Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Profitless Printing Through the Ages

The Genesee Country Village and Museum is awesome. 

Just putting that out there. 

I finally got to go see the historic village yesterday for the Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day , and I learned so much in three hours about life in the 18th and 19th centuries in Western NY. The most interesting bit to many people (including Mr. C) was the Civil-War-era replica of the Intrepid, a helium balloon used by the army.

The most interesting bit to me was the printing press.

Courtesy of the Genesee Country Village and Museum

Courtesy of the Genesee Country Village and Museum

Of course it was fascinating: the history of an industry that led to my own career, the typeset itself, kerning...everything. (On a side note: search Google for "kerning" and enjoy. You won't be disappointed.) 

But something the printer said surprised me...and then again, it didn't. He explained that being a printer was a white-collar job, much like a doctor or lawyer of the day. But unlike those other white-collar jobs, there was no profit in printing. A printer did his work out of a sense of duty to his neighbors and fellow townsfolk, to bring them the local, national, and even international news that they would never otherwise receive.

Huh. Sounds a bit like today's publishing and journalism, doesn't it?

The Threat to Publishing Internships

Two unpaid interns sued Fox. And won.

Yep, it's true. As this Washington Post article describes:

"a federal judge in New York ruled this week that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie 'Black Swan.'"

Now of course, this ruling could get overturned by a higher court. Don't think for an instant that Fox won't appeal the ruling.

But for the moment, let's discuss another facet of the ruling; namely, the current legal test for employers to determine if their interns can go unpaid (from The Atlantic, emphasis mine:)

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; 
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

On first glance, these criteria seem entirely reasonable. But then we have internships with publishers. If employers are required to gain no advantages from the interns' work, then would interns be allowed to use and hone their writing skills in such a position? Because in a good publishing internship...

  • an editorial intern learns to write cover copy, reader's reports, and sales blurbs
  • a marketing intern learns to write pitches
  • a development intern learns to write grant proposals, for the non-profits

And what about other creative internships? Journalism, graphic design, anything with creating copy or images. It's all fine and well to have interns practice creating such things, but it just makes more sense to let them practice on real projects. Higher stakes, more realistic working environment, and undoubtedly better guidance, as their work reflects directly on their boss. 

Unpaid internships are unquestionably abused by some employers, but the line between useful and exploitative is a bit murky. By these criteria, the only unpaid internship I ever worked would have been illegal. Except it was not only the best job I ever had, but it gave me an invaluable wealth of experience and connections for the publishing industry. You can't get that in many places. 

Granted, the only reason that internship at The New Press was unpaid was because I worked it after the economy crashed, when they almost had to shutter their entire press. But they didn't. They still hired interns, gave them a travel stipend, and fed them lunch once a week for a seminar. And they were committed to starting to pay interns again as soon as possible.

As it happens, they've delivered. If you're looking for a publishing internship in NYC, go apply here

One Peril of the Publishing Industry:

Lead time.

There's that expression that goes: "Hurry up and wait." That is the publishing industry, from an author or translator's perspective.

You hurry up to get that manuscript to your editor...and then wait nine months to see it in print.

You get super stressed about finishing it, and tweaking it to perfection, and you're so excited/relieved when you finally do...only to put all that excitement on hold for the marketing push next season.

Or even before contracts are signed, you translate a new sample or write a new story as fast as you can to send out to all the magazines and literary journals and agents that you can...and then try not to sit around waiting for the response to hit your inbox, because it won't come for a very long time.

Then, when everything's done and you're finally ready to share your work with the world, and accolades start coming in...you're not allowed to publicize the reviews until they get published, which could be days or weeks after you're notified about them.

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In my younger days in a children's chorus, we worked with a wonderfully eccentric performance artist. At lunch one day, he got everybody's attention, because he wanted to share a poem with us. "It's called, 'Waiting,'" he said. He cleared his throat. Exhaled slowly. Gazed at the ceiling in preparation. Took a sip of water. Made eye contact with every single person gathered around the table. Stood up. Straightened his vest, brushed the crumbs off of his vest. Planted his feet in a firm stance. Clasped his hands in front of him. Took a deep breath.

And bowed, to giggles and a rapid crescendo of applause.

That was it. And it's the only poem I remember in its entirety from before age 15.

Hurry up and wait.