Book publishers fearing the backlash from social justice activists are hiring special readers to check the books and flag up racist, sexist and other so-called offensive content before they go to print.
“Sensitivity reader” is a person who, for a small fee, will provide feedback about the book based on self-ascribed areas of expertise like “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities” or “transgender issues”, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Children’s and young adult book editor, Cheryl Klein, claims “the industry recognizes this is a real concern” and added that the process of hiring specialized readers to review the books has become the norm in the business.
Publishers are encouraged to hire such “experts” out of fear of potential backlash for publishing books that have perceived bias and troublesome portrayals of oppressed groups, especially when the author isn’t part of the group.
Last year, J.K Rowling was attacked by Native American readers for her portrayal of Navajo traditions in her story “History of Magic in North America.”
At the time, for instance, Gizmodo slammed book, writing: “Who could have predicted that a white lady from the UK would have problems with appropriating Native American culture? Oh, wait, that should have been completely obvious to anyone even thinking of doing what J.K. Rowling did.”
Keira Drake, a young-adult book author, meanwhile, had to revise her fantasy novel “The Continent” following the backlash on social media due to her portrayal of people of color.
The fear of causing offense has left some authors scared, who then take the matter into their own hands. Author Susan Dennard hired a fan, who’s also a transgender man, to review her portrayal of a transgender character in the book to ensure the character was acurate.
“I was nervous to write a character like this to begin with, because what if I get it wrong? I could do some major damage.”
Children’s book author Kate Messner also used “sensitivity readers” for most of her books. She actively asks for feedback on whether her portrayal of certain characters and experiences are realistic and doesn’t stand out as problematic.
“I wouldn’t dream of sending those books out into the world without getting help to make sure I’m representing those issues in a way that’s realistic and sensitive,” the author said.
Publisher Lee & Low Book has adopted a company-wide policy to use sensitivity readers. The editorial director of Lee & Low’s middle-grade imprint Tu Books, Stacy Whitman, claims she will request a sensitivity reader prior even choosing a book to publish.
“It’s important for authors to consider expert reader feedback and figure out how to solve the problems they point out,” she said. “Everyone’s goal is a better book, and better representation contributes to that.”
Some sensitivity readers, however, believe they actually contribute to the problem. Dhonielle Clayton, who has partnered with the “Writing in the Margins” project aimed at providing a database of “sensitivity readers” for hire to authors, claims she’s frustrated with the idea of helping white authors write about black characters from which they profit and are praised.
“It feels like I’m supplying the seeds and the gems and the jewels from our culture, and it creates cultural thievery,” she said. “Why am I going to give you all of those little things that make my culture so interesting so you can go and use it and you don’t understand it?”