Interview: An insider’s take on what a publishing internship is like

Looking for a job or internship in book publishing? Read this Q&A for an intern’s insider view first!

Like most publishers, UNC Press offers temporary internships year-round to students and recent graduates interested in exploring a career in publishing. For the interns, it’s a great way to get a first-hand look at what goes on at a university press and the many different kinds of positions and career paths available in publishing. And we’re grateful for the incredible support that interns provide in various departments—including editorial, production, marketing, and contracts and subsidiary rights—throughout the Press.

Every January, our Director of Development and Hollins University alumna Joanna Ruth Marsland hosts a competitive publishing internship with her alma mater. This year, Laurin Ann Link was the marketing department intern from Hollins. Here, Laurin Ann offers a candid view of what goes on on a day-to-day basis at the Press and what it’s like to be part of the UNC Press team as a full-time intern on the publicity team. We think it’s essential reading for anyone thinking about volunteering their time at a publishing house.

Laurin Ann Link, Hollins University publishing intern at UNC Press, January 2012
Laurin Ann Link, Hollins University publishing intern at UNC Press, January 2012

Q: Please tell us about yourself and your one-month internship at UNC Press.

A: I am a senior at Hollins University, a small, private, liberal arts college, in Roanoke, Virginia. The undergraduate program is all women, with right around 760 students. My major is Communication Studies, and my minor is Creative Writing. At Hollins, we have a short term during the month of January that we call “J-Term.” During J-Term, students can choose to take one class for the month, study abroad, complete an independent study, or an internship. This past October I applied for one of the competitive internships Hollins offers with UNC Press, and after a phone interview with Gina Mahalek, Director of Publicity, and Jennifer Hergenroeder, Publicity Assistant, I was offered a position as the Publicity Intern in the Press’s Marketing Department.

Q: Why did you want an internship in publishing?

A: I have always been interested in writing, which is why I was drawn to Hollins and its Creative Writing program. Publishing seemed like the best of both worlds; I would be able to be around tons of great literature and hoped to utilize my writing skills.

Q: Describe your internship. What kinds of things were you asked to do?

A: While interning at UNC Press I was given lots of different projects. I started most mornings with packaging and mailing books to possible reviewers. On one occasion I wrote a media pitch letter for a book, which is a letter that gets sent to editors and producers with copies of that specific book that will hopefully encourage them to review the book in their magazine, newspaper, radio show, etc. One of my favorite projects, however, was getting to work on author Q&As. For this, I would read excerpts of an upcoming book and then write questions for the author to answer. The answers can then be used in interviews and press releases throughout the publicizing of the book. I got to see three Q&As come full circle, where the author answered the questions I had posed, and pretty soon they will be sent out with the books to the reviewers. Readers may even see them on the UNC Press blog.

Perhaps the most exciting part of my internship was getting to be a part of “Launch Week.” During Launch Week, different departments such as Manuscript Editorial, Acquisitions, Marketing, Design and Production, General Administration, etc., all get together and discuss the books that are going to be published the following season. I observed meetings for each of the books that will be published by UNC Press in the fall of 2012. It was really fascinating, and sometimes confusing, to hear the process each book goes through before it ever reaches the public. I kept a notepad with me throughout the week and wrote down any terms I didn’t know or questions I had so I could ask my supervisors after the meetings.

Q: Before interning at UNC Press, what was your impression of the profession?

A: I pictured all of the departments being very divided in the publishing industry. I imagined the editorial staff keeping to themselves, slaving away over manuscripts, while the publicity team was busy planning book signings and launch parties. I also assumed there was the stereotypical Editor-in-Chief who sat behind a huge desk all day bossing people around.

Q: How, if at all, did that change?

A: I quickly found that the staff members work very closely together, and that editing, production, and marketing are all interrelated. There is an all-staff meeting every Wednesday morning, and people from the different departments update the group on their progress. Gina will inform everyone about notable reviews, and Jennifer discusses any upcoming author events. Others will tell of awards that have been won, books being translated into other languages, hold-ups in production, and so on. If someone had seen a review or an interview that the others hadn’t, they would share that information as well. Everyone was in tune with the inner workings of the Press, and the environment was very open. From what I could tell, there was not much of a divide at all.

Gina Mahalek (UNC Press Director of Publicity), Laurin Ann Link (Hollins University publishing intern), and Jennifer Hergenroeder (UNC Press Publicity Assistant)
(L-R) Gina Mahalek (UNC Press Director of Publicity), Laurin Ann Link (Hollins University publishing intern), and Jennifer Hergenroeder (UNC Press Publicity Assistant)

Q: What, if anything, surprised you about university press publishing?

A: Even though J-Term only lasts one month, I learned so much while interning at the Press. One thing that surprised me was how far ahead they are working. Right now, my direct supervisors, Jennifer and Gina, are getting reviews and events set up for books that are going to be published this spring. And, I mentioned Launch Week, during which everyone prepares for books coming out this fall. Some books that the staff discussed in their weekly “New Projects” group meetings were still in the writing stages by the author, and wouldn’t even be published until 2014.

Another pleasant surprise for me was how much the press staff truly enjoys reading. The people I have met here don’t just happen to work in publishing, they seem very passionate about books. On lunch breaks they would discuss their favorite books, what they are reading outside of work, and some are in book clubs around the area. As a college student, I am asked to read books and journal articles all the time, which can bog me down. It was exciting to see so many people who sincerely enjoy their professions, and it has encouraged me to do more leisurely reading of my own.

Q: Your internship focused on book publicity, but you had a chance to observe other departments at the Press. Are there other departments that interest you as well?

A: One aspect of the Marketing Department that I found interesting, but didn’t get a ton of exposure to was “blurbing.” It was amazing how a blurb, or a pre-publication endorsement that goes on the back cover of a book, gets chosen. During Launch Week, the Direct Mail Manager/Copywriter, Beth Lassiter, would ask who would be a good candidate to offer a blurb, and people from all of the departments involved in the meetings started throwing out names and ideas for people who they thought would be able to offer a positive review. Perhaps it comes with experience, or perhaps from good research, but I loved hearing the names of all of the different scholars and authorities on any given subject that everyone was able to suggest to help successfully promote the book.

I found the Acquisitions editors especially intriguing during Launch Week, because before the details were hammered out on a book, the different editors would present the books to everyone and give an overview of it, explain its argument and special features, and why it is an important book and/or a good fit for the Press. All of the editors had varying styles when presenting his or her books, but all were knowledgeable and ready to go to bat for the project if any questions or doubts arose, which was rare, but not unheard of.

Q: After your internship, are there any areas that you might want to learn more about or sharpen your skills in?

A: I definitely want to continue developing my writing mechanics—there always seems to be an errant comma or apostrophe I manage to miss when proofreading and editing. Also, there is a lot of focus on Southern culture and history here at the Press, especially Civil War history. Being from Virginia has instilled a love for the South in me, but I would really like to beef up my history knowledge after being around people who are so educated on the subject.

Q: What advice might you give someone looking for an internship—in publishing or otherwise?

A: If you are a college student like me, then you probably get email blasts every day from different departments throughout the university. While it may be tempting to ignore them, I always try to keep an eye out for emails from the Career Center with job or internship opportunities. That’s how I find out about job fairs and even how I discovered this internship here at the Press. I also took my resume in to the Career Center and had the director look over it for me. She was able to offer me suggestions, revisions, and skills to put down that I had never considered.

Another thing I have learned over the years is the value of handwritten thank you notes. If you have an interview, or if you give a potential employer your resume, take it a step further and write him or her a note to say “thank you for your time.” It is a simple, nice, inexpensive thing you can do, and I find people really appreciate the thought.

Q: Based on your experience at UNC Press, what kinds of qualities should someone hoping to become a publisher have?

A: While the following skills could be important to any job, they seem especially significant in publishing. Flexibility is key. My supervisors are often juggling publicity for books in the current season, preparing for the next season, and even working with books from past seasons. They have to be able to prioritize—and switch from task to task—without becoming overwhelmed. Another important skill to have is, of course, writing. In any department, whether it is the Manuscript Editorial department or Marketing, a keen eye for editing and proofreading is essential. For instance, if a press release has a spelling or grammatical error and it is published, that does not reflect very well on the Press, which is why everything in Publicity gets edited multiple times before it ever goes to print. Finally, to state the obvious, someone in publishing should definitely get enjoyment out of reading, because the UNC Press staff does a lot of it.