Meri Paterson

The ideas business and other interests

Publishers, graduates and the morals between them


A week ago I went to the annual Society of Young Publishers (SYP) Conference in Oxford. SYP organise a lot of interesting events aimed at people who are starting out in publishing, and the conference programme was quite heavy on employment-related seminars as well.

I happened to be part of some interesting discussions about graduates and what they can expect in the employment front. The word ‘moral’ came up twice and made me prick my ears up as it was used in a rather matter-of-course manner, whereas I rarely think of employment in terms of morality. I will try to now!

Gargoyles and grotesques on an Oxford church (c) Meri Pentik.

Gargoyles and grotesques on an Oxford church (c) Meri Pentik.

Is it moral to charge graduates for career advice?

The first comment I heard was ‘is it moral to charge graduates for career advice?’ which was made in the same tone someone else might ask ‘is it moral to sell food to the victims of a famine?’. I think the idea behind the question was that graduates should get help for free, because competition is fierce and finding a job is hard enough.

I have some problems with this. Firstly, if indeed the commenter would equate charging for career advice with selling food to starving people, it’s a false analogy. Graduates who would like a job in publishing have other options, but famine sufferers need food more than anything else. Publishing is known to be hard to get into, and while I don’t have exact numbers, I imagine that every year a good few jobseekers turn to other industries having been disappointed in publishing. Secondly, getting career advice is not necessary for getting a job. Plenty of people manage it without these services – it’s an extra measure you can take if you want to step up your efforts.

Thirdly, people who offer career advice are not some samaritans who just want to help graduates out of the goodness of their hearts. They have monetised the skills and valuable knowledge they have and made it into a business. Why would it be more moral to dispense the advice for free and at a personal loss?

Fourthly – lastly – to address an undertone of this issue, I don’t think graduates are as vulnerable to being taken advantage of as some think. I was a graduate two years ago and I had the same mental faculties I do now. I knew it was nobody’s responsibility to give me a job except mine, and if I had wanted to get some help I would have considered whether it was worth the money, researched other people’s experiences and been able to assess the risks and benefits of buying an advisor’s time. Graduates are smart.

Is it moral to offer graduates unpaid internships?

This is a classic, thorny issue, and I wasn’t surprised it came up at the conference. Unpaid internships don’t offend my personal moral sense. I think I’m in the minority with my opinion, so first I want to say that I do think it would be better if publishing internships were paid. I feel like sometimes ‘nice’ and ‘moral’ are confused in this debate, so for clarity’s sake, I’m going to talk about whether it is moral, not nice.

Most of the discussion I see about internships, such as this recent piece, turns around the idea that rich employers are out to exploit graduates, who are desperate for work experience and will do it for free. I think this is a misrepresentation of both publishers and graduates.

Publishers are private companies who are interested in making a profit. This is neither moral nor immoral (unless you ask a libertarian or a socialist, in which case it’s very moral and very immoral respectively). They have no ethical duty to offer internships (or, indeed, jobs) to anyone – but they will if it benefits their business. Internships are, on balance, a drain on resources unless the intern for some reason needs no training, or if the internship is long so that the intern eventually reaches a level of independence. I would surmise that if, for example, it was made illegal to offer unpaid internships, most publishers would just stop doing it altogether.

As for graduates, I’ve already explained why I think they generally have a good head on them and are capable of doing risk assessments about their employment plans. Publishing hopefuls often have versatile humanities degrees which would help them gain entry into other industries, but if they really have their hearts set on publishing, they know it normally means doing unpaid interships for a while. It’s not great. You’ll be poor, and it may not turn into a job, but these are the risks you take.

The debate would be different if unpaid internships were the norm in every industry and required to get any job. That would be immoral, because then graduates would have no option but to work for free. I hope this is clear – at present, unpaid publishing internships are always a choice.

So – I think there’s no moral issue with publishers not paying interns. They should, but not because it’s ethical – because when they don’t, they risk losing people worth having to other industries. I think it should be up to the employers to make sure they get the best of each year’s crop, but this doesn’t seem to be happening. Internships could be great for employers if they had a scheme with an intelligent strategy for a) selecting the best graduates to enter and b) figuring out a way to make it worth those graduates’ while.

I would love to continue this discussion in the comments. Leave one?




  1. Regardless of the moral position, there is a legal one. Interns are workers or in some caes employees. as such they are entitled to the minimum wage. This website could not make this clearer, The problem is that in order to get a start graduates may accept an expenses only assignment and hope it matures to something else. Or they may accept a token salary on the same basis. Internships as part of a degree course are not necessarily employment. Everything else is a con.

    • Like you say, the moral and legal positions on this are not necessarily the same. My first thought on reading those guidelines is that the law should permit more types of non-paying arrangements between consenting adults, but I could be wrong. Under the existing guidelines, most of the graduate internship schemes publishers run are illegal, unless they’re work-shadowing only. I wonder how they’re getting around it.

  2. Pingback: In publishing? Get comfortable talking about money.Meri Pentik.

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