good luck, and thanks for reading!

The Benefits of Interning With a Small Publisher or Literary Magazine

In an earlier post I described the types of internships that can supplement your editorial experience—production, digital, domestic and international subsidiary rights, permissions and contracts, and editorial at literary agencies. These experiences not only augment your resume, but also allow you to see other areas of publishing you might work in one day before returning to editorial work. However, these specialized internships aren’t available in many places outside of a few East Coast cities where book publishing is common. So if you’re limited to whatever kinds of editorial internships you can find, consider finding a student staff position or internship at a literary magazine or an internship with a local publishing house.

With larger publishers, departments are typically isolated from one another, both physically in the office and by design in organizational structure. Thus, these positions typically offer “brown bag lunches” where all the interns meet with staff from different departments to learn about the overall publishing process. Or your department supervisor arranges for you to have a brief one-on-one informational interview with an employee with another department. While these opportunities can be extremely helpful, your supervisor won’t ever give you any actual responsibilities outside of the department, because she herself has no access to that stage of the book-building process.

Working at a smaller publisher or literary magazine, however, may provide an opportunity for more interdepartmental responsibilities, and you should feel free to express your interest in such opportunities during an interview. Many supervisors may want you all to themselves, but so will their colleagues. Hierarchies and workflows have much more flexibility at these smaller companies, and employees often shoulder extra responsibilities and always accept assistance because of this fact. If you can find a publisher that truly relies on its interns to function on a daily basis, you are in for a more challenging and rewarding experience.

I lucked into such an opportunity my first semester at Emerson when I accepted an editorial internship at Ploughshares, a nationally acclaimed lit mag. I started out simply doing administrative work and some occasional editing, but was able to take on more responsibilities as the semester progressed, including doing edits for the Winter and Spring issues. Yet I also wanted to expand into production work, and convinced the Production Manager to give me a variety of tasks. By the end of the semester, despite having never worked in HTML or InDesign before, I had assisted in designing the print and digital layouts for the upcoming issue. Meanwhile, my fellow interns also took on non-editorial work, one of whom so impressed the Pshares staff with her graphic design skills that she ended up designing the covers for their novellas.

The best internships reward and encourage initiative, and provide an educational experience in areas you never knew you needed to know. If you aren’t in Boston, New York, or the handful of other cities with large book publishers, consider finding an editorial position where they welcome the kind of unfocused exploration I found. Then use the breadth you’ve attained to show your versatility in future interviews.

Thanks for reading!

Non-editorial Internships That All Would-be Editors Should Have on Their Resume

Each editorial internship usually offers different experiences and job tasks than the next, and it’s important to highlight these differences on a resume. Each internship coordinator or HR representative will look for different things on their prospective employees’ resumes, but rest assured that a bunch of editorial internships does not do anything to make you stand out from those who have a breadth of experience. But don’t worry, because there are a myriad of opportunities available to prepare you for a publishing job and to show your preparedness in your CV. Here’s a sample of those experiences and how they can supplement your expertise as an editor.


One of the things you quickly learn in a publishing masters program is that the type of editorial jobs out there are likely very different than what most people expect. Most people (myself included a couple of years ago) see editing as working on a manuscript with an author on its themes, characters, writing style, and so forth; that’s called developmental editing, and there aren’t that many developmental editor positions out there. In fact, a lot of the developmental editing is done by literary agents trying to spruce up clients’ manuscripts before pitching them to publishers. Similarly, the technical side of editing focused on grammar, spelling, typos, consistency, and so forth—copyediting—is typically outsourced to freelancers, and only major publishers would ever hire an in-house copyeditor to a salaried job.

So what jobs are out there? Acquisitions, production, digital, subsidiary rights, and contracts. These are the areas where you should aim to supplement your resume.

Production Intern: In a good production department program, you work in applications like InDesign, QuarkXPress, Photoshop, Acrobat, and/or Illustrator to design book print layouts, book jackets, advertisements, and so on. Some internships train you on the job, while others expect you to have at least a rudimentary understanding of each before you start. In essence, it’s a graphic design internship that also teaches you about the relationship between publisher, printer, and vendor.

Why editors need this internship: The production editor is a job that you should seriously consider, because a lot of publishers care more about production than editorial development. An editor from MIT Press (where I’m currently an intern) came to my class once and mentioned that more than half of the editors on staff were production interns. The only editors who work with actual content are older editors who have always done developmental work in the past and are allowed to continue. Other publishers may have a different dynamic, but keep in mind that a lot of publishers may care as much about your knowledge of print publishing applications as your discerning editorial eye.

Literary Agency Internship: A lot of duties at a lit agency will seem similar to an editorial intern: reading unsolicited “slush” manuscripts and sending form responses, corresponding with authors, writing blog posts, administrative office work, and occasionally editing pieces or providing editorial feedback. So your editorial internship qualifies you for this position without much effort, and you add breadth to your resume despite having similar duties.

What editors get out of a non-publishing job: Literary agencies give you more experience in acquiring manuscripts and working with authors than many actual editorial internships do. As you progress into a lit agency job, you may be given more responsibility in choosing manuscripts to develop for your agency, and if you find just one gem-sized needle in the haystack that ends up being a published, successful book, you’ll acquire major credibility and an excellent anecdote for interviews about a major accomplishment or what you bring to the house. Plus, you may decide that working for a lit agency may be more up your alley than a publishing job, as you get to do more actual editing at an agency and book royalties can be potentially more lucrative than a standard editorial salary.

Digital/Ebook Internships: These internships are sometimes harder to find, and to qualify for. You work with HTML and XML documents to create .mobi (Amazon Kindle) and .epub (all other E-readers) ebook files; create bookmarked PDFs in Adobe Acrobat to send to reviewers and vendors; and prepare the books’ metadata for online curation and the publisher’s digital archive. If any of that sounds like gibberish, start doing some research, because every editor should learn about ebook production at some point.

Why? Ebooks make a steady 30% of all profits for publishers; ebooks are sold without the exorbidant print, shipping, and warehouse costs for physical books, and publishers do not correspondingly raise the author royalties for ebooks, leading to huge profit margins (see this Slate article for why this policy is a mistake that Amazon is exploiting). So, essentially, publishers want their ebooks to look really good, and they need good coders. To get a production assistant job at a major publishing house, you should know the print design apps like InDesign listed above, and you should know HTML and XML. But these positions are much less competitive than editorial positions; moreover, publishers are more likely to hire a current employee who moves laterally from production to editorial than someone outside the company. Meanwhile, for smaller publishers and literary magazines, editors who can also make changes to an ebook in a pinch are attractive employees, as editorial and production work can sometimes blur together with smaller staffs.

Subsidiary Rights Internships: Subsidiary rights are lucrative contracts for publishers, who sell rights to other specialized or foreign publishers for international language editions, reprints, audiobooks, movies and TV shows, large print editions, etc. Interns in this field learn about the technical side of publishing, from contracts to intellectual property and piracy to permissions.

Why this internship too? Don’t I have enough breadth yet? Not quite. Internships like subsidiary rights, permissions, and contracts truly give you the kind of technical knowledge that shows your sincere interest in publishing, not just reading and writing. Knowing how the business works gives you real-world know-how that an interviewer will respect. And as mentioned above, if you have trouble finding an editorial job after you graduate, find a job in any of these fields instead before moving laterally into editorial work. Plus, acquisitions editors have to negotiate contracts with literary agents on a regular basis; every editorial assistant must learn the ins and outs of a standard author contract, as well as which subsidiary rights would be profitable for any one book, before they can be trusted to negotiate for and acquire an author’s manuscript.


You will learn about all of these different areas eventually in the publishing industry, and internships don’t fully prepare you for an actual editorial or production job. But they signal your seriousness and initiative to future employers. More importantly, they allow you to see if there is a specialized aspect of publishing that you enjoy more than simple editorial work. So consider these internships as an important first step, and a chance to avoid uncertainty and missed opportunities. A future post will cover the kind of projects you should be doing in school to supplement your internships on a resume.

Thanks for reading!