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Sensitivity Readers by Cecelia Beckman

Almost all of these pieces (in regards to media coverage of sensitivity readers) mischaracterize what sensitivity reading is. It’s a targeted beta read. I’m not the diversity police officer, policing non-marginalized people. No. Really what we’re doing is helping the author write a better book.

Dhonielle Clayton, author and sensitivity reader (Interview with Vulture Magazine)
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

A Closer Look at Sensitivity Readers

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that publishing, like many other industries, has a diversity problem.  That if you looked at the board members of the top five publishing houses you would notice something missing. 

And if you take a look at the The Diversity Baseline Survey created by Lee & Low Books you’ll also notice not only are a majority of employees in the publishing field are white, but also, the characters featured in the stories published are predominantly white as well.

This is not to say that publishers haven’t been making changes.  We have seen a shift in hiring practices and the stage of characters written on the pages of the novels on library and bookstore shelves, are becoming more diverse, although at a glacial pace.  But we have to recognize that these changes were made because more pushback from grass root organizations like We Need More Diverse Books and readers who are demanding diversity, publishing houses are beginning to show some signs of change which include more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors.

Even though we are finally seeing a shift in the racial demographic of diverse authors (and characters), while also recognized their talents, and publishing far more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ books then in previous years, we are not close to seeing BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ authors on the same playing field as white authors. Particularly when a number of white authors are publishing diverse books themselves.  And this is why sensitivity readers can play an important role in the editing process of an unpublished manuscript.  As these specialized readers can provide feedback in an area that a white author may not have gotten right.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

What do Sensitivity Readers Really Do?

Publishers and authors use beta readers prior to publishing.  Authors or publishers may go even further and contract sensitivity readers who are the experts in representation inaccuracies.

Sensitivity readers are a specific type of reader.  In the industry they are recognized as “Targeted Expert Readers” or “Diversity Editors” or “Targeted Beta Readers.” Unlike beta readers, however, sensitivity readers are there to provide authors with specific representation information and choices to help and support the content they are creating.  It’s about accuracy in the cultural representation of the people they are bringing to life in their narrative.  If an author is writing about a marginalized group to which they do not belong, hiring a sensitivity reader helps the author be more deliberate and mindful about their writing process. 

Further, sensitivity readers can also improve the quality of an authors writing. Basically, ensuring better and accurate representation, mitigating public backlash,  cancelation of publication altogether, or having to atone for their mistakes with a public apology, as we’ve seen in many cases.

I think authors and perhaps the publishing world in general need to move away from this idea of sensitivity readers “censoring creativity” or “policing expression of thought” to a point where everything becomes the same.  Sensitivity readers are providing informative information. It’s not an attack, and like any good editor, they provide the necessary feedback to make the writing more sound and precise.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

An Open Dialogue About Sensitivity Readers

Every author should strive for accuracy in representation.  To create meaningful stories that reflect the world in which we live while being respectful of those cultures practices, beliefs, and traditions they are writing about.  When authors write outside of their own culture it would seem prudent for the author and publishing houses to seek out professionals who could provide feedback in spotting cultural inaccuracies, bias, stereotypes, representation issues, or problematic language, be it dialogue or descriptions pertaining to the culture at large.

Sensitivity readers are contracted prior to a books publication by authors or a publishing house.  The sensitivity reader is hired to look for characterizations, narratives, or phrases that may be problematic or harmful.  It’s a unique job that is part of the publication process.  It’s really a conversation between an author and the reader to better understand a culture and subject matter that will ultimately make for a better novel.

And sensitivity readers are the people who have the experience and knowledge that may not be fully understood or made aware of by intended readers.  It can be sexual orientation, racial or ethnic background, a medical condition or disability, or identity.  Representation is important and understanding why these group of professionals are beneficial is one that will help both readers and the publishing community.

Ultimately, Sensitivity readers are helpful, but not the solution to the apparent problem in the publishing industry: diversity.  Sensitivity readers are hired to help authors write a better book. But let’s keep in mind that they are not the solution to the underlining diagnoses as I mentioned earlier.  Publishing houses need to employ more people of color on ALL levels, including the board rooms where major publishing decisions are being made.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Additional Articles:

What the Job of a Sensitivity Reader Is Really Like By Lila Shapiro

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think It Is By Anna Hecker

On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing By Christine Ro

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