“Sensitivity Reading”: What It Is, and Why Authors May Need It
In our last post, we discussed some of the reckoning and self-reflection that’s been occurring throughout our nation following the social justice movement spurred in May of this year that illuminated the pervasive, systematic racism interwoven throughout our culture and societal systems. The publishing industry is no exception to these issues of racial discrimination, a lack of inclusivity and diversity amongst its senior and junior staff ranks, and other forms of exploitation, marginalization, and tokenism of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) employees and authors in the field.
While the industry itself has a lot of work to do regarding transparency and fixing disparities of payments for BIPOC authors versus white authors, highlighting and removing inherent biases by hiring diverse staffers (and paying them fair and equal wages), and providing more book deals and higher marketing budgets to BIPOC authors, there’s another area that must be examined in this pursuit of racial and social equality in publishing: the book’s content itself.
Earlier in the year we blogged about the controversy sparked in January by the book American Dirt, a debut novel about border-crossing Mexican immigrants written by a white woman who was reportedly paid a seven-figure advance beforehand, and that received a lot of criticism due to the storyline’s premise depicting “trauma porn” of minorities and immigrants (and the white author and publishing house profiting off of it). This was just one of many instances when a book, author, and/or editorial department could’ve significantly benefitted from the insight and feedback of a sensitivity reader—a specialized subset of beta reader (early readers who provide feedback on a manuscript before publication) who read a book to search for issues such as noninclusive representation, cultural inaccuracies, subconscious or inherent biases on behalf of the author, problematic language, stereotypes, and more.
The utilization of sensitivity readers has risen in recent years by authors and publishers alike who are making a concerted effort to increase the inclusivity and diversity of the books getting published, as well as the stories being told. While it’s wonderful to see that bookmakers and sellers seek to introduce readers to more expansive experiences, storylines, and casts of characters, if these books continue to perpetuate the same harmful stereotypes or narrow viewpoints of the past, then any meaningful progress is stunted. The question remains then for aspiring and currently publishing writers: Do you need a sensitivity reader, and if so, where can you find one?
Some might argue that sensitivity readers aren’t necessary when you’re working with a developmental editor, whose job it is to highlight such deficiencies or blind spots as poor character development, unbelievable or irritational character behaviors and dialogue, and so forth that might align with what a sensitivity reader is searching for—and while we do agree that Midnight Publishing’s professional editors are always educating ourselves on topics regarding sensitivity in fiction and nonfiction and include this feedback in our developmental work together, we encourage writers to consider all resources available to them in order to produce the best, most accurate, and respectful book possible. For connection to a database of qualified sensitivity readers, start here.
Questions about what our developmental editors and ghostwriters can do for you here at Midnight Publishing? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us, as we’re available virtually anytime. We’d love to discuss how we might offer professional insight and editing assistance on your work-in-progress or finished book, or offer consulting advice on best practices and the next steps in your author journey!
Lauren has been a professional writer and editor for more than 10 years. After graduating from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she focused on magazine and book editing, and continues to write for publications on a range of topics, including travel, music, food and wind. Her obsessions include vinyl records, the ocean, scotch-tastings, a mean guitar solo, and the feeling of a physical book in her hands – ironic, since she has 400 on her bookshelves and is allergic to paper.