What are Sensitivity Readers, and Why Are They So Important in Publishing?

An open laptop and notepad on a desk, someone is writing in the notepad | Used with permission | Open license via Canva

“Sensitivity reader” is a term you might have picked up on in 2020, especially if you’re plugged into trends across the publishing industry. Essentially, a sensitivity reader is someone who is hired (usually under short-term contract) to read through manuscripts and provide feedback based on their own cultural positionality.

For example, if a white person decides they wanted to write a book that centres POC characters, a sensitivity reader can look over the drafts to make sure that it isn’t problematic in terms of stereotyping, depicting one-dimensional personas or by including inaccuracies about the group being portrayed.

Why do we need sensitivity readers?

In the ecosystem of the publishing sector, sensitivity readers provide a crucial service, especially as we (writers, publishers and editors) pursue conversations about who stories belong to, and who has the right to tell them. If an author submits a manuscript that reflects even subtle biases towards marginalised groups, or that falls into unfavourable tropes that often go unrecognised by the dominant discourse, that’s a problem.

Like most creative industries, publishing is significantly monopolised by white, straight, cisgender demographics. Not only are the majority of published writers from this background, but the people accepting, editing, funding and distributing their stories are too. This eventuates in repetitive, cliche-driven narratives concerning non-white, queer, disabled and otherwise misrepresented folks, or often in no representation at all.

Organisations such as We Need Diverse Books and the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative (AIPI) are striving to push the industry towards meeting more acceptable representation targets. While the last few years have seen an increasing number of POC-written titles, the transition to overhauling publishing’s diversity issue isn’t happening overnight.

Camha Pham’s piece, Where are All the Editors of Colour? in Kill Your Darlings eloquently voiced concerns regarding the stark absence of First Nations people in the Australian publishing industry, and called for a realistic assessment of the systemic homogeneity in a sector “dominated by whiteness.” She explains that looking at diversity requires addressing the widespread resistance towards change; “Diversity isn’t a trend, it’s a lived experience—claiming otherwise reduces First Nations People of Colour (FNPOC) experiences down to the equivalent of a trending flame icon on Booktopia.”

Obviously, we are at an important turning point with regards to representation in publishing. And that’s where sensitivity readers come in. Ensuring that manuscripts have been reviewed, edited and approved by members of the groups being written about not only eventuates in accurate, complex characterisation, it also demonstrates compassion, respect and a commitment to good storytelling.

Why isn’t everyone on-board with this idea?

While hiring sensitivity readers might seem like a no-brainer, there is certainly a resistance to this level of “politically correct” intervention when it comes to fiction writing. Perhaps the loudest voice within the anti-sensitivity discourse is Lionel Shriver, an American author and journalist best known for her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver has publicly shared her thoughts on cultural appropriation in the literary world, complaining about the “sensitivity police” who are paid to be “professionally offended all the time.”

Echoing these sentiments, American author Ryan Holiday claims that sensitivity readers invite unnecessary censorship of though-provoking writing. He writes that the idea of sensitivity readers edges towards a “dangerous precedent” that “gatekeeps” the publishing industry.

Whether or not you agree with these criticisms, it comes down to recognising that constructing a minority voice in writing, especially if it doesn’t reflect your understanding of the world, requires caution and understanding of your own motivations. In her piece, Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood, Kit de Waal encourages writers to reflect intensely on the decision-making process behind representing the ‘other,’ even in fictional contexts. She asks, “How can we walk the line between cultural appropriation and artistic license?”

In trying to reconcile these issues, a good first step might be hiring a sensitivity reader, especially if you’re intending to write outside your own lived experience.

Person reading in a bookshop | Used with permission | open license via Canva

What’s really at stake?

When thinking about sensitivity readers and their role in the publishing industry, consider what you value in good writing practice. At the end of the day, are you willing to sacrifice accuracy, diversity and complex characters for your right to tell a watered-down, cliche-riddled and potentially harmful story that won’t reflect the reality of the experiences you’re claiming the right to tell?

By giving members of diverse communities the opportunity to weigh in on how they’re represented in popular discourse, we’re not only cultivating a richer and more inclusive industry – we’re taking responsibility for how we make people feel as a result of our work. Whether a book’s purpose is to educate, entertain or provoke conversation, writers should always be concerned with audience response and the effectiveness of what we’re trying to communicate. Otherwise, we’re just throwing words into the echo chamber without much care about who grabs onto them, and who they might harm on their way out.

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