Q: From what I've read, the best way for someone without professional editing/publishing experience to elbow their way into the publishing industry is an internships. All but a few internships are unpaid. Nearly all publishing internships are based in the northern/northeastern states. Of those, most are in New York. Assuming those very general assumptions are correct, here's my question...It is very generous of you to imagine that "this can't be right." In fact, you are right. I'd say the deck is rigged toward a) the wealthy, b) NY natives, or c) the very ambitious, who are willing and able to happily live on a tight budget.
What's a broke Southerner to do? Unpaid internships work for those with a nest egg, I suppose, but New York is an expensive place that's even pricier when one factors in relocation. I know this can't be right, but by all appearances, the deck seems to be rigged in favor of New York natives or people wealthy enough to move and live on the pay of a part-time job (assuming they can find one) while interning. Is there something I'm missing? Something that exists that hasn't been said that changes the above set of assumptions?
Publishing jobs are very often in NYC or other major cities, and even once you have a real job as an editor, you will in general be paid VERY POORLY. I cannot stress enough that these are not jobs you take because you are money-hungry. Prestige? Sure. Snob appeal? Totally. But 'easy way to pay rent'... not-so-much. I am not saying you have to be a trust-fund baby - I'm saying, you have to prepare to be stone broke for a while.
Agents, as it happens, almost universally make zero (0) dollars when they start, and sometimes for a really long time. When I started at my agency, my boss told me in no uncertain terms that I was unlikely to see money before a year, and unlikely to be able to live off my earnings for five years. I was very lucky and started selling right away... but she still wasn't TOO far off. This is why many agents are: a) independently wealthy/from wealthy families, b) married, (and/or) c) have a second job/work as an assistant when they are new.
Editorial is slightly different as you'll at least get some sort of paycheck, but, assuming you are coming in with no experience, you'll still have to slog for a long while as an intern or lowly assistant, then slightly less lowly assistant, before you actually become an editor. And even when you are an editor, you aren't going to be pulling in huge dollars. Again, this is a job you take for the love, not for the money.
And it's a part of the reason publishing has a long history of being called things like a "gentleman's business," and why you do find a relatively high percentage of over-educated, privileged white folk in the halls of publishing. (I am not excluding myself from this description.)
Of course this means that, gatekeeper-wise, there can sometimes seem to be a dearth of unique perspectives and world-views. It would be really great if there were more opportunities for people of color, people from different places and socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. All I can say is -- it's a known problem. Many companies [claim to] strive to be pro-active about reaching out to different kinds of people. Most major publishers DO offer paid internship programs. (Click here to find a listing of many internships - you'll see some paid, including Random House, Scholastic, Macmillan...) But of course, those internships are also likely to be very much sought after. And they mostly all in NYC, which, as you mention, is a bear of a place to live in while broke.
Here's what I would do, if I were a Southern college student who wanted to be an editor: I'd try to find an internship at a local small publishing house or literary agency. Yes, these places do exist, even in the south, depending on where you are. I'd try to get a paying job at a bookstore (hopefully you have one near you!) I'd work my butt off in school, and save as much money as possible until graduation. I'd make friends in NYC, or local friends who also have NY ambitions.
Then I'd probably do what generations of broke kids have done in NY, and that is couch-surf or live with a ton of roommates, hustle to apply to as many (paid) internships in NY and entry-level jobs as possible, and/or see if there are ways to get scholarships or financial aid for the Columbia Publishing Course or NYU Publishing Course. (I personally have no idea if these options are offered - but hey, you can ask!). Also, learn to budget if you don't know how already, and get to like the taste of rice and beans.
But maybe I myself am missing something. I know lots of editors and editorial assistants... maybe some of you can chime in with some advice for our new Southern friend?
ETA: So what, we can get one Southerner an internship or a job, possibly, maybe... How does any of this fix the BASELINE PROBLEM - lack of diversity in NYC publishing? Well, it doesn't. But if you would like to comment on that, I would love to hear it.