Privilege in Publishing

An opinion piece on publishing, privilege and Harry Potter, by Editorial Assistant Sharan Matharu.

I work as an Editorial Assistant and I earned my job through a programme specifically created to get ethnic minorities into the creative industries, Creative Access.

Creative Access is amazing simply because it tackles the inherent problem with accessibility to an industry head on. It acknowledges there is a problem and gets youth from ethnic minority groups into the big companies in journalism, publishing, PR and advertising.

I can’t speak for other industries but I know that publishing is trying: it tries to tell the stories of those who are under-represented, those struggling to find their voice in a world so full of others that are used to being heard. There is change, but it is slow and it needs bolstering and this can only be done from within the industry itself.

Privilege is something that you notice if you don’t have it. This is a simple view of the world, but an accurate one. I’m not going to pretend that I was from a particularly underprivileged background but I certainly came from one that is not common in the publishing industry, and it certainly didn’t hold any of the same opportunities a lot of my friends and colleagues had.

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The problem I see is that we need a seismic shift within the industry. Those who are born into privilege have experiences someone from my background would never even know existed – they have money and an exposure to the literary cannon from an early age (their parents read it, and their parents’ parents) and it gives them the edge. They have the knowledge before a school even gets the chance to make you read it.

The industry needs people who weren’t exposed to the classics when they were young, that didn’t grow up with books lying around the house or on vast bookshelves. The education system tries to give all children a taste of classic literature, but all that does is make a kid from an ethnic minority group or from a working class background feel even more alienated.

I enjoyed some classics and hated others, but it wasn’t my education that made me fall in love with reading. I didn’t pick up my first novel until I was 9, and that was early for a kid in my borough and community – it was this small indie book called Harry Potter, don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. I devoured it, and then again, and again. But even though I had fallen in love with the story I still hadn’t fallen in love with reading, and those are two very different things – that came much later.

To get new blood in the industry – readers, writers, editors, the whole shebang – the untapped resource of the underprivileged needs to be, well, tapped. That basically means creating content that will turn someone who loves a story, into someone who loves to read. Even as I grew older I didn’t think reading was normal, especially in secondary school; I thought I was strange for wanting to read – my community certainly thought it was different.

Those from an entitled background like to assume that reading is normal – they are completely wrong – reading isn’t a norm. The reason that books like Harry Potter, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey received such a wide audience is because they were relatable: Harry Potter related to every person’s desire to become something more than the circumstance they are in, Twilight pulled on the heartstrings of every girl that has ever had an infatuating teenage crush and Fifty Shades made women who have had their sexuality condemned or ignored pull at their collars and fan themselves. Do you notice what these books have in common? They cater to a demographic. These are actually fairly niche markets when you think about it (especially Fifty Shades), and you may forget that young adult fiction is relatively new on the scene of big sellers, so something had to shift for it to become so popular, right? Right. Publishers started understanding that readers want something they can be a part of, something they can understand and become immersed in. These books got readers who wouldn’t have picked up a book to start actually reading, the same formula can be applied to get the industry to tackle the lack of equal opportunities.

How are we supposed to battle something so ingrained, you say? It’s hard, but simple things like having characters that are fully developed and from different cultural backgrounds can go a long way – I myself love to read about a character that is African or Asian, but the story isn’t about them being African or Asian, it just so happens that this character is facing issues that any other person would face. We assume that every character is white, it is a fact – I do it, publishers do it, readers do it. Starting to tackle something that simple can open a gateway to getting more readers, and so diversifying the market and concordantly increasing awareness of reading not only as a pastime but also developing your love of it into a career.

Another way to encourage diversity is NOT to reduce budget for libraries, because the only people that suffer are those who can’t afford to buy books regularly. I’m lucky, I can go on Amazon or walk into an independent bookstore and buy almost any book that looks interesting, but a huge group of society might not even have that option. Spread the word, get kids to work in libraries, give all kids a free library passes, or even just hold events for authors in a library. Not going to lie, I can’t solve the world’s problems with that little brainstorm, but ideas (good or bad) are the way forward – trial, test, rework.

This is the reason I wanted to get into publishing. I want to be someone that changes the way we perceive the reader, the writer and the industry. I’m not saying we stop creating or selling the books we have, just create, sell and market more books that change how we see the world. Creativity is something we all have, and privilege is something a lucky few are given – those with privilege, and those without, need to remember that creativity can create a world, and privilege can limit it.


Sharan Matharu | @sharanmatharu90

Sharan is an Editorial Assistant at a publishing house in London. Her passions include reading, watching terrible TV shows and all things Buffy-related.